America - Front
America - Back
By Lee Mehr 10th Oct 2019 | 2,604 views
In a generation where middle-market games seem like a fable passed down by orators, developer Spiders has been one of the few studios to stolidly grow a name for itself in this niche. And that brings some important considerations when evaluating GreedFall: this is not competing with AAA production values nor is it priced as such ($50 retail). What it represents instead is the story of a modestly-sized team continuing to grow towards the prominence of other RPG devs like BioWare in the mid-2000s. While not perfect in its execution, the synthesis Spiders has found between old-school RPG veneration and modern-day action makes this one of the most engaging games of 2019.
Set in a unique 17th century fantasy, a new island known as Teer Fradee (pronounced “Tier Fruh-dee”) has been discovered by mainland humans. In less than two decades, various colonial factions have secured their own land and have erected towns. But this island wasn’t uninhabited before. It’s home to ferocious beasts and a native population with a suspicious spiritual connection to the island. Players assume the role of Sir/Lady De Sardet (pronounced “Di-Sar-Day”), a legate of the neutral Merchant Congregation, who is tasked with securing alliances and unearthing a cure for the ravenous disease, known as “the malichor,” that has spread throughout the home continent.
One of GreedFall’s greatest narrative strengths is framing all of your actions around diplomacy. Acting as what’s effectively an olive branch to the frustrated natives, religious zealots, and fervent naturalists allows De Sardet to come to a greater understanding of each culture and suss out the hidden motivations each may have. This pedestal he/she is put on is also utilized as a weapon. It’s downright impressive to see just how manipulative certain characters will be to utilize your neutrality for their own gain.
This framing device also congeals perfectly with the panoply of winding, laborious questlines. I can’t remember the last RPG I’ve played that’s so dedicated in avoiding the writing pitfall of doing *x fetch quest* to succeed. No, simply questioning some people or tailing someone is only the beginning to what could be an elaborate storyline of different parties requiring an arbiter to intervene. To give a less-vague example: what started out as murmurs and collectible notes found within a questline for The Coin Guards (an ostensibly honorable mercenary group) took a much darker path than I’d expected. These protracted missions work so well because each affair feels like political intrigue writ large—like peeling layers of an onion.
Along with how appropriately the context is framed, GreedFall deserves just as much credit for how it’s paced. From beginning to end, there’s nary a time I felt bored engaging with these characters and the goings-on of the larger story. Sure, the tail-end of this fantasy ticks more predictable tropes, however the buildup to said climax is an atypical structure especially when balancing it with critical side quests. Along with the nuanced edifice, your companions play a large role in piquing player interest. Their supplemental assessments during specific exchanges takes me right back into BioWare’s heyday of the Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect series.
I know it’s becoming a theme here but the framing of De Sardet as a neutral emissary also compliments your variegated retinue of allies. A side character from each main faction (aside from yours) will assist in your overarching quests, each with their own personal reasons for doing so. They’re a great assortment of personalities, each with their own quests for you to learn more about them. In keeping with BioWare’s penchant expectancies, there’s the opportunity for awkward romances too! But those are treated more as a compliment to their meaningful stories; in fact, that toned-down approach to it actually made me respect it more.
The one chief complaint I have comes back to not getting more from them. Part of what made leveling up in KOTOR so enjoyable was the expectation in hearing another war story from Canderous or more of Jolee Bindo’s pre-exile life. Or you could get more complex and consider KOTOR II’s system: characters wouldn’t automatically reveal more about themselves until you’d gained more of their influence. GreedFall has a reputation gauge here, for factions and companions, but it doesn’t feel like it was used to the fullest with its allies. There’s rarely a time you see more than two conversational options with them - the default question about their history and goodbye.
Beyond their personal tales, what enhances characters is the world around them. GreedFall’s world-building ranks high among my favorites of this generation. Sure, it’s initially blunt when touching on the theme of colonialism. You’ve got the more nature-attuned natives who’re bombarded, physically and spiritually, by opposing forces. The story isn’t shy of ram-rodding the point home with the overtly-religious Thélème (pronounced “Tuh-lay-may”) in particular, but they’re better developed when a more-radical splinter faction comes into focus. In respect to them and the warring Bridge Alliance, it initially feels like Spiders want anti-colonialist hand-wringing to serve as a North Star; instead, they opt for a more sophisticated and interesting approach. On top of that, the background for the seafaring Nauts is among one of the cooler concepts along with the well-considered spiritual foundation and metamorphosing capabilities of the native islanders. It’s a mix of distinctive and well-worn ideas that gel together exceptionally well.
