When J.R.R. Tolkien read "The Lord of the Rings" aloud to a group of fellow Oxford scholars, one professor named Hugo Dyson was not thrilled.
"Oh, no," the exasperated academic allegedly exclaimed. "Not another f**king elf!"
I don't know whether the estimable professor Dyson would have liked GreedFall, the new RPG from French indie developer Spiders, but I imagine that he would have at least appreciated its setting. GreedFall eschews many of the traditional fantasy RPG trappings. There are no mystical chosen ones, unspeakable ancient evils, cunning dragons, talking swords or exasperating elves.
Instead, the game is a lightly fantasized take on the Age of Exploration, complete with roguish sharpshooters, scheming foreign powers, strange beasts, emergent medical science and jaunty feathered hats. GreedFall is a great example of why fantasy RPGs need not restrict themselves to retreading Tolkien's footsteps — and the game made me wonder why so many of its competitors seem content to do just that.
Based on my time with GreedFall so far, the game's setting alone makes it worth checking out. But there's also an excellent combat system, deep character customization and an affable cast of party members to recruit. It's not nearly as deep as either Dragon Age or The Witcher, but if you liked getting to know your companions in the former and exploring huge, semiopen-world levels in the latter, it's a pretty easy recommendation.
Keep exploring the map
In GreedFall, you take control of Sir or Madam De Sardet: a legate of the Merchant Congregation. Your mission is to accompany your cousin Constantin d'Orsay to the newly discovered continent of Teer Fradee, where he will govern the colony of New Serene. Once there, you'll be his point of contact with foreign powers and native tribes, as well as his chief explorer, cataloguing the local flora, fauna and geography.
Like most western RPGs, GreedFall has three main aspects of gameplay: exploration, combat and conversation. In keeping with the game's 17th-century inspirations, simply mapping out each new area is a big part of GreedFall's gameplay, and it's one of the best parts of the game.
When you arrive on Teer Fradee, you get three big, open-ended main quests: to meet with the other two foreign powers on the island as well as the closest group of natives. To do so, you'll have to walk to the outskirts of town, then set off into the wilderness. Each wilderness area is a large, self-contained map that includes a number of question marks and a lot of blank space.
As you explore, you'll fill in the map and discover what each question mark represents. It could be a useful campsite, or a small settlement, or an altar that confers a skill point, or the launching point for an involved side quest. The only way to find out is to go there. It reminds me of Baldur's Gate more than anything: Traversing the wilderness en route to your next destination is simply how you get from point A to point B, and you may discover any number of exciting things along the way.
If exploration is my favorite part of the game, combat is a close second. GreedFall features real-time combat with optional pause features, like the old Infinity Engine games. You probably won't need to pause all that often, at least on Normal difficulty, but it's a nice option to have when you want to cast a spell or drink a potion that you didn't assign to a shortcut.
Combat itself is fast and furious, but it has quite a few variables going on under the hood. There's the moment-to-moment fighting, where you'll have to deal damage with light attacks, heavy attacks, firearms and/or magic as well as parry or dodge enemy techniques. You and your enemies both have an armor rating, which decreases as you take damage. Once your armor is depleted, you'll start taking much more damage per hit. You can also get knocked down, stunned or unbalanced, depending on the kind of attack.
As such, combat is a fast-paced mix of health, armor, status effects and three distinct types of damage. Since you'll also have two additional party members at your disposal, things can get chaotic pretty quickly. I built up De Sardet as a sort of dexterous swordsman/gunfighter, so I might target an enemy from afar, use a pistol to break down its armor, dodge behind it, thrust at it with an alchemical rapier and let my party members finish it off with some magic missiles.
Combat difficulty can be a little unpredictable — random groups of enemies could be cakewalks, or they could surround you and take you down in a handful of hits. Boss battles can feel a little repetitive, thanks to huge armor ratings and high health pools. But overall, it's a satisfying and adaptable system.
