Focus Home Interactive are well known for adopting developers with a penchant for creating games that are a little rough around the edges, but which have enough about them to warrant seeing the light of day, that a bigger publisher might not allow them. GreedFall is by some margin the most ambitious Focus title that I’ve played to date, and despite a few unique concepts, it might also be the most mainstream.
Opening up with a two-hour slog around the player’s home city of Serene that essentially acts as an interactive tutorial, GreedFall begins fairly unremarkably. It looks good when standing still, with the renaissance era, European architecture presenting the grand and imposing vision of the colonial power to which our hero belongs. When moving, however, you’ll notice the kind of minor glitching that smaller games are known for, and in particular, there’s a lot of scenery that you’ll need to steer wide round for fear of being stopped by invisible barriers associated with the handle of a cart, for example.
Unusually for a mid-budget game, facial animations and voice acting are well handled as well, and despite the frequent invisible barriers and a bizarre number of chests and collectibles sitting unguarded in the street, you may begin to feel a touch of excitement about what the game has in store. Characters refer constantly to the island of Teer Fradee, a wondrous New World filled with creatures, people and riches for the exploiting.
Having heard so much about it, you’ll curse the game for sending you on just one more seemingly pointless fetch quest before you embark, but believe you me, the island is worth the wait. There are hints of Dark Souls, The Witcher, Monster Hunter and plenty of other roleplaying games here, but imitation really is the sincerest form of flattery, and GreedFall mostly manages to knit these ideas together.
The backdrop for GreedFall is one of colonial strife and moral ambiguity, and whilst it offers a great 17th Century buccaneering aesthetic, it also brings with it moral ambiguity both in and outside the game. Some players simply can’t abide colonialism as a central narrative and there’s no doubt that the central character De Sardet (either male or female) is going to play out as somewhere between exploitative at worst and white saviour at best.
Personally, I’ll put my neck on the line and say that GreedFall’s take on colonialism is well done. It clearly highlights the wrongdoings of pretty much all European nations under the banner of the heavily religious Theleme, whilst also dragging in a dark skinned and seemingly Arab inspired race known as The Bridge Alliance for good measure. A second European themed group known as the Congregation of Merchants (to which De Sardet belongs) act as mediators, despite their desire for profit.
Theleme and The Bridge Alliance are both at war with each other and, in the case of The Bridge Alliance, the native islanders known as the Teer Fradeans. Whilst Theleme is not at war with the native populace, it does seek to convert them to what is clearly GreedFall’s take on Catholicism, and the relationship between the two nations is strained. De Sardet and the Congregation liaise freely between all parties, offering a contrived but effective means for the player to explore multiple questlines and side missions at the same time.
And my goodness, will you explore multiple questlines and side missions. GreedFall offers a classic open world structure in this sense, with literally hundreds of missions opening up for the four main factions, as well as several minor groups within them. Such groups include the seafaring Nauts, who claim any children born on their ships (or taken as part of a deal) to add to their ranks, as well as others ranging from inquisition-style zealots to native rebels.
One slight downside of GreedFall is how well it sets itself up compared to how deep the dialogue and story missions actually go. De Sardet is compelled forward to seek a cure for the Malichor, an illness that weakens, blinds and ultimately kills the afflicted. Among other prominent citizens, De Sardet bears the telltale mark that shows the onset of the disease, and their mother is clearly in the late stages of dying from it at the outset of the game.
The island of Teer Fradee is said to hold a cure for the Malichor that only the natives can unlock, and whilst The Bridge Alliance are blindly focussed on exploiting the resources of the island, the nation of Theleme are determined to spread their religion far and wide at any cost. This backdrop is a superb one for any game, especially when all manner of monsters are thrown into the mix, yet none of the conversations ever reach even close to the depth of those in GreedFall’s biggest influence: The Witcher.
This may be because, despite the really very good voice acting and a decent smattering of high quality cut scenes, there’s relatively little going on beneath the surface. Only key NPC’s will ever speak to the player, and there’s no chance that a bloke in the street or a noblewoman walking along a pier will stop to share a word. This, to some extent, means that the only reason you’ll explore GreedFall is for quests, or because you can be reasonably sure that there’s a chest around every corner (regardless of how crappy the contents).
