There’s a term used to describe a certain flavour of RPG: Eurojank. These are RPGs developed by European developers — usually German or Polish — which have some decidedly unconventional ideas about how RPGs should be put together. No two eurojank RPGs are the same: some go in heavy on the stats crunch that gets streamlined out of other western RPGs, some demonstrate completely new and experimental combat systems, and some have you collecting sex cards for every woman your lecherous mutant protagonist manages to bang. What unites them all, though, is that while their off-kilter nature is often the very thing that appeals to an audience that’s increasingly bored by the bland, repetitive fare churned out by most AAA developers, they almost never have the resources to actually realise their ambition. Making games to AAA quality is incredibly expensive, after all, and the developers that make eurojank RPGs are inevitably smaller organisations with a fraction of the manpower required to do so. This is what results in the “jank” part of the game; they have interesting ideas, but they’re also incredibly unpolished, full of rough edges and bugs and design dead-ends because there simply hasn’t been enough time or money to iterate that stuff out of the final experience.
For the first few hours I almost thought Greedfall was going to be an exception to that rule. It’s made by Spiders, a French developer who I understand have quite the track record when it comes to making eurojank RPGs, but if you watch one of the trailers on the Steam page you’d almost be forgiven for thinking it was a Bioware RPG. Because make no mistake, that is what Greedfall is: an attempt to park tanks on Bioware’s lawn now that Bioware are preoccupied with messily self-destructing and have rather conveniently left it vacant. Quite pointedly, while it’s got many of the bits from Bioware games, the specific Bioware games Greedfall is pulling them out of are from around 2007 — when everyone loved Bioware — instead of 2017, when all they were good for was a punchline to a funny Youtube video.
So Greedfall has arcade-style real-time combat that’s optimised for consoles, but with a pause button so that you can pretend you’re being tactical; a set of companions who help you out in combat, have their own companion quest chains, and who are almost all romanceable; multiple factions to gain or lose reputation with — the list goes on and on, but it’s all mostly stuff that worked and so I’m not going to blame Spiders for trying to plug that gap in the market with Greedfall. The surprising thing about those first few hours, though, was how polished everything was. I’d seen reviews complaining about how slapdash Greedfall felt and couldn’t understand what they were talking about; yes, the environments felt a bit stilted and artificial due to primitive NPC behaviour and engine restrictions on the number of people that could be e.g. packed into a governor’s throne room, and the facial animations are another thing that happen to date from 2007, and there was a much higher than normal incidence of misspellings and typos in the conversation options and subtitles, but it was all well within tolerance levels for something made without the support of a big publisher. Crucially it compared quite favourably with Andromeda and Inquisition; there’s really not quite as much separating those games from the first half of Greedfall as there really should be. It wasn’t all smooth sailing, but I admit I was initially quite taken with Greedfall.
And for good reason, since despite its obvious inspirations it’s actually doing quite a lot of things better than anything Bioware have produced recently. Take the setting, for example; it eschews the generic high fantasy of Dragon Age for a rather more distinctive take that’s essentially chucking 17th century colonial Europe onto an island that’s full of monsters and magic. The island — Tir Fradee — is currently being invaded by three major powers: the fundamentalist Theleme (basically Spain, complete with Inquisition), the science-driven Alliance (heavy middle-eastern influences), and the Congregation of Merchants, which is the faction to which you belong and which is given almost no backstory or theming beyond really liking money. Supporting them are the mercenary Coin Guard and a naval cartel called the Nauts. All of these factions have rocked up on Tir Fradee in search of a cure to a mysterious plague that’s ravaging their homelands, but they’re also taking the opportunity to commit some good old-fashioned colonial atrocities against the native population such as massacres, forced conversions, slave trading and human experimentation.
The colonial setting is something that causes me to side-eye Greedfall a little bit. It’s definitely more interesting than having everyone walking around in generic plate mail, and I really liked being able to play with zweihanders and muskets. On the other hand it’s also a very hot potato; the subject matter being so obviously inspired by what the 17th century European powers got up to in the Americas means there’s a lot of ways that it could end up putting its foot in its mouth, culturally speaking. As it happens the quasi-European powers are almost universally presented as total assholes and the natives are the most sensible and helpful people in the game, even if they are lumbered with some truly atrocious fake-Afrikaans accents1, so it almost gets away with it.