Even with such praises noted, I’d be remiss to not acknowledge some flaws. One of the strangest is the, for lack of a better term, misgendering of Lady De Sardet—whom I selected for my main playthrough. On rare occasions, characters will just say “his family” or “his mission” without batting an eye. It even pops up during one of Lady De Sardet’s most important character moments. An unexpected scripting issue that slightly harmed immersion. One of the most humorous dialogue issues regards certain characters’ mood swings. For example:
Captain [gloomy]: “I heard their cries ring out across the valley. I’ve lost too many men from this, and I’m haunted by nightmares of their lifeless bodies.”
*Press the A button to skip*
Captain [cheery]: “Anything else you’d like to ask?”
There are several great examples of this where a character’s tone dramatically shifts by looping back to the starting dialogue tree. A similar highlight was when a guard was trying to shoo me away after giving information and looping back to a canned “how can I help you?” line. Although this is more of a subjective personal appeal, I still think these misgivings carry a certain charm.
Despite the game needing one final comb-through in respect to script details or dialogue, it does little to surmount what’s otherwise an engrossing story. While Dragon Age: Inquisition showcased Game of Thrones-like political maneuverings in those scripted gameplay trailers, GreedFall feels more authentic in its final result. By eschewing the sensation of ever sitting on a throne making a Good/Evil decision your ambassador role encapsulates trudging through political mires to gain repute. And all of this is done through a deliberately-paced narrative supported by an inimitable mythos.
Even when making considerations of this being a middle-market title, GreedFall often succeeds at being a quality audio-visual experience. If fixated solely on graphical fidelity? Sure, you’re likely to be underwhelmed by mediocre lip-syncing and repeated character models. But it’s in the investment towards everything else where Spiders deserves credit.
There may not be that one jaw-dropping selling point like the rat horde animations found in another AA game, A Plague Tale: Innoncence, but there are a couple of noteworthy ones. For one, I can’t help but appreciate how trimmed-down the loading screens feel (played on Xbox One X). Once you’ve loaded into one of the expansive locales there’s no expectation to hit any others when opening doors to frequently visited spots or interior objective locations. The only exception being the separate gladiatorial arena, which technically is its own location anyways. This detail is made all the more impressive by the game’s scope. The general layout of both outdoor and indoor areas is downright impressive in its scale; better yet, I can’t think of a single area which was just used for window dressing after playing through all the questlines.
GreedFall taps squarely into the Age of Discovery aesthetic with a surprisingly deep bestiary once considering both mobs and bosses. Everything to your 16th century hearts content is also found to slaughter said enemies: muskets, pepperbox pistols, cutlasses, hammers, and all appropriate armor types. This compendium of French colonial accoutrements, mixed with the fantastical elements, reminded me just how underrepresented this setting is compared to the Sci-fi or Medieval types sprouting up everywhere. Some have castigated the reutilized interiors and corridors scattered throughout, and I can’t think of a more specious complaint. Granted, tavern and castle interiors follow the same blueprint almost to a tee; and yet, it just doesn’t register as a valid problem. Contextually, colonial architecture when landing in The New World often recycled floor plans. But the bigger problem is that the “same-y” complaint disregards the careful work in providing each main city and the 10+ tribal villages with their own visual and aural character.
Sound is more consistent across the board, providing an appropriate punch with clashing swords, fired weapons, and everything in between. Whether it’s the combat or taking in the cityscape, the atmospheric soundtrack by Olivier Deriviere (pronounced as… use your imagination) is top-shelf quality. Although I wasn’t initially aware, it wasn’t surprising news to learn he was the composer behind A Plague Tale’s exceptional soundtrack as well. Considering how much importance is placed on dialogue and story, it’s great to see the ensemble of major and minor actors—mostly—perform their roles successfully, chief among them the stentorian cadence of Steven Hartley as Petrus. Nary a time I didn’t want to bring him along for the potential of hearing a few extra lines. For the complaints? Although credit is due for Spiders going with a strange accent for the natives, its difficulty can be noticed when certain side characters totally blow it.
Undergirding the game is a satisfying combat system. I’d previously heard complaints about Spiders’ combat in their previous titles—of which I can’t test the veracity of said claims currently; if that’s the case, kudos to them for consistently building and reiterating. One of the key elements that elevates it is the sense of consequence that follows a 3-tiered class system.
