A Wild JRPG Appears! Earthlock: Festival of Magic

By Ben Barrett on April 3rd, 2014 at 8:00 am.

On the PC, we’re well supplied with nostalgia bait and fond memory ruiners. Not a day goes by without a Kickstarter or Greenlight campaign for another slice of the past or up-to-date take on a “classic.” However, the itch I find myself unable to scratch most often is for JRPGs. While a little effort to keep Steam stocked has been made by mega-corp of the genre Square Enix in recent years, it’s hardly as common as I’d wish. Timely over the horizon comes Earthlock: Festival of Magic, seeking its $150,000 fortune. Along with expected tropes, there’s a fine selection of systems that tickled my fancy in the demo, which you can read my impressions of and feast your eyes on a trailer for post-jump.

There’s two main mechanics that I found most interesting. First, a harvesting system for planting crops that grow into ammo for the various characters. These are plentiful and vital for doing anything above mediocre damage in the turn-based combat. There’s an odd trend recently in quite literal farming in games, but I’m not especially opposed to it so long as the mini-game is enjoyable and the rewards worth the time. Here it’s basic but quick, providing elementally-charged ammo (of expected flavours) after a few minutes. This is located in what seemed to be the hub area of the game, and was easily accessed via teleporters in later areas. Limiting usage of powerful attacks without forcing hoarding like this is a good solution to the problem of repetitive combat that plagues this sort of game.

More original was the party set up. I began with four characters, however they were arranged in pairs rather than solo. Each time a turn came up, I could use only one of the pair – spellcaster or more direct damage dealer. The support characters could only use spells for which they had built up SP, which is stored between battles but increases slower than it could be spammed. It’s an intriguing take on party balance which keeps character individuality while maintaining the ability to customise. As with everything in the demo, it’s at an early stage but the potential for a complex system is there and I want to see where it goes.

Overall it was smart, fast and did just enough new to keep me interested while still appealing to my younger, Playstation self. You can try the reasonably lengthy demo for yourself from the Kickstarter page and, if you’re as taken with it as I am, help them out.

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41 Comments »

  1. Drayk says:

    Looks lovely. Just backed this because I am really not sure they can make it with 8 days left. Good luck to their team.

    • dahools says:

      Don’t expect it to look much nicer if it does get kickstarted. Not with a Lvl 2 Concept Artist, he needs to get an upgrade from those scribble sticks he must currently have equiped, the bloody noob and get some side quests under his belt pronto.

      • Chellanthe says:

        I’m sure if it gets kickstartered, he will get upgrades and graduate to level 3. ;)

  2. Pneuma_antilogias says:

    The project got off to a bright start (judging from myself, I would say that several backers of the original, cancelled, pitch returned to lend their support again) but then plateaued rather quickly.

    However, in the last couple of days things seem to be picking up rather nicely again and I’ve seen far less likely projects to succeed (and with far less concrete proof that there is work being done on the proposed project), so I wouldn’t bet against Earthlock making it this time round.

  3. Chellanthe says:

    The campaign has been fairly strong, outside of the predictable mid-campaign lull. I’m confident that if we can get over the 100k hump here in the next day or so, the campaign be in good shape for the last few days of the kickstarter – there is usually a pretty good upturn in the last 48 hours or so…

    but why wait? If you like what you see, feel free to join the campaign! :)

    Seriously though, there has been some cool things being added over the course of this kickstarter – a reward that if you pledge to a tier $35 and up… you get an in game ghost enemy named after you… one of the fallen heroes! Not to mention, a creative-based Gamepedia contest! http://www.gamepedia.com/news/255-earthlock-festival-of-magic-conceptual-contest

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    JiminyJickers says:

    Wait, is this somehow Windows 8 only?

  5. Chellanthe says:

    No, it will play fine on Windows 7!

  6. Artea says:

    It’s interesting to see a lot of western indie developers making these jRPG’s and the nostalgia that entails, or even AAA western developers (Child of Light). I can’t say I see the appeal though. IMO the jRPG model is fundamentally flawed. No actual role-playing or player agency, just characters talking in cutscenes. Extremely simplistic turn-based combat: no movement or action point or anything approaching tactical complexity, just enemies standing side to side performing flashy attacks. I guess you could say these games are enjoyable in their simplicity.

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      Anthile says:

      You can say almost the exact same thing (just substitute turn-based with real-time) about so called western RPGs.

      • cauldron says:

        You’re serious?!

      • Artea says:

        I don’t see how. The combat in western RPG’s reached a peak in the late 90′s with games like Jagged Alliance 2 and Baldur’s Gate 2, and then stagnated for a number of reasons (the shift towards action games and action-RPG’s, consoles dominating PC, etc.). My point about jRPG’s was that the combat was never particularly interesting to begin with, and even the few jRPG’s that did interesting things were always drowned out by the Final Fantasies.

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          Anthile says:

          I find this whole thread of discussion troubling in ways that I can’t quite describe yet. I have been reading up Indian history recently and naturally stumbled upon plenty of post-colonial studies and orientalism (including the famous book with that title) and the way people seem to describe Japanese RPGs in contrast to “western” RPGs gave me a déjà vu. It’s really quite striking! I will have to investigate this phenomenon.
          Thank you for your input.

        • Philomelle says:

          The combat in Jagged Alliance 2 was halfway stolen from X-Com and it still failed to reach the complexity of Tactics Ogre and Fire Emblem on SNES. And while it’s been stagnating, Japanese developers have been reworking and improving on the tactical RPG model, with Valkyria Chronicles being arguably the current peak of what tactical JRPGs could do.

          Also, it took Breath of Fire V to turn Fallout’s action point-driven combat into something tactical and exciting as opposed to “the one with the biggest gun and more crits wins”.

          So really, I’m not sure what the hell you’re going on about.

    • InternetBatman says:

      JRPGs spawned SRPGs which have been far more tactically complex for two decades than WRPGs in general. And many of them do have a fair degree of player agency, like chronotrigger’s 800 bajillion endings. The problem is that Square ate Enix, and then decided making movie games was a good idea.

    • Haplo says:

      You are of course quite welcome to your opinion on JRPGs and I doubt it will change regardless of what is said, but allow me a moment to dispute the basis on which it is built.

      First and foremost, it’s important to understand that for the western-based indie JRPG games you tend to see on digital marketplaces, a reason they share many of the same mechanics is due to a low level of entry and skill actually needed to construct one. Many of the “simplistic turn-based combat” games you see, which do draw their mechanical roots from the 90s era of JRPGs, are made using programs like RPGMaker, which already comes with a default combat mode that you don’t even need to program. Thus ultimately, all one needs to really do to build a game with that program is a good deal of free time, basic experience, and a library of graphics.

      With that in mind, let’s discuss your points using the touchstone of JRPGs that don’t have that excuse.

      No actual role-playing or player agency
      This is a point I will concede in part by saying that the amount of player agency and role-playing in JRPGs is low relative to Western RPGs. On that note, it’s important to define what player agency means. Few JRPGs allow a level of customisation of the main character to the degree that one expects from Western ones, eg. Mass Effect or Elder Scrolls. Western RPGs use morality meters (or similar mechanisms) to track your typical response to a problem. You all get the same problems, the same destination, but the path is different. Mostly this impacts on an ending outcome, like in Mass Effect (although Mass Effect also used it to its advantage by having your actions impact on the next game in the series). JRPGs do not always have multiple endings. Many do, but not all. Obviously the ones that do require some level of player agency to decide which ending occurs, but unlike Western RPGs this tends to rely on explicit triggered flags as opposed to basing it off a record of the character’s actions to dozens of situations.

      just characters talking in cutscenes
      Naturally. Since this is the entire point of cutscenes in most genres, let’s look at how Western ones differ from JRPG ones.
      The primary difference, tying back into player agency, is what the player does between these cutscenes. For the West, a chain of cutscenes, interspersed with opportunities to react or act, is the typical presentation of dialogue. Your actions can change the nature of the next cutscene or provide a different cutscene, or move onto a different chain, so on and so forth.
      JRPGs tend to lack that sort of ‘dialogue tree’ approach, although in some cases the basic roots can be seen. A Final Fantasy game, for example, can often be taken as proceeding from one cutscene to another with little agency changing what you see, whilst by comparison, Persona 4′s main plot is primarily working from one linear cutscene to the next (except for the end), but the focus tends to be on the entirely optional and secondary subplots of ordinary people you interact with throughout the game year.

