Politics has become a dirty word. Well, more than usual. People dislike it, and publishers assure that their games avoid it. Which makes GreedFall a welcome breath of fresh air in a too-often stale and uninspiring medium, at least when it comes to taking risks with in-game content. Politics is front and center in this new RPG and, thanks to developer Spiders, it’s all the better for it.
GreedFall might be the most ambitious of Spiders’ titles (which include Bound by Flame and The Technomancer). It’s a relatively open world game that takes place, for the most part, on the large island of Teer Fradee. With reportedly dozens of hours of gameplay (I’m several hours in), players will spend lots of time exploring cities and the wilderness, fighting people and creatures, and leveling up their character and companions.
In this way, the game (published by Focus Home Interactive) checks off a lot of the elements players have come to expect from role playing games, beginning with character customization. It's not a robust feature but does offer an opportunity to select gender and preset models, and choose from options for face, hair, eyebrows, skin color, hair color and eye color.
Players then select from Warrior, Technical or Magic classes (though the skills of any archtype can be unlocked over time). Warriors employ melee combat, especially one-handed heavy weapons, blades, firearms, strength, endurance, craftsmanship and vigor. Technicals control the battlefield with traps, firearms, blades, accuracy, agility, science and lockpicking. Magic involves offensive spells from a distance, a magic ring, stasis, one-handed heavy weapons, mental power, willpower, science and intuition.
I chose to be a Warrior with attributes of strength, agility, mental power, endurance, accuracy and willpower. Talents involve charisma, vigor, craftsmanship, science, lock-picking and intuition. Skills, attributes and talents all can be selected with points earned under the Character Development section. The skill tree is impressive but small icons can make selection a challenge. Trees for attributes and talents are more user friendly.
Main character De Sardet (Madame in my case) has been appointed legate (senior diplomat) of the Congregation of Merchants on Teer Fradee. She is accompanying her cousin Constantin, newly named the island's Congregation governor. He is the son of Prince d'Orsay, in whose court De Sardet was raised. They hail from Serene, largest city of the Merchant Congregation and one of the most important ports on the continent.
The Congregation's neutrality had made Serene the ultimate diplomatic city, but over the past 20 years its relations with Nauts (a sailing guild) has deteriorated and an epidemic called the Malichor has reduced its prestige and population. Still, they maintain cordial diplomatic relations with the Bridge Alliance (a union based on science) and Theleme (basically a theocracy) – a triumvirate that might seem contrived but expertly lays the foundation for the fascinating diplomacy at the heart of this game.
Commerce, science and religion, as embodied by the three main factions respectively, are the disparate interests that conflict over the fate of Teer Fradee. How that plays out resembles the power struggles, colonial aspirations and competition for resources of 17th century Europe, which was Spiders’ inspiration for the setting and story in general. It’s a rich tableau that the developer takes advantage of.
Playing as diplomat is an unusual but ultimately rewarding choice, especially as the character of De Sardet is a warrior-diplomat and can embody the carrot-stick approach to diplomacy. Dialog trees aren’t deep but on occasion do present players with clear choices. I haven’t been playing long enough to know long-term ramifications but the sometimes stark options are welcome and suggest consequence.
For example (spoiler alert), when confronting accused heretics, players can arrest them on behalf of a faction, let them go or inquire with another faction about asylum. Later, when addressing their pursuers and depending on one’s choice, players can lie, tell the truth, or choose confrontation. My choice resulted in wording that could fuel worse conflict between the factions involved. I would have worded my reply differently, but this is a good example of potentially unintended consequences.
Rather than be upset about the outcome, I felt the discussions are so well written that exchanges are realistic and character behavior and reactions are authentic. In this way you can’t always plan for how diplomacy will play out, though in some situations certain responses will show 100% confidence in the outcome, especially with upgraded charisma. That’s unrealistic, but isn’t a factor every time and still might not play out exactly as expected.
In some ways these conversations remind me of games like L.A. Noire, where your primary role as investigator means you might help or hinder your inquiry by pushing your luck with others. What helps in this regard is that every character thus far feels unique in terms of their dialog, voice acting and models. They feel like fully fleshed out people, instead of archetypes, stereotypes, etc. Though each is subject to the dictates of their faction.
As for each faction, players are presented with the machinations of state or institution but in a way that, again, feels authentic and to an extent reflects their historical inspirations. Reasoned and carefully cultivated public facades are stripped away over time to reveal a complicated picture of compromised moral and ethical behavior that De Sardet must cautiously navigate. (Spoiler alert.) The Alliance’s interest in a “charlatan,” the Theleme’s pursuit of heretics, and even the Nauts’ origins all chip at their reputations.
The delicate balancing act De Sardet must pull off is a full time job. The legate will acquire companions on her journey that not only represent different kinds of fighters but also the game’s factions. For instance, having outspoken companions like Kurt of the Coin Guard or Siora of Teer Fradee’s indigenous people means outbursts are possible during diplomacy. How players manage those can impact De Sardet’s reputation with all involved.