The reason I say “almost”, though, is that Greedfall has the usual “pick one of these three endings” decision point towards the end (although handled with a great deal more nuance than certain recent examples I could name), and one of the endings is to drive all of the fake Europeans off of Tir Fradee and return it to its native inhabitants. This is the one I duly picked, but it was presented in the closing montage as a decidedly bad thing, complete with a shot of stacked-up body bags and a reminder that the plague was still killing thousands. There’s spoilery reasons why that’s a really, really stupid thing to tell me at that point, and that kind of bland moral equivocation made me reassess everything I’d just seen. In fact it has me wondering if it’s not another example of the AC-130 gunship segment in the original Modern Warfare2, and that the reason I thought the colonial powers were being presented as evil villains is because that’s how I happen to view the actual historical behaviour of the European powers, not because the developers do.
Still, I can’t deny that the choice of setting does paper over some of the considerable cracks in Greedfall’s facade, just from the sheer novelty of it not being either gritty medieval fantasy or classic swords and sorcery. At first, everything seems quite competently executed; the colony towns are nicely modelled and your first few forays into the Tir Fradee wilderness in search of the plague cure are a charming romp through idyllic green countryside. The voice acting for the main character and their companions is, to my considerable surprise, actually quite good — not outstanding, but good enough that I bought into them as people. Each faction gets an in-depth introduction quest that has a fairly high incidence of what look like fully mocapped cutscenes, which raise the production values far above what I was expecting from a supposedly eurojank game.
Above all, the start of the game is when Spiders go all-out to demonstrate one of Greedfall’s signature features, which is a truly freeform approach to how you complete its various quests. Violent resolutions tend to be the exception rather than the norm, and the majority of Greedfall’s quests can be completed without killing anyone at all. (Monsters are a different matter, of course.) Partly this is a reflection of your status within the Congregation of Merchants as you’re supposed to be a diplomat rather than a soldier, so there are a lot of quests that are resolved simply by talking to people. There are two stats that you can level up that provide extra options in conversations, and if you’ve brought the right companion along — selecting the Theleme priest companion when talking to Theleme missionaries, for example — you can even get them to interject on your behalf, usually with positive results. If you’ve not done any of that stuff you can still often find a non-combat solution to a given problem, even if the go-to method does usually involve drugging people with sleeping potions. Greedfall also has an honest-to-god stealth system that gets employed during some dedicated stealth sections with varying degrees of success, but which can also optionally be used to infiltrate enemy compounds without a fight. You can even disguise yourself as an enemy guard if you’ve got the correct set of slightly bloodstained clothes for it.
Having given you all of these different methods of completing quests, Greedfall disincentivises simply ignoring them and smashing down the front door via its reputation system. Nearly every single human enemy in the game belongs to one of the factions, who view the wholesale murder of their employees in a rather negative light. So you can just ignore the stealth mechanics and the sleeping potions and the alternate routes that Spiders have scattered everywhere, and instead just start laying about you with a two-handed sword, but a big red minus reputation message will appear the moment you do, and it actually does pay to keep the factions happy with you because that’ll affect their responses during subsequent quests. For example, I was at Friendly status with the natives for most of the game, and on most occasions when I asked them for help they just straight up said yes while mentioning the specific occasions when I’d helped them out in the past. Not only was this a nice piece of reactivity, but I suspect I was bypassing a fair bit of fetch-questing during these interactions where I’d have to gain the natives’ trust — I already had it, and so it wasn’t necessary.
