You know that feeling when you’re looking at a really pretty picture in an art museum but you’re having trouble focusing on how beautiful it is because the exhibit next to it is on fire and there is a couple arguing next to you about “I thought this what you meant when you said you wanted to try new things,” and someone puked in the lobby, filling the whole space with a noxious tinge of regurgitated lentils? You know that feeling, right? That, perhaps in a way that leans too heavily on the grotesque, essentially sums up GreedFall — the vistas are beautiful and the RPG mechanics are stellar, but boy howdy does the story and setting make me deeply uncomfortable. Though I generally enjoyed my time exploring the many autumnal sights, diving deep into the satisfying combat systems, tackling quests the way I wanted to, and getting to know my companions, it took a concerted effort to concentrate on the pretty picture in front of me and not fall headfirst into a puddle of vomit. The metaphor will make sense soon.
In GreedFall, you play as De Sardet, a Legate of the merchant guild tasked with “traveling” (colonizing) to a newly discovered land (New World), Teer Fradee, and studying its many riches and resources (gentrify and push out the locals) in hope of creating a cure for the Malichor, a plague that has sucked the old world dry. In other words, the colonizers have left their land utterly bereft, so they do what they do best and expand into territory belonging to indigenous peoples. While the core of GreedFall — the character customization, build variety, quest writing, and stunning locales — are both solid and enjoyable (pretty picture), the subtext of its politics and world machinations never grappled with its darker history, which often distracted me from the fun I was having (pool of vomit). Does it make sense now?
Admittedly, my knowledge of the complications and ramifications of colonization is severely lacking, so I’ll leave the heavy discourse lifting to smarter folks. With that said, there is nothing wrong with making a game that has these themes as long as the source material engages with the, more often than not, gross history. GreedFall, uh, sort of does that? De Sardet certainly seems willing to call out her comrades on their racist tendencies in an effort to make a change in her congregation. Other than that, though, the game largely uses its 17th-century influence as a backdrop without challenging the murky undertones and expects the player to get lost in the fantasy. At best, the setting effectively transported me to an era of industrialized London dressed in Dickensian aesthetics, only, ya know, with magic. At worst, it seems unnecessary and does nothing for the actual world GreedFall is trying to establish. Why use a stripped-down version of colonial history if not to avoid difficult topics?
Though I can’t ignore its messy side, the rest of GreedFall is a competent, and frequently beautiful, RPG. The wilderness of Teer Fradee is teeming with gorgeous views. Between the orange and red leaves in the trees, alluring sunsets, bustling wind, and the locals dressed in what I would describe as Fall Chic, it’s as if the essence of autumn was poured into every nook and cranny. I’m honestly shocked that I haven’t seen any pumpkins or Charlie Brown costumes. Better yet, GreedFall is riddled with dense RPG mechanics and quest threads that hearken back to early BioWare games. Developer Spiders has come a long way since the days of Technomancer, a game that was full of heart but ultimately succumbed to bugs and bad voice acting.
De Sardet begins their quest as one of three combat archetypes: Warrior, a fighter that relies heavily on melee and strength; Technical, a rogue-ish class that swaps out bows for muskets and homemade bombs; and Magic…. do I need to describe this one? From there, I could design my character however I wanted. I started as the magic class but quickly switched to Technical and never felt like I was behind. On top of general skills, abilities and talents like Agility or Science gave me the opportunity to get even more specific with my play style. I may be a quick gunslinger, but I can also wield a giant sword to topple my enemies. Build diversity is something I will always appreciate, and it makes combat much more enjoyable knowing I can switch my gear around easily when things aren’t working.
Combat can be flimsy at times, but I got into the rhythm quickly once things opened up, and that’s largely because the weapons feel so darn good to use. Musket shots make a hearty thunk sound when they connect with an enemy, and time slows down just slightly to emphasize the hit. When I land a jumping kick into a monster’s face, they stumble back realistically into a daze while my character recovers and gets ready for the next attack. Swinging a hammer around feels slow and purposeful, making my hits all the more deadly. It’s not perfect all the time — swords and daggers, in particular, are weightless when swung — but it made me excited to pick up new loot and experiment on the battlefield, a mentality GreedFall encourages, especially with its tactical options.