De Sardet's relationship with Siora in particular, like the colonists' interaction with the indigenous people of Teer Fradee, is fraught with the potential for misunderstanding or outright confrontation and conflict. The anger and frustrations of a people forced to accommodate the intrusions of others is palpable, especially when expressed by advocates like Siora. De Sardet's perspective is a window onto the inequities and injustices of this world, and players' choices invest gamers in its fate in compelling ways.
De Sardet’s relationship level (for Congregation of Merchants, Bridge Alliance, Theleme, Coin Guard, Nauts, Natives) is a main character stat among Pause menu options that include character development, inventory, maps (including quest-giving characters, merchants, blacksmiths, alchemists), journal (quests, side quests, missions), world map (Serene and Island of Teer Fradee) and codex (characters, places, creatures, ingredients, guides, notes).
Character development is spread across skills, talents and attributes that players can unlock with points earned during the game such as when their character levels up. The mechanic is fairly standard, though I was surprised to note that a character roll, for instance, has to be unlocked. The default dodge is more like a limited sidestep, so locking a much better and more common move like a roll in the skill tree was an unwelcome surprise.
One thing I opted to pursue more than in other RPGs is charisma. Given how the game emphasizes diplomacy in a way that feels compelling and worthwhile, it seemed natural to want to invest in that talent. Intuition could be likewise useful considering it reportedly opens contextual dialog options. And then there’s the mental power attribute, which is needed to wear rings that can cast spells (though stasis apparently is a default spell).
Bottom line, there are many key skills, talents or attributes that provide helpful options like combat moves, exploration aids (like climbing higher or lockpicking) or dialog choices. There’s more appeal to having many such options unlocked by default at least on a basic level, as in some other games, though their relative scarcity makes character development a more thoughtful – and consequential -- choice than in some RPGs.
More combat options would come in handy early on though the game does a good job of alerting players to the level of challenge they face. Besides having a choice of difficulties that can be adjusted on the fly, enemies are displayed with life bars, shields and sometimes a red skull to denote an enemy that would be a considerable challenge for one’s skill level. A Nadaig magamen (a Guardian of Teer Fradee) provided a good example.
This hulking Guardian has 10 shields and a long life bar. Players can make use of primary and secondary attacks, Fury (which builds to release a special attack), dodge and sprint, as well as a tactical pause menu to help plan the next move. Two companions come with their own move set. On normal difficulty at my character’s level at the time, we could pare it down to half its life bar. But on easy, it was defeated. However, it guarded a lair filled with red skull creatures.
My lower level troupe clearly was not meant to take on this challenge just yet, or even be in the same region as practically every creature had a red skull. This adds authenticity to the experience, instead of scaling foes to the player’s level. I loaded a prior save, returned to normal difficulty, and farmed experience points off bandits; vailegs (think wolves); brown, black and alpha ulgs (bears); and large bat creatures that spew poison to build experience points against.
There’s also the Coin Arena, like Oblivion’s arena, where players can fight competitors in progressively more challenging battles with the goal of becoming champion. The difference is you take your companions with you. Reportedly you gain some nice loot at the end, and presumably some points. Presently, I can’t get past those darn bats! But this option is a nice alternative to regular combat, though still fighting the same foes.
Thankfully combat itself can be fun, with effective parrying and switching between melee or range attacks instantaneously. In some games, successful parrying demands precise timing, but here it feels like there is a greater window of opportunity to deflect attacks. And instead of fumbling with a menu to change weapons, buttons can alternate primary and secondary melee weapons and the directional pad equips your gun(s).
The shooting mechanic is a little peculiar, as pressing the directional pad both equips and fires a gun in the same move. That makes locking on an enemy first, as opposed to targeting, an important tactic. Shooting takes a little getting used to but works well. One caveat is that your lock on an enemy can switch to another target if they stray too close. It can be frustrating when you end up attacking a weaker foe despite having locked on to a stronger enemy.
The primary melee attack utilizes an equipped weapon (blade, hammer, etc.) while the secondary involves a kick that can destabilize an opponent. Truth be told, I often forgot to use my kicks, relying on effective slashes or Fury attacks (which build up during combat and can be unleashed on a pretty regular basis) as well as shooting. I likewise have neglected spells, having never really learned how to deploy the default one(s) (I’d presumed I needed rings for any spell casting).
Companions do a good job of contributing during combat, as they are constantly on the attack and sometimes deploy group effects like Siora’s heal ability. They can fall during combat, but can be revived (I think with a potion). I should note they do well outside combat, too, getting out of your way relatively quickly especially in tight quarters, and engaging in thoughtful conversation immediately following discussions with other characters.
Speaking of tight quarters, that’s one of the situations where the game camera can fail you during combat. If inside, for instance, the action might be obscured. Similarly, I found it odd that outside combat the camera follows from behind, but in combat you have to control it (perhaps to encourage use of the lock-on feature). I’d prefer that the camera followed from behind at all times by default, but the lock-on camera helps mitigate that issue.