On the plus side, the compulsion to move from one quest marker to another (and then back again sometimes) leads to quite a direct experience. What GreedFall lacks in deep and meaningful character development, it makes up for with deceptively large maps that keep the pace of gameplay up at all times. Routes criss-cross maps and are then linked by travelling sequences where the player can adjust their party, buy from merchants or craft, kind of like in Dragon Age when at camp.
When combat occurs (which it does, frequently) this is where I feel The Witcher meets Dark Souls, albeit that GreedFall is far easier than Souls and slightly harder to predict than The Witcher. De Sardet can be built as a straight up melee warrior, a technical (essentially ranged) specialist with some swordsmanship or a magic user, with any of these prebuilt choices offering primary and secondary weapon skills.
Whichever approach you choose, you’ll be balancing a choice of fast but delicate weapons, heavier, slower ones, firearms and magic. Magic is powerful, but relies on magic power for even the most basic attack (hence the need for a secondary weapon skill) whilst the other classes do what they say on the tin. As you level up and can invest your own skills, attributes and abilities (each dealt out at a different pace) you can specialise and where two skill arcs meet, there is often the opportunity to branch into some very powerful late game abilities.
What I will say about combat — getting back to that — is that GreedFall is functional, but not often exceptional. Magic use is fairly boring, since the basic spell is a fairly unimpressive (but quite damaging) homing missile, whilst the only other spell you’ll have access to for about half the game is Stasis, which isn’t the most explosive of spells, although it is effective. New rings do increase the power of your magic and change some of its effects, but I really feel that more core spells would have been appropriate.
Fighting as a warrior in GreedFall is more interesting than in most, and certainly forces the player to dodge and parry often. This is largely because the warrior will inevitably be hit often due to the close range of their attacks (and often the slow speed) and because many enemies in the game are large. A single hit from some of the larger beasts will result in more or less instant death, so parrying and getting out of the way is important.
The technical class bridges the other two, really, with firearms replacing magic as a powerful ranged method of dealing out damage, but still with a focus on hand to hand combat. The ability to set traps by investing in a particular skill tree is an interesting one, and by combining the magic and trap tree, players can unlock a fairly powerful shockwave style spell.
GreedFall’s combat tends to be on the slow side and some of De Sardet’s knockdown or knockback animations are painfully long, meaning that second (often fatal) hits are often unavoidable. Prior to any of the fancier dodges being unlocked, dodging is also limited to jumping backwards, so parry is essential, but the timing is fairly generous and relatively few creatures have unblockable attacks.
The way De Sardet is built up has several other effects on gameplay as well, such as their ability to pick locks, talk their way out (or in) to trouble and all the usual, but there are a few other slightly more interesting ways in which the character can develop. For example, investing in agility can mean De Sardet is able to jump higher, or balance across beams that lead to unreachable treasures.
The ability to set traps and brew sleeping potions to put in someone’s wine is also novel, meaning that there’s perhaps more here than meets the eye when it comes to the bog-standard looking classes. I should also say that after the initial character creation, it’s possible to invest skills any way you like, and memory crystals allow the character to be completely reset at any time, leaving the focus on getting the most out of the game, rather than leaving the player feeling restricted.
So Greedfall is a big, ambitious project for a small studio like Spiders and a midsized publisher, and despite a few glitches and wafer-thin story and character development, it’s well executed. There is as much loot as the title suggests, and if you can see past the colonialism theme (which I did by siding with the native populace) then there’s a very interesting world to explore. I look forward to a couple of patches being fixed and perhaps to some more content to fill the world out.
Overall, GreedFall is probably the best open-world RPG that I’ve played, outside of the top players. By that, I mean, it’s not The Witcher, or Fallout, or Skyrim, but it’s head and shoulders above the other pretenders that have been released into this space over the past ten years. In fact, GreedFall is almost good enough to be talked about without reference to any of these others, but not quite. It’s not quite unique enough and the combat is just that bit dull, but it’s very, very close, and more than capable of bridging the gap until the next big thing.