An action RPG made on a tight budget that delivers the goods on almost every level, GreedFall is going to be a very welcome time sink for anyone who’s been pining for the BioWare of old.
For fans of the genre, there’s been something of a shortage of truly deep, involved RPGs over the past few years. Sure, The Witcher 3 stands tall as a benchmark of what’s possible, and Divinity Original Sin 2 would have gone a long way towards satisfying that hunger for a meaty RPG experience for the more old-school crowd. But for many, there’s been a real lack of complex and cinematic RPGs lately. For years, BioWare was the go-to name for precisely that – their Dragon Age series is legendary for its depth of gameplay and richness of storytelling and, of course, the Mass Effect games served as a tasty “light” option for those more into story and action without the politics and strategy that could see a Dragon Age playthrough surpass 100 hours.
But BioWare seem to have lost their way in recent years, with the most recent Dragon Age game veering too close to MMO grind-a-thon territory for some, and the next still years away and in the unsteady hands that delivered Anthem. Wouldn’t it be brilliant if some ambitious, adventurous developer was to come along and make the sort of game that BioWare used to make?
Just at the right time, along come Spiders – a French development house which has been cooking up action RPGs with varying success for ten years now, with some affectionately referring to their bold but often not-quite-there efforts as “Eurojank”. As an independent studio their five previous full-scale efforts have met with varying degrees of praise and criticism, but comparisons to Bioware’s beloved games were unavoidable.
With GreedFall, it looks like the years of Spiders’ learning and perfecting the craft have paid off. To many, it’ll be an independent game coming seemingly out of nowhere that somehow manages to tick almost all the BioWare boxes – but Spiders has been working their way towards this for a long time, and GreedFall feels like they just know they’re finally getting it right.
The overarching story is a basic one. You play a human – male or female, your name will be De Sardet – living in a world that’s very different to the usual fantasy RPG setting. Here you’re more in an era of 17th-century seafarers and merchants, and you’re about to embark on a journey to the recently discovered isle of Teer Fradee, thought by many to hold the promise of a cure to a nameless plague that’s killing off the good citizens of your home city Selene. An untamed island with many secrets, often-difficult local residents and magical overtones, it’s ripe for the conquering. But the inhabitants of the island aren’t always pleased to meet you – and then there’s the matter of the strange growth on the side of your face which, as the captain of the Naut vessel that takes you there hints, may be directly connected to the mysterious isle.
Despite having been made on a budget that was probably less than the catering costs for the last BioWare game launch, GreedFall looks absolutely stunning right from the outset. While there are obvious limits to what the studio’s in-house engine (based on one Sony developed for the PS3) can accomplish, the gorgeous environments and rich atmospheres throughout make this “double A” not-quite-full-price game look and feel better than many recent mega-studio efforts. It’s clear right from the outset that you’re going to be in for a treat, as long as you don’t mind a little bit of jank remaining in details like facial animations. The voice acting is first-rate too, with a mainly British cast doing a fine job – particularly Cassie Layton as the female De Sardet.
The entire first couple of hours of the game serves as an extended tutorial of sorts, familiarising you with the game’s systems while avoiding the usual tutorial trap in that it’s actually interesting. You meet a couple of the game’s six factions as you explore the city of Selene before departure, learn about the politics and backstory and get to try out the different playstyles on offer. Because while this is an “action RPG”, you don’t always have to take the combat route to solve problems or complete quests. Stealth, larceny and the powers of charisma and persuasion can be just as important, as can your standing with the various factions. The clever reputation system even extends to the clothes your character wears – show up to a negotiation wearing the wrong outfit and things can go south fast.
“How much your travel buddies like you has a direct impact on your game, and they won’t stick around if you treat them badly.”
You also have a series of companions that you can recruit and bring with you as you explore, and the choice of who you bring is often as tactically important as the gear and skills you choose for yourself, with some companions even able to translate native languages for you. How much your travel buddies like you has a direct impact on your game, and they won’t stick around if you treat them badly. If that already sounds very Dragon Age, you’ll feel right at home with the game’s “Tactical Pause” mode, which feels and works much like the pause mechanic from that series’ Origins and Inquisition. Its use is essential to beat the more difficult boss fights, which can be pretty brutal if you’re playing more for the world-building than the action. The combat is, in a way, the game’s weakest point – it doesn’t feel as intuitive or responsive as it should when played in real time.
This isn’t an open-world game, by the way; it’s separated into fairly large zones which load separately – though there’s a brilliant idea employed to ease the load process where you have access to a travelling merchant while you wait. You won’t be waiting long regardless; for all its visual beauty (especially on a 4K HDR display), the full install is only around 12GB on PS4, and loading times are minimal. While some might think the lack of an open world is a negative, it has resulted in focused design where the quests actually matter – there’s no Inquisition-style “pick up 15 of these” here, thankfully.
Many will pick up GreedFall with low expectations because it doesn’t have a “big name” on the tin. But what Spiders has achieved with this superb RPG is surprisingly ambitious, visually lovely (including the stylish user interface) and incredibly immersive. It’s clearly the product of a studio that cares about their world, their characters – and their players. You’ll need to forgive a few imperfections, but they’re few and far between, and the game overall is one of the year’s best surprises. BioWare just got put on notice.
GreedFall is available now for PS4 and Xbox One.