I love a good RPG. Sinking into a beautiful, detailed world and following multiple threads from an unreasonably complex political web of intrigue… and shooting fireballs at things I don’t like are my favourite parts of the genre. GreedFall is one such RPG.
You play as De Sardet, a noble-person, an emissary for the Congregation of Merchants and, more importantly, in charge of finding a cure for a mysterious malichor plague that has been wiping out people from all walks of life. You spend the game’s opening hours learning about the city of Serene and its various political factions. This is a world where merchants suffer under protection rackets put together by the city guards, where children are traded away to seafaring mercenaries before their birth in exchange for favours. Yeah, it’s pretty dark.
It’s also a world where nations establish colonies on a mysterious, enchanted island whilst they suppress the natives and war amongst themselves. It’s this mystical island that proves to be your destination, after teaming up with De Sardet’s sword trainer and rescuing your cousin, Constantine De Sardet, from the wreckage of his drunken night before to get him onto the ship with you. Some farewells you make are more permanent than others, as you leave De Sardet’s mother on her death bed, searching for a cure that would help her, if it weren’t for the fact that it would be too late. It’s a bit melancholy, but that’s magical plagues for you, and the cutscene in which it happens is beautifully shot.
Once you arrive at the creatively titled city of New Serene on the island of Teer Fradee, Constantine takes up his new role as Governor and sends you off to neighbouring cities to inquire about their progress with native islanders and a cure for the malichor. This is where the game opens up. In addition to the city of New Serene, you have a large island to explore, but it’s not a contiguous open world. Instead it’s split up into pretty sizable areas that you travel between via the map once you get to the edge of the current area or using a fast travel point.
After your time in New Serene almost exclusively fighting small groups of bandits, you might expect to encounter some more interesting things to fight, especially after a set piece fight with a large wooden creature before you departed for the new world. You will be disappointed, however. After that largely underwhelming encounter and months (off screen) aboard a ship, you return to small groups of repeating enemies for hours. You will mostly fight slightly over-sized wolf-like creatures, bandits, and large birds that fly exclusively at chest height for the first ten hours of the game. This grows a little repetitive – if acceptable for an RPG – but really what that makes this it an issue is the overly simple combat.
As you start the game you will have a light attack, strong attack, dodging and parrying, a fury attack and one ability depending on the class you choose. The fury meter builds up over time and depending on the weapon your using, fury attacks drains the meter to varying degrees. One sword might use half of your meter, while another users a third. You also have the customary combat pausing should you need to catch your breath mid-battle, though the only real use I found for it was quaffing a potion when low on health.
New abilities are unlocked by investing skill points, but they unlock at a snail’s pace as you spend points to first unlock them and then be able to afford them. It keeps abilities at arms reach, forcing you to level up again while making do with a limited selection of attacks. It isn’t helped too much when you unlock those skills either. Mage class spells aren’t even that creative, leaning on all the stereotypes you’d expect.
Choosing the Mage class you start with Stasis which freezes enemies for a while, eventually unlock Shadow Burst which does area of effect damage around you, get a healing spell, a shielding spell, and Storm, which puts multiple enemies into stasis. The problem is that I had to spend four skill points to open the choice and then spend a further two skill points to actually unlock my second spell. That puts you at level 7 and a good half-dozen hours in, and Shadow Burst isn’t even that useful until it’s upgraded! It’s even worse for other classes like Fighters, who can unlock proficiency for a heavier version of their weapon, leaving them with fewer actual abilities to choose from.
You can (and will) put skill points into other branches of the skill tree as well, to upgrade your mage’s melee skills for example, but doing so provides small benefit at the cost of putting more time between you and a new ability or spell. As a result of all this, character progression feels a bit dull, which has a knock on effect of making the already simplistic combat feel even even more basic in the opening hours. It isn’t terrible, it’s just uninspired.
This is a real shame, because the world and the stories it presents are honestly quite fascinating. There are plenty of fantasy tropes to trip over, but the performances really help sell those and the game often takes them in directions I wasn’t expecting. There’s the darker stuff, like a mage using their spells for some, uh, enhanced interrogation of a soldier in what was a pretty gruesome looking spectacle of branches and vines. What really makes things seem so fresh to me is the how well defined the motivations of all the characters are, even if not obvious upon meeting them. Even small side quests can have unexpected results where you’re being manipulated to another’s ends. It’s not even necessarily out of malice, but wariness and fear.
How you speak to factions, who is in your party at the time, and your relationship with them will affect how quests unfold. You will encounter a little trouble going into the palace in Theleme with a native companion, whereas you simply can’t enter the palace in Hikmet at all with a companion who is from Theleme. It seems care has been taken to write quests involving deep characters with carefully considered motivations, provided you don’t mind spending time ferrying yourself from village to village speaking with the associated parties to arrange trade or negotiate a peace. The bigger quests with proper cutscenes are even more interesting, often rooted in historic discoveries about factions you have already been introduced to, or dealing with companion quests regarding those factions’ more unpleasant practices, like child trafficking.
This unfolds in a game that looks great most of the time, as well. It’s a stunning game, with only a few small niggles to aim at it graphically, mostly to do with stretchy facial expressions and your feet clipping through your cool cape. The detail paid in presentation graphically only makes the following more confusing; when you’re inside a building, it’s almost certainly a reused layout from another building of the same type, and sometimes even the decorations. It’s not just taverns and bars, which seem to share the same blueprints as the tarverns in the mainland city of Serene, but the actual palaces in New Serene, Theleme, and Hikmet all share the exact same layout. Two of those cities are owned by factions that at war with each other, but apparently brought in the exact same architect. It’s odd.