Game review: GreedFall is a colonialist fantasy with a conscience

If you’re tired of generic fantasy worlds, this inventive new action role-player mixes magical monsters with the age of colonialism.

We suppose it’s Tolkien that’s to blame for it all, the idea that almost every fantasy game is set in an idealised version of the early medieval period; where technology never gets any more advanced than a crossbow and magic and monsters somehow exist and yet human society operates in a manner still largely consistent with real history. As entertaining as it may be it is a strangely specific conceit, and it’s interesting how fresh GreedFall manages to feel simply by moving the clock forward a few centuries.

The elevator pitch for the game is that a trio of colonial-era nations, inspired by but not exactly the same as those in the real world, have discovered a magical island inhabited by elf-like natives and a variety of magical creatures. The factions act as any 17th-century empire would do in the situation and immediately set about trying to conquer the island for themselves, pushing out their rivals and completely ignoring the wellbeing of the natives.

You play the game as an ordinary human, newly arrived on the island in the role of nominal peacekeeper, which leads you to deal directly with not just the colonisers but also the natives. Your character also has an extra incentive in that you’re trying to find the cure to a mysterious illness back home, so your role is not an easy one. It’s an immediately interesting set-up though and highlights just how little effort other games make in creating their own settings, rather than just riffing on somebody else’s.

GreedFall is an action role-playing game and it’s fairly obvious from the start that The Witcher 3 was one of its main influences, even if this is a considerably more modest production in every way – from the size and scope of the game world, which is split up into several smaller sections, to the complexity of the graphics and dialogue choices. There are so many rough edges it’s a surprise you don’t get cut holding the controller, but the game’s ambitious and that counts for a lot.

Rather than the fictional countries simply being analogous to real ones they’re organised around their defining traits of trade, scientific advancement, and religious fervour. Interestingly, there’s also more than one native tribe, who also have their own outlook and rivalries even before the outsiders got there. So while on the macro level it’s clear who the good guy and bad guys are there’s an impressive amount of nuance when dealing with individual characters.

The game is also reminiscent of what Fable III was trying to do with its setting, by allowing its initially Tolkien-esque fantasy world to reach a level of industrialisation that, amongst other things, allowed for firearms. GreedFall handles all this much better though, in terms of both story and combat, with a fun mix of gunplay and sword-fighting that’s impressively fast-paced and tactical. It’s not quite Bloodborne but it’s certainly more enjoyable than we were expecting given French developer Spiders is not know for action games (or anything very much, really).

Most of the time you also have two computer-controlled companions fighting with you, although that aspect is underutilised as you don’t have much control of them. And since the artificial intelligence is rather basic they feel a little superfluous, especially during boss battles when you could really use the help. There’s a fairly deep magic system as well though, with the game allowing you to specialise however you want in terms of spells, traps, ranged weapons, and melee fighting.

Beyond the setting, the best thing about GreedFall is the quest design, which is one area where it does bear direct comparison with The Witcher 3. There’s a good amount of variety to your objectives, with a bare minimum of fetch quests, and interestingly there’s often a time limit too. So if you’re the sort of person that usually puts off an urgent rescue mission to do some level-grinding you’re in for a shock here.

The colonialist themes of the setting are also handled with an impressive amount of tact. Although the natives aren’t treated as badly as those from real history, they still end up being rounded up and ‘civilised’ by religious zealots and educators. While at the same time the ordinary citizenry is kept down by the upper classes and often face abuse of their own sort. Some of the issues do get handwaved away towards the end, which is a shame, but up until then, the game is impressively brave in some of the issues it tackles.

It’s a fascinating game world to be involved in and while it can seem unremittingly dour the fact that it is so different lends it an air of unpredictability even when it’s doing generic action role-playing things. It is a shame that the dialogue options aren’t more involved though as they often seem so perfunctory as to be almost pointless, and don’t allow you as much control over your character’s personality as you’d want.

GreedFall is not perfect, far from it. It’s a technical mess, with uneven frame rates, poor collision detection, disappearing textures, sound problems, and so many reused assets that you learn to spot them like an old friend whenever they appear. The facial animation is also well below par, although thankfully the voice-acting is surprising good for the most part.

Arguably the biggest problem with the story is that it shoots its bolt a little too early, with the first third or so of the game being filled with fascinating revelations that are never matched by anything that happens subsequently. But as uneven as it all is GreedFall is consistently surprising and entertaining, and there’s many a video game that barely manages either.

GreedFall

GreedFall review

In Short: One of the most interesting video game settings of the year and while the game has numerous issues the strong combat and inventive quest design make it well worth persevering with.

Pros: Highly original setting that the story and missions uses to their full advantage. Surprisingly good combat and some excellent and varied quest design.

Cons: Limited dialogue options and underdeveloped squad controls. Dour atmosphere could do with at least some levity. Numerous technical problems.

Score: 7/10

Formats: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, and PC
Price: £44.99
Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
Developer: Spiders
Release Date: 10th September 2019
Age Rating: 18

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