The bulk of combat is spent blissfully slashing away at the things in front of me, but if ever I needed an added layer of strategy, GreedFall‘s tactical menu allowed me to pause the fighting and take full advantage of my arsenal. Like Dragon Age: Inquisition‘s top-down field view (though not as complex), it lets you think carefully about your next move. When things got hectic, it gave me some breathing room to act logically instead of instinctively. If not for the tactical menu, I probably would have forgotten completely about my many tools and resigned my self to swinging the night away, but it reminded me to use potions, apply oils to my blade, set traps, and so much more that my dumb-dumb brain would have overlooked. It also lets you bind up to 12 hotkeys for abilities or items if you’d rather not fuss with the menu at all. I was pleasantly surprised by the level of creative freedom in the combat, a mechanic that can sometimes be reduced to button-mashing.
Around the eight hour mark, fatigue, unfortunately, started to set in. As I made my way to new towns, villages, and open areas, my response in the first seven hours was always, “Damn, this is pretty”. Like I said, this game is nothing if not nice to look at pensively. But then I went to the governor’s palace in Hikmet, the second major city in Teer Fradee, and made my way to their chambers without stopping to look at the map for directions. Obviously the quest marker was telling me where to go, but as soon as I opened the doors, I immediately bolted to the governor as if I had visited the place hundreds of times. And then I realized that the layout is exactly the same from the two previous governor homes I’ve been to in the game.
Then I started going into the houses in the city and noticed that every single house was laid out the same way. As I discovered new villages in the open world, to my dismay, they were also laid out almost identically. When I journeyed to new regions, I was greeted by the same three or four variations of wildlife. So much of GreedFall is lovingly crafted, while others feel as though they were copied. Even the locals in the world seem robotic and wholly Stepfordian. Some of the NPCs busy themselves with their programmed routines. Others just…. stand there. In bars, palaces, city squares, brothels, locals will be standing in place as if they turned off. I completely understand that Spiders doesn’t have the luxury of a big budget, but part of an RPG’s success relies on immersion. Lifeless NPCs and same-y environments made the world stilted and, worst of all, empty.
Luckily, the NPCs that do have personality almost make up for the robots. Like Knights of the Old Republic or Mass Effect before it, GreedFall has companions, y’all — and they are good. You can have up to two additional members in your party, and each companion has their fighting style, background, quest lines, and influence on the world. Depending on who you bring and the relationship you have with a particular character, certain options will be made available or you’ll be rewarded with certain buffs. For instance, I brought Siora, the emissary for the indigenous population, along on a quest for one of her neighboring clans and was offered additional dialogue options. Conversely, if I bring Siora to a diplomatic meeting with the governors, the tenuous relationship between the merchant guild and local clans could put me at a disadvantage. If only the rest of the population was this interesting.
GreedFall also has the two words every open-world fan wants to hear: companion quests. I remember how it felt when Cait got through her drug addiction in Fallout 4, or when I abandoned Blackwall in that jail cell in Dragon Age, or when I helped Fane regain his humanity in Divinity: Original Sin 2. Companion quests are often meaningful moments in our gaming lives, and they should be. GreedFall, I am happy to report, is no slouch in this department. The moments may not happen as organically as some of the games listed above, but when they do, they are still a treat to behold and just as personal. Each quest presents a window into the character’s emotional state, history, and personal politics. Sometimes I was heartened by what I saw, while others left me frustrated and mad at the character. Perhaps what I appreciated most was that companion quests often led me down unexpected paths or showed me a whole new side of the character. Just when I thought Kurt, the typical sword slinging bro with approximately zero sense of humor, was going to have me run errands for him in typical fetch quest fashion, I rocketed down shadowy streets of conspiracy theories and clandestine operations. Being able to grow, expand, and destroy relationships with NPCs is the mark of a good RPG, and I am happy GreedFall let me.
As I said to a fellow We Got This Covered staffer, “I think this game is entirely my thing, but my thing isn’t for everyone”. There is a lot to like about GreedFall, but I don’t know if I would recommend it, at least not without heavy disclaimers. I had fun making my way through the many forests and swamps, even though most of them seemed eerily similar to the one before it. I loved getting to know my comrades, despite the lifelessness of the general population. Visiting new cities was exciting for the first few minutes but would always descend into the familiar as I examined home after home, each with the same bookcase, the same desk, the same potion on the table. Throughout all of this, I was perpetually bombarded by colonialist themes that made me outwardly distressed. And yet, there is still a game here with a heart, I think. I can ignore the static NPCs and identical level layouts and empty world (not the disinterest in tackling colonialism in any worthwhile way), but I don’t know if others will, and I don’t know if they should.
This review is based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game. A copy was provided by Focus Home Interactive.
GreedFall is an ambitious RPG with a ton of heart and a lot to love that ultimately succumbs to a stilted, empty world and refusal to engage its themes in a meaningful way.