Likewise, you can build up your character for combat any way you see fit. GreedFall has a huge variety of skills, whether you want to focus on light blades, heavy blunt weapons, healing magic, traps, rifles, bombs or any combination of the above. There are three separate skill trees to build up (one is for noncombat abilities), and you can also customize your gear, so there's plenty of room to make De Sardet feel like your own unique creation.
Brave new world
If you know your world history, you'll be in good shape to start GreedFall. The game tells the story of De Sardet: a young nobleman (or woman) sent to help his cousin govern a colony. The newly discovered continent of Teer Fradee is a proving ground for De Sardet's Congregation of Merchants as well as the zealous missionaries of Thélème, the scientific minds of the Bridge Alliance and the beleaguered natives, who are trying to navigate the three colonial civilizations along with their own tribal disputes.
The parallels to the real world aren't hard to see (the Dutch East India Company, the Roman Catholic Church, the Ottoman Empire and so forth), and I found the Bridge Alliance particularly interesting. "What if the Ottomans colonized the New World" is admittedly not a brand-new idea (Age of Empires III explored this concept, to amusing effect), but it's fascinating to see the juxtaposition of the Alliance's alchemists and Thélème's cardinals.
In fact, the real-world Age of Exploration was an exciting time for science, religion, cartography, astronomy, navigation, zoology, botany and more. GreedFall does an admirable job of including all of these themes within the game, and the fictional setting and light veneer of fantasy help keep things feeling fresh.
I do have three moderate criticisms of GreedFall's story, however. The first is that while the setting is fantastic, there isn't much of a narrative — at least for the first third of the game or so. As the legate of a foreign power, a lot of your missions revolve around meeting with ambassadors, obtaining paperwork, mapping out areas, smoothing over diplomatic incidents and so forth. It's not boring, but there's not much of an overall story weaving everything together, either. There's no big villain or grand scheme — it's a lot like what a skilled nobleman in a new colony might actually do. And it can feel a little dry as a result.
Second, I have mixed feelings about the way the game treats the natives of Teer Fradee. Rather than making them look or act like a Native American tribe, the game instead makes them look and sound fairly Welsh, from their skin color, to their war paint, to their language.
On the one hand, gaming (and Western culture in general, really) doesn't have the best track record when it comes to presenting Native American characters and cultures in a positive, nuanced light, so I understand the temptation to avoid making that mistake again. On the other hand, GreedFall at least tries to make the natives heterogeneous and morally complex, and I wonder if that might have been a net positive for Native American representation in games. Celts in a New World setting can't help but feel a little out of place — and whatever accent they're imitating, it's atrocious.
Finally, the first few hours of the game take place back in the Old World, as you run various errands to prepare to leave the city of Serene. It's a very, very slow-burn intro that consists mostly of just running from one place to another, taking on clunky tutorials for the combat, stealth and dialogue systems. If you invest in GreedFall, you've got to accept that the first 3 hours are simply not very gripping, and trust that the game gets better from there. (It does.)
Beyond that, the graphics are fine, the voice acting is passable and the game is stable, although there are some visual bugs (hair clipping through hats was a common one) and a ton of typos in the dialogue. But GreedFall isn't the kind of game you play for its production values; it's the kind of game you play because there's nothing else quite like it.
On its own merits, GreedFall is a good game that's not quite great. The setting and combat are gripping, but the story often crawls along, and the level of choice and consequence in the dialogue isn't really on a par with something like Pillars of Eternity II (coincidentally, also a midbudget RPG that's all about gunpowder-era colonists and natives). I think it has massive appeal to anyone who grew up on BioWare games and wished for something like this rather than, say, Anthem.
But what's really interesting about GreedFall is that it made me wonder why fantasy RPGs that don't take place in medieval kingdoms are, comparatively, so rare. Why don't these games take place during the Fall of Rome, or the Renaissance, or the Scientific Revolution or any other era? Have we become so married to "The Lord of the Rings" that we've forgotten that there's a whole history of the world to explore — and that the fantasy genre lets us make that world even more incredible?
Pick up GreedFall if it sounds like your kind of game — and if not, at least hope that it inspires other developers to take similar risks.