One last comment about combat involves enemy AI. In general it works well, with foes attacking en masse with both ranged and melee combat. Imagine getting knocked down by a gunshot in the middle of a sword fight. By that same token, if you attack an enemy similarly engaged, they’ll eventually turn on you. Bandits will parry or backpedal as much as attack. And larger foes at least (like the magamen) will mix up (ranged and melee) attacks. But note that if you leave an invisible boundary, creatures will withdraw with all their health.
GreedFall also offers RPG staples like alchemy, crafting, lockpicking, etc., but I’ve been spending experience points on things like strength, charisma and blade attacks, so haven’t unlocked other skills like the former just yet. It can annoy, especially when points are doled out sparingly and some areas or abilities are just out of reach, literally and figuratively. But I don’t feel cheated. Hopefully the game will continue after the main storyline is complete or will offer a new game-plus feature.
Besides diplomacy and combat, exploration is a major component of this game, and it similarly does not disappoint. In much the same way that characters are unique in appearance, voice and speech, and help ground the fantasy in a seemingly real world, the exotic yet familiar art design, detailed natural and artificial environments, realistic lighting and beautiful overall presentation go a long way toward making Teer Fradee’s cities and landscape a full-fledged setting.
The cities (and clothing of their inhabitants), especially, reflect their 17th century inspirations. Serene and New Serene, governed by the Congregation of Merchants (and presumably San Matheus, ruled by Theleme, which appears based on Spain and its Inquisition), display European influences, while Hikmet and its governing Bridge Alliance resemble Ottoman Empire (or Middle Eastern) designs. The manifestation of these different cultures provides an appealing juxtaposition.
The indigenous population of Teer Fradee and their villages, which reflect their relationship to the island, appear to provide a strong counterpoint to the colonists without falling into caricature or stereotype – an important aspect to a setting that explores the impact of colonialism. Their language, translated by Siora but otherwise indecipherable by the colonists and player, exemplifies the barrier to understanding that must be overcome.
NPCs help inhabit and animate the game’s population centers, though not always to its benefit. They’ll walk across a square only to pause at the opposite end and then return, effectively pacing back and forth for no discernable reason. They’ll stand facing walls or walk in place when their path is blocked by others. They’ll clean spotless walls. And they’ll walk right up to your diplomatic tete-e-tete and stand still as if eavesdropping (that one’s kind of disturbing).
Of course, that’s not uncommon in RPGs. Neither are companions who can get stuck (I left behind Constantin when he got stuck in the crowd at the Charlatan’s booth). Players might find that they likewise will get stuck (I got myself into a pickle at Serene’s docks). That said, there are a nice variety of character models and enough people to make areas feel alive. Even when they’re dead.
Victims of the plague are everywhere in Serene and bring home its horrors. People clutch their sides in pain, cough or beg for help from passersby. Bodies line the streets, fill wagons and rest atop funeral pyres. Doctors sell medicine, craft potions, tend to patients or pray for their souls. In fact, you’ll find many praying – regular colonists, soldiers and indigenous people. Faith is ever-present amid the squalor and conflict-ridden areas.
Players can engage most NPCs, who will afford De Sardet a measure of respect that comes with the upbringing and the office of legate. Official duties will send De Sardet on diplomatic or investigative quests at the behest of other characters, which might involve gathering information, tracking someone or something down, negotiating a deal or crafting a solution, etc. Quests usually involve multiple objectives and thus far in my experience fit well with the context of the story or setting.
In the process, players will navigate Teer Fradee one section at a time. It’s not a wide-open, free-roam open world, but a series of large interconnected areas based on the roads or paths you elect to take. The transitions represent some of the only scenarios with load times, however brief; one aspect of the game that impresses is the relative lack of load times, especially when passing through doors together as a group (with a transition for daytime glare, to boot).
Players can setup campsites outside cities for opportunities to fast travel, craft and switch companions. Another welcome feature is how players sometimes auto proceed to the next objective in a quest or are given a choice at other times to instantly proceed to it (I can’t recall, but this might be in cases where you are returning to someone or someplace previously visited in the quest line).
The structure of the world should please gamers that don’t want huge open worlds with little to do. One’s journey through each area can meander but feels more directed overall than in a truly free roam environment. And because Teer Fradee feels thus far like a fully realized fantasy world grounded in the complexities of real world commercial, ideological and theological competition, it’s a journey that is rich with fascinating encounters.
The degree of detail lavished upon this world impresses, whether the language of statecraft, clothing or architecture indicative of each faction; the dialog that characterizes each individual and defines their relationships; examples large and small where Teer Fradee intersects with or deviates from 17th century history; or the attention paid to the random corners, inconspicuous areas and backdrops of interiors, city streets or the island landscape.
GreedFall is world building at its best, at least to judge by the first several hours of gameplay. It’s been awhile since a game has grabbed me with its story, characters and quieter moments, let alone an overarching narrative with serious implications. It’s not a perfect game, but it shines thus far where it counts, that is, with heart, ambition, verve and a kind of bold pursuit of old school story telling that I can't get enough of. If such elements interest you, GreedFall just might be worth your time as well.
(This post was based on a review code of GreedFall for Xbox One. The game released September 10 on that platform as well as PlayStation 4 and Microsoft Windows.)
(Be sure to check out additional images here: Screenshots.)
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