Greedfall does its best to charm the player during those introductory quests, and it largely works; there are some minor warning signs such as all of the minor NPC lines clearly being read by a single guy trying on a variety of different voices, but since that was about the level of jank I was expecting from Greedfall I let it slide. Otherwise it was pleasantly refreshing to play something that seemed genuinely interested in giving me options, even — in fact, especially — if some of those options resulted in outcomes that weren’t what I expected. For example, one mission has you tracking down a group of missing researchers from the science faction, and you come across a pair of native trackers who could have information on their whereabouts but who are disinclined to chat. You can either attack them, pass a difficult speech check to get them to talk to you, or ask your native companion (if they’re with you) to talk to them on your behalf. At this point I thought that the Phone A Friend option was an automatic success in dialogue so I duly got her to talk to the trackers instead — only for her to say “What? We’re at war with these people, of course I’m not going to help you find them.” Greedfall has its own weird internal set of rules at times but it is not a stupid game, and mostly tries to present you with solutions and outcomes that seem logical and natural. It’s entirely logical that you would be able to call on one of your companions for help if they have a higher skill in the thing you’re trying to do; it’s also entirely natural that they might tell you to sod off if they don’t agree with what you’re doing.
The other thing Greedfall did that really impressed me has to do with the way it structures its quests. It’s the usual set of main quests, side quests and companion quests, but — very unusually — the side quests aren’t just filler and the companion quests don’t just relate to the companions. Instead, both of them tie back into the main storyline of what’s going on on the island in some way, even if it’s just via getting to know certain characters who become important later on. The reputation system helps here, of course, as doing all of the side quests is the best way to boost your reputation with all the factions and get good outcomes in the main story quests, as well as the general reactivity of having NPCs explicitly call out the nice things you’ve done for them during conversation. However, Greedfall also does some really, really ballsy stuff with the main storyline depending on whether you have or haven’t done certain sidequests — I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who isn’t dissuaded by the rapidly approaching, giant-sized “BUT…” I’ve been heavily telegraphing throughout this review, but we’re talking about consequences on the scale of various companions dying in the suicide mission at the end of Mass Effect 2, except without the cop-out of putting it at the end of the game where it didn’t matter. Greedfall is no Alpha Protocol, of course, but it’s definitely channeling a very Obsidian-esque approach to choice and consequences all the same.
A brief paragraph about the combat: it is fine, and no more than that. It doesn’t have the best start, as you have next to no interesting tools to play with at the start of the game and so you’re reduced to swinging awkwardly at enemies while slowly shuffling out of the way of their counterblows — you don’t even have a proper dodge move unlocked to start with. However, Greedfall is pretty liberal with the skill points awarded during the first few hours of the game and pretty soon you’re combat-rolling out of the way of a charging beast before turning to thwack it in the rear with a huge chunk of metal. Enemies have armour that absorbs damage and which must be stripped via special armour-piercing weapons (such as muskets and pistols) before you can hope to kill the person wearing it; each weapon also has a stun rating that builds up on enemies until they’re eventually staggered or knocked down. This might have introduced some actual tactical thinking into the combat, except for the fact that the two-handed swords quite handily combine hefty amounts of raw damage with considerable armour and stun damage. Swinging them is slow as molasses, of course, but dodging behind an enemy will give you plenty of time to wind up the swing, and so a two-handed sword excels in pretty much every category with zero downsides. It can even cleave through multiple enemies, bowling them over like ninepins and leaving them helpless for follow-up attacks.