      Extremely simplistic turn-based combat

      A good deal (most?) of JRPGs are turn-based, but I’d consider the declaration of simplicity to be inaccurate. JRPGs are quite varied in how they do their turns; for many iterations the Final Fantasy series used the ATB system, where a gauge filled up (the rate of which depending on your character’s speed, which could be temporarily increased or decreased using spells) and your character could act once the gauge was filled. Since your turn coming up didn’t stop other gauges from being filled, you could use this to your advantage (having a healer wait until after the enemy attacks to heal) or suffer from it as well (Your gauge filled, but you’re not sure what to do, so the enemy attacks you again). FF Tactics and X used a more turn-based, yet similar system, with time passing in ticks; a character’s gap between their current action and their next depended on their speed and the fact that some actions had more of a delay than others, meaning one character might be able to act several times before another character can- or not, depending on all the various actions involved. There are other games worth mentioning, but I’ll save them for later.

      no movement or action point
      There’s an entire sub-genre of tactical JRPGs that use movement and battle map systems. Fire Emblem, Front Mission, Shining Force, Ogre Battle and Tactics Ogre, almost anything from Nippon Ichi (Disgaea etc), Final Fantasy Tactics and Devil Survivor… Several of those games also use flanking, terrain and height mechanics. Valkyria Chronicles balanced a large battle map, attack ranges and movement with a limited pool of command points that meant you could only command a portion of your forces at once. Games like Grandia or Devil Summoner take place in an arena with no movement grid, but nevertheless movement, along with things such as area-of-effect spells and attack positioning.

      or anything approaching tactical complexity
      Plenty of JRPGs feature enemies and battles that require tactical thinking; constant defeats in these situations can be solved by changing or adapting your tactics. The aforementioned Grandia series featured a mechanic where attacks could, if timed correctly, delay or even outright cancel an enemy’s attack, which was a hugely beneficial but tricky to use mechanic. The Shin Megami Tensei series forces you to exploit enemy weaknesses: attacking an enemy’s elemental weaknesses grants you an extra action (and in some cases, cancel’s out an enemy’s), but you’re also required to protect your own since the rule works both ways. Valkyrie Profile uses a combo system that encourages using the right attacks over just any attacks to break the enemy’s guard; Covenant, the tactical-grid spinoff, uses this as a flanking mechanic (when you attack an enemy, flanking allies can also chime in on a combo).

      Ultimately, combat mechanics is a diverse field when it comes to JRPGs, and whilst they often have some similar core traits, many elements can differ greatly from one game to the next, with each franchise often having its own distinctive style, rhythm and tactical requirement.

      That is all for now. I will reiterate: your opinion is your opinion and you are welcome to it, but it is my hope that my words will help you to see, at the very least, why others are of the opinion that these games are worth their time, and why they might challenge your conceptions.

      • fceramic says:

        Wow that’s an impressive reply! You really know your JRPGs!
        Did you see the combat update from the Earthlock campaign? I think element stacking will be a lot of fun.
        https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/171497873/earthlock-festival-of-magic/posts/791773

        • Haplo says:

          I have. It has some good potential, the idea of elemental status effects enabling another attack to do extra damage is appealing. It also creates a good chain between the growing and the combat.

          I like the idea of the combat pairs. A question: do all combinations have their own special abilities, or only certain pairs? I feel like this was answered in the update, but I figured I’d make 100%.

      • Moraven says:

        Great reply.

  7. CookPassBabtridge says:

    Dunno if we did this yet, but welcome Ben! Did I miss your intro with Horace regarding you with a look of concern in some public location?

    • wwwhhattt says:

      Doesn’t Horace only appear to those destined for the About Us page?

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      lowprices says:

      Is Ben a permanent fixture now or a freelancer? It’s getting so hard to keep track of in these days of exciting expansionism. We need some sort of “People of RPS” sexy calander.

      Or possibly just a blogpost. Whichever works.

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        Llewyn says:

        I have a “People of RPS” colander, if that’s any help. Not sure RPS have quite grasped the key principles of successful merchandising yet.

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          lowprices says:

          Given that there is STILL no Horace plushie, I’d say you’re correct there.

