Spiders is a development studio you might know for the painfully average The Technomancer, and I’m happy to report that 17th Century empire building RPG GreedFall shows they’ve experienced some character progression as a team. GreedFall is better. But there are still more problems with this bargain bucket BioWare RPG than there are hats for me to adorn my badass, rogueish, lesbian sorcerer’s head with.
My BioWare comparison isn't from nowhere. GreedFall is an RPG where you create your own character, stomp about with a team of companions, and do quests wot have consequences. It's clearly trying to scratch the same itch. I also found the pacing familiar, 'cos like a BioWare epic, GreedFall takes a while to get going. In Mass Effect, the first three hours were a bit of an exposition-y grind, but you reach a certain point where you’re like, “Oh! This is actually good!” In GreedFall, the first three hours make you want to astrally project out of your body and float away to do or see literally anything else, and then you reach the island of Teer Fradee and you’re like, “Oh! This is actually mediocre!”
The opening has you trying to find your brother, because he’s going to be the new governor of Congregation City on the island, and so you run some errands for the Ambassadors of the other two main nations, the Bridge Alliance and Telemee. The whole opening is immensely dull. After the start, though, the premise of three different nations (each mirroring a real-world society at any given point in time), being all colonial on an island populated by tribal natives, and the insinuation that there’ll be a big statement on said colonial-ness, I actually found really compelling.
The Telemee are really interesting. They’re aesthetically (and in practice) the GreedFall stand-in for the Catholic Church, complete with all the nasty corruption rampant in the Vatican. There’s a subplot where you have to help some fleeing scholars who were going to be burned at the stake for discovering historical texts that contradicted established doctrine, and when you show up to the city they’ve founded on Teer Fradee a Telemee guy chokes a native to death in front of you.
Your companions are equally as fleshed-out, and they're some of the highlights of the storytelling. They each have a series of loyalty missions that develop and progress as you get further through the main quest, and it’s entirely possible to romance each of them too. Outside of the main cast, everyone is voiced really well. A lot of voice actors play multiple characters, but they do at least put on different voices for each, so everyone feels different.
But everything else is boooooooooring. It's either standard historical fantasy, or it’s so bogged down in cultural stereotypes that it all just feels a bit overdone. Y'know, the Bridge Alliance have a middle-eastern vibe going on, and obviously they’re alchemists at war with the Telemee because the latter tried to forcibly convert them, stuff like that.
I experienced some glitches amongst all of this. Characters’ dialogue lines and subtitles would occasionally forget what gender my character was. Most of the time it’d be m’lady, she, and woman, which was correct and made sense. But every now and then I’d get sir’d -- even by my companions, who should know better! Christ, even in video games, I can’t escape this bullshit. Maybe it’s because I’m butch. What an absolute state.
There were others: one time a mission’s waypoint ceased to exist so I had to manually navigate through the world like it was 2004; I had a conversation with a vibrating man; and I even ran into an incorporeal t-posing pheasant who we in the office collectively decided was the Pheasant God of the GreedFall universe.
It’s a shame when GreedFall gets little things wrong, because it gets lots of little things right. Take customisation, for many, the most important part of any RPG. Role play is dress-up, right? The game makes a few mistakes in this regard -- there isn’t a barber, or a place where you can change your makeup, which is always a gripe of mine -- but you do have a nice selection of clothes and armour pieces to choose from, and it lets you customise these different items of clothing in a few different ways.
Most items have slots where you can add different shoulder pieces, trinkets and pouches for that diagonal belt thing that you get on every chest piece. Weapons, too, have customisation options, mostly grips, crossguards, and pommels. The only thing that’s never customisable, and which I consider an unforgivable crime, is your hat. Why can’t I pop a feather in this tricorn? Wrap a flower crown around this bandit’s hat? Hang corks on strings off of the rims of this inquisitor’s cappello romano? What a waste.
During character creation itself, you can customise your hero in the expected ways (though there are only about eight different hairstyles), as well as pick from three different combat classes. Each serve as your standard fantasy archetypes of the warrior, rogue, and mage. You can multiclass if you want (I picked the rogue class to begin with but spec’d into being able to use the magic rings) and during a scrap you can switch between different fighting styles, if you’re proficient in them.
Guns feel like big explodey weapons of death and pack a meaty punch, and when you swing a melee weapon, regardless of how big or small it is, landing a blow feels impactful and weighty. There’s a “fury” attack system, where a bar fills up in the top-left corner of the screen as you damage foes, and when filled this allows you to unleash a “furious attack” of whatever fighting style you’re using. Depending on whether I was using my chunky kukri or my spell-slinging ring, I’d either do a big violent sweep with my blade, or flip around all acrobatic-like, and yeet an especially spicy magic missile at whoever I was targeting.
There’s a tactical pause menu, too, to complement the frenzy of real time fighting against big semi-fantastical beasts. At any point during combat, you can hit the spacebar and the game will freeze, giving you a menu of different actions you can take and different items you can use. But I only used that tactical pause when I accidentally hit the spacebar, because I continually forgot that GreedFall doesn’t have a jump button. Combat can feel a tad overwhelming sometimes, but never so much that the tactical pause became useful in any way whatsoever. Likewise, each companion has a different class that can do different things, but the impact of switching up for fighting reasons felt so negligible that I didn’t bother at all.
I did bother with the puzzles, which were quite cool and clever. One of my favourites involves this big mystical tree that gives you a freaky vision. You then recount the vision to your party, and have to use the details you identified in it to light the candles in the right order, in order to clear a path to your objective. In practice it was a great little moment, and even though I messed it up the first time around, I felt incredibly smart when I managed to get it right.
So yes, GreedFall is better than The Technomancer. But being better than The Technomancer isn’t exactly the hardest thing in the world. And despite its clear attempts to be, GreedFall isn't better than the BioWare classics either. This is a step in the right direction for Spiders, but they still have a lot of work to do.