It’s been said by me many times before now, but here it is again: I really appreciate a game that swings for the fences. Heck, I probably appreciate it more than I should, which is a bit of a problem. Give me something that goes for broke and takes a wild swing for far left field but misses and I am just naturally more inclined to view it favorably than something that aims for a safe midpoint, even if neither one hits its mark.
So we come to Greedfall, a game that intrigued me enough to actually make me break from my own dearly held views about pre-ordering, since I technically did pre-order it (by like seven hours, but hey). Here’s a game that started swinging for the fences right down to the premise by setting you as a colonial noble in a thinly veiled fantasy equivalent to early colonial North America, with developers putting forth right away that the game’s stated goals are that colonialism is bad and damaging, while also aspiring to the heights of games like Dragon Age: Inquisition with about 25% of the staff and 5% of the budget of that title.
Yep, there’s that ambition for you. Making a triple-A game with a single-A budget and staff intentionally taking on the sins of colonialism. How could that not be fascinating?
Here’s the bad news: Greefall is not an absolute miraculous slam-dunk. The good news is of course it isn’t because did you read what I just wrote up there? Developer Spiders basically set up a premise and starting point that was already bizarrely ambitious. It takes some really astonishing shots, and frankly even the ones that don’t land are still impressive enough by how close they do get.
The player takes on the role of the noble De Sardet from the city of Serene, a city gripped by a mysterious plague known as the Malichor while standing between the powerful nations of the Bridge Alliance (scientific Moorish sorts) and Thélème (religious mages). The mysterious island of Teer Fradee is your colonial stalking horse, with De Sardet hoping to find a cure for the Malichor while Thélème seeks to convert the natives and the Bridge Alliance seeks to just wipe them all out.
Also, the natives seek to… live. They want to live here because they already do. The game is unambiguous about this theme; one of the earliest quests in the coastal city of New Serene is all about the fact that a native merchant and his cousin are being brutally robbed and nearly murdered by the guards because of a failure to follow laws that were never explained to them.
We’re going to put a pin in themes for now, though; it’s enough to know that you are the new legate alongside your cousin as the new governor, and pretty much right away you’re presented with the task of keeping the island balanced even as everything is pulling at that balance. Plus, you need to find that cure. As mentioned: ambitious as hell.
Mechanically, of course, there are also a lot of things pulling in different directions. Quests feature a variety of different approaches to your various goals, each of them carrying different risks and obligations. Talk your way out of problems with charisma, sneak around to avoid detection, bribe people, blow down weak walls to make alternate entry paths, or just run in sword-a-swinging and guns-a-blazing.
Combat is similarly multifaceted. Right from the start, even with the least combat-oriented builds, you start the game with access to two separate weapons and a gun, and weapons themselves make a big difference in how you play. Attacks can be parried and you can take advantage of knocking enemies off-balance with a well-timed parry, gunshots are woven in mid-battle, and you’ve also got access to spells and traps if you choose to go down those routes. Over time, you can of course develop new tricks, including spells to lock down large chunks of the battlefield, specialized attacks and buffs, healing, armor, and so forth.
If all of this sounds like a lot for a lower-budget title, well… start tamping down your expectations a little bit. It is a lot, and the game manages that volume by being a bit more straightforward in many other aspects. There are basically five types of melee weapon total, and they’re not wildly different regardless; blunt and edged weapons are mostly a split between doing more damage to armor or more damage to health, so it’s good to have both in your equipment setup, but the reality is that these are moderate changes.
Similar things are in place throughout the game. You don’t get a variety of healing spells, you get a self-healing spell. You get one AoE spell, which is primarily a lockdown approach. You see it even in the game’s assets, with obviously repeated buildings that have different doodads stuck inside of them.
The idea, I think, was that having one high-quality building for a specific type and decorating it with different things would ultimately look better than more varied but smaller and slapdash buildings. This doesn’t bother me. I can tell why it was done and what the intent was. Some people are going to be really bothered by it. Your mileage may vary, which is kind of an overarching theme for the game as a whole.
This means that this is as good a time as any to get back to that pin about themes. The game is unambiguous in what it sees as good and what it sees as bad, but the nature of the legacy of colonialism – something inextricable from basically the entire history of the planet – is going to hit everyone differently, and how the title handles it has a wide amount of variance based on personal preference.
Remember, in the start of this game you are definitely part of a colonizing group. Your personal city is not one of the most aggressive factions toward the natives by any stretch of the imagination, but you are making peace with a group forcibly converting a native population or just trying to wipe the native populace out. And your role in the story is as someone there to serve as a peacemaker.
It’s going to come down to each individual player whether the story’s approach to this is too toothless or not. Heck, as someone who’s not finished with the game yet, I can’t offer a final pronouncement on this myself. It could very well be that the game never gives you the opportunity to have an in-universe callout for how awful this all is; it could also be that the option is there, but you have to recognize that you’re losing your neutrality in the process.
The whole process does offer solid moral dilemmas even right from the start, though. They’re not the sort of moral dilemmas that tend to get brought up a lot, but ones that are tied specifically to that supposed neutrality. It’s very clear away that one side is wrong, but it’s usually the side that you’re supposed to not be antagonizing, because everything in your world rests on this balance of power. Do you do what’s morally right at the risk of making a longstanding enemy, or do you try to take a middle road? Or do you sell out your ideals now in hopes that you can later redeem yourself?
Again, having not finished the game, it’s possible none of this pays off as well as it is being built up. But the buildup alone is charmingly ambitious, giving you good reason to do things that you already know are morally compromised. Whether or not the game will ultimately land the jump is important, but at least it’s going for the jump.
Thankfully, the shortcomings here don’t extend to the technical side of things; while the game’s lip-syncing is horribly wonky, the actual voice acting is solid and the game seems pretty well free of bizarre bugs. So that’s all good.
It’s clear that there is at least some demand for this sort of exploration in MMOs, but it has yet to go very well. Salem is a game with a whole laundry list of issues despite taking place in the same basic timeframe, and New World was also poised for a similar setting before falling into its current non-release limbo. That’s not counting various games jutting up against colonialist themes, which doesn’t always work well; witness the absurdly tone-deaf take in World of Warcraft’s Drustvar (in stark contrast to the game’s generally better-handled use of the Tauren and related subgroups).
Greedfall isn’t perfect by any stretch. It has a lot of flaws, and some people are going to be turned off by those flaws ranging from the repetition of assets to the pared-down variations to whether or not the game punches hard enough at its stated anti-colonial themes. But if you’re in the market for a new game and you want something that can ease the sting of that limbo state for New World and points related? Here’s your game.
Plus, like I said, at least it’s aiming high.