          • CookPassBabtridge says:

            Exactly. We’ve thrashed out the logistical implications, we no longer demand actual infinity (a non infinite Horace cousin complete with Horace ‘tocks and a little Horace tail is fine. And extremely cute). There was even a reader who submitted a knitted squid to the Bargain Bucket that was going to knit one. I see no reason why RPS colanders (each hole can have a picture of an RPS member and the water can drain down their ‘mouths’), RPS Pants (for sitting in whilst reading the Sunday Papers) and Horace Plushies should not be an actual thing.

            Basically its because John is too lazy to take them to the post office and send them out I think. OR HE WANTS TO KEEP ALL THE HORACES FOR HIMSELF. “Toby”, my arse. A transparent cover!

      • Volcanu says:

        Or one of those tea towels where everybody has to draw themselves – like what you used to have to make at school in the 90s.

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      AngelTear says:

      Well, more like “Welcome back, Ben”.
      He had a good run a while ago on RPS, covering for some regulars.

      • CookPassBabtridge says:

        Is that so? Well in that case, welcome back Ben! Tea’s in the usual place. Mine’s white with two sugars :)

  8. gravity_spoon says:

    Internet please make this happen. We need more jrpg (like?) games on PC. And good ones at that. This looks to be of that particular kind.

  9. Focksbot says:

    I like my Final Fantasies, but they’re heavily, heavily story-based, so your story needs to be strong. This KS video made it sound like all the development team is doing is rolling out the same bunch of tired fantasy tropes. Young treasure hunters, ancient conflicts, mixture of magic and technology etc etc. I’m afraid it managed to dampen my initial excitement pretty quickly.

    I mean, imagine a JRPG that had the narrative originality of something like Grim Fandango, Psychonauts or a China Meiville novel. I get the impression that it’s software devs who come up with the broad concepts ( or rather, identify the broad concepts they want to riff off), only drafting in writers for dialogue and plot twists. Why not involve writers at an early stage and get them to pitch an original narrative concept for you to build your game around?

    Or maybe I’m foolish and the vast majority of JRPG fans aren’t like me, and want to be the same teenage boy with a sword fighting evil sorcerers in every game.

    • fceramic says:

      Would love to see an JRPG with an undead /voodoo setting!
      As for these kind of high concept fantasy worlds (or Fusion Punk as some call it), I think it’s the nice balance between familiar/relatable themes and crazy far-out concepts that make it work so well for the genre.
      It’s tricky to immerse the player in a long, layered story without using any tropes or classical elements like “saving the world” or “a young charming adventurer”, but you also need the surprising elements to keep it interesting.

  10. InternetBatman says:

    I backed it a while ago, and I’m glad RPS is finally covering it. I’m looking forward to blasting giant crabs with a potato gun. Now for Serpent in the Staglands next:
    https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1649838104/serpent-in-the-staglands

  11. ChainsawCharlie says:

    A Norwegian made RPG?! Sign me up!

  12. MkMax says:

    im a bit put off by the lack of detail in the environments to be honest, things are too clean, cities too empty, world too dead

    i dont need AAA graphics, but i expect enough detail to accept the world as a living thing, even snes jrpgs managed that

  13. Lemming says:

    If Kotaku mention it, it’ll get its funds.

    • Chellanthe says:

      Kotaku gave Earthlock a two sentence blurb and a link back to the campaign. It got some commentary, but not a lot.

  14. aliksy says:

    But I hate consumables. I always end up hoarding them, and it’s hard to know how many the developer expects you to use. Did I need to use 3 grenades on that boss because that’s expected, or am I underleveled?

    • fceramic says:

      The consumables work similarly to MP in way. You can stack up when you drop by your base and you can get basic consumables as loot.You will also be able to use abilities to “steal” consumables from enemies.
      You will need materials from defeated monsters to speed up production of consumables, so the goal is to create a a compelling and rewarding RPG eco-system and avoid mindless grinding as much as possible.

      The SP mentioned in the article can be used for Specials and Spell abilities and is gained when the pair takes damage (other ways of gaining SP will be unlocked when new Protectors are introduced).

  15. TheManko says:

    It’s not a japanese role playing game, it’s made in Norway.

    • Chellanthe says:

      Fine, NRPG. Eventually, that’ll be a thing, right? :)

    • drvoke says:

      Not sure if serious? A JRPG is just a style of game that can be made by someone of any nationality. If a Swede cooks takoyaki, it’s still Japanese food.