Warrior: preset for the skill that enables the use of blunt and bladed 1-handed weapons to start with; later skill unlock being two-handed weapons.
Technical: mixing one-handed blades with firearms and traps that can eventually be expanded to include alchemically altered weapons and bombs.
Magic: As the name implies, a heavy emphasis on sorcery with one-handed blunt weapons unlocked at the beginning.
Having focused on Technical and played around with Magic, it’s nice to say both feel exciting to play in disparate ways. The animations for swordplay can feel exceptionally satisfying when you’re able to finish four enemies out once with a furious strike. Less exciting would be the spotty lock-on system. Word of advice: avoid that temperamental thing whenever fighting more than one enemy. If you treat the game more like the Batman Arkham series’ FreeFlow template you’re in for a smoother time.
What’s something that can’t be avoided is the maddening stupidity of your team. This is one aspect that’s begging to be more like KOTOR with the player’s ability to swap between party members. There was a rough patch for me between levels 6-10 of simply anticipating my teammates going down, hoping they took at least one enemy with them. I’m surprised there’s no option for them to take some of my potions to stay standing either. This isn’t to say they don’t hold their own at higher levels with improved armor and weapons, but the issue highlights a missed opportunity.
No more does that distraction accusation feel appropriate than with GreedFall’s tough bosses. There’s a respectable variety of different “guardians” of the island, including a tentacle-faced monstrosity from Lovecraft’s imagination. I think these bosses land in that hazy area between hard and cheap because of one design annoyance: overbearing character tracking. Fuck character tracking. Okay, does it make sense for magic? Sure. There’s an obvious understanding that slow-moving spells can compensate by acting like homing missiles. But when a guardian is chucking spears that magically turn after leaving his hand or when the ‘naked Meghan McCain’ guardian hurls her rotund body in one direction then shifts in mid-air I’m obliged to call bullshit. It’s an overused, cheap move by certain bosses.
What isn’t cheap is the robust role-playing. On top of just the character skills gained each level, there’s a drip-feed of character attribute and talent points to consider. Attributes focus more on gaining better weapons and armor. Each character talent has three tiers, varying in function from extra dialogue options to crafting potions or ammo. Even failing to max out a specific talent tree can be supplemented by adorning certain gear or reaching friendly status with traveling companions. My favorite consideration with these talents would be the delineation between Charisma and Intuition during dialogue choices. One of the best dialogue moments came from utilizing a Level 2 Intuition choice which pinned a zealot’s own adored scripture back at him in order to divulge information.
Beyond character traits, there are a surfeit of crafting options. Whether more focused on strengthening armor on gloves, armor damage on a new rifle, or physical damage on a new sword, any improvement is also visually communicated by the item’s new look. There are between ten to twenty different options per upgradeable part. It’s easy to talk about the cinematic, lifelike animations and cloth physics emphasized by today’s gaming engines but less so to talk about vast player-driven customization like this.
Although I was previously harsh on combat in respect to allies, the dynamic in place for your character clicks extremely well. Weaving in and out of situations like Geralt or Batman is mechanically sound, with a greater layer of flexibility thanks to twelve different key bindings to utilize on a controller. It’s rare to have a game award you with more confidence at such a steady rate. At early levels, I was stealthing by early mobs to reach objectives because of the intermittent chance of success. But the measured accumulation of techniques and skill points over time feels incredibly rewarding by the endgame. It’s because of this deliberate structure that I want to know what it feels like to slowly grow in prowess as a battle mage in a second playthrough. That’s the kind of hold GreedFall can have.
There are even more one-off compliments to be made flying through my head right now. I admire just how balanced the game economy feels from beginning to end. The ruleset for stealth mode is easily communicated and utilized effectively in certain questlines. Miscellaneous notes gathered during quests may have their own mini-stories and a hidden chest nearby, relying on a heightened focus on the surrounding world to find it. These finer details pile up in my head and make me appreciate it even more.
In short, GreedFall is akin to how I’d treat a breakout album from an up-and-coming band: excited to dig into their past work to see what I’d been missing for so long. Despite valid complaints outside of the technical annoyances endemic to middle-market games like this, it’s just shy of fantastic in my eyes. Spiders have risen to the occasion with multifaceted quest design, a sound role-playing structure, and an interesting storyline with great world-building. The icing on the cake? It’s with a starting retail price ten bucks cheaper than their other this-gen titles. I can’t think of a more ringing endorsement.