Combat thus ends up being a bit one-note despite the vast number of weapons available and the wide degree of customisation options attached to both weapons and armour. That’s not to say that it isn’t fun; the two-handed swords may be overpowered but they are also incredibly satisfying to hit things with, with a real sense of weight and heft to every blow. You can also buy supplemental abilities to spice the combat up a little; I went heavy into the Traps tree and ended up vomiting grenades absolutely everywhere, as well as having a special Bomb ability that functioned as a sort of alchemical nuke. This was just as well because the companions are utterly useless in a fight and are basically just there to distract enemies for a bit, and so you’ll have to do everything yourself, but even so it’s exceedingly rare for any endgame fight to last much more than 10 seconds unless you’re fighting one of Greedfall’s boss monsters
The boss monsters are Greedfall’s dragon substitute: they’re very big, very tough and very reminiscent of Dark Souls in how they leave small windows in between their attack patterns and punish you mercilessly if you miss them. There’s several different types of boss and each is only used a couple of times, which at least keeps them interesting, and most of them are just chilling in their lairs nowhere near the critical path and can be bypassed completely if you want. You won’t, though, because beating the snot out of a boss usually causes them to cough up a key that opens a chest with one or more pieces of legendary equipment in it. It’s during these bossfights that the first serious cracks in Greedfall’s combat start to show, however, as any companions you bring with you will die about 0.02 seconds after you engage the boss and you’re left to deal with them on your own, and even after you strip off the armour you’re still single-handedly wearing down a very large sack of health points that has absolutely no problem spamming a leap attack that takes off more than half your health and which has an infinitesimally small dodge window, and because swigging a health potion takes a couple of seconds and slows you down to a jog you often get hit by a second leap attack that kills you outright. Even though they fit into the overall structure of the game quite nicely I can’t say I found these boss monsters enjoyable to fight at all; it’s one of the areas where Greedfall’s rough edges are immediately apparent in the unpolished boss behaviour, and where the relative restraint in the total number of bosses present throughout the game is the only thing keeping them from becoming a repetitive chore.
Unfortunately that’s a level of restraint that Greedfall all too rarely displays. The more you play Greedfall, and the further into it you get, the more you notice content that has simply been copy-pasted from one area to the next. A very basic example is building layouts, as Greedfall has a grand total of four building interiors:
- The governor’s palace. Each of the three major cities has one, and it is an almost exact copy in each three. The only thing that’s different is the wallpaper.
- The Coin Guard “barracks”, a curious building that also incorporates a tavern, brothel and fighting arena, possibly because this is the only general purpose building interior large enough to accommodate them. Again, each city has one, and it’s an exact copy in each.
- The generic house interior. Reused a lot, but less annoying than the previous two examples because, well, it’s a house. They tend to be built to plan.
- The native leader’s hut. Probably the worst offender of them all, since there are something like six native villages on the island and the leader’s hut in every single one is — you guessed it — an exact copy.
Now, if that were all it was — some overused environment layouts — I might be inclined to give Greedfall a pass while joking that they’d taken the Bioware inspiration a bit too far by aping Dragon Age 2 and Mass Effect: Andromeda. That’s just the tip of the iceberg, though; after those first few hours Greedfall stops making quite so much of an effort to disguise the fact that the entire game is like this. Those Tir Fradee landscapes that seemed so green and pleasant the first time you stepped into one? They’ll seem considerably less so when you get to the twentieth one and it looks almost exactly the same as the first. The environments are crammed with monsters to fight — the quests might not involve much fighting but getting from point A to point B sure does — but there’s all of five types of monster in the game and you’ve seen all of them by hour four. By hour twenty you’re just sick to death of fighting them; Greedfall might have an okay combat system, but it can’t stand up to the repetition of having to slaughter a pack of five normal bears and one big bear over and over again. The limited stock of preset NPC faces are re-used to the point of absurdity, and since minor NPCs are all voiced by one person doing a variety of funny accents it rather gives the impression that this cast of the same 5-6 actors is following you around while hurriedly changing clothes and sticking on a new set of facial hair every time you go through a loading screen. Even the companions aren’t immune; each of them has precisely one line of combat dialogue which they will repeat like clockwork every five seconds until the combat is finished.
NPC behaviour is similarly dire. I think there’s a grand total of one idle animation in the entire game; it’s the drunk-swaying-while-holding-a-bottle one. Otherwise NPCs are either nailed to the floor in one place — I walked through a kitchen where the four chefs were just stood next to bubbling pots with their arms at their sides staring blankly into space — or move on apparently random paths throughout the streets and buildings. This isn’t so bad for the basic street NPCs, but it becomes positively infuriating during the stealth sections because the same behaviour is used for enemy patrol paths. Not only is it incredibly annoying when the random pathing results in guard vision cones that are totally impassable (thank god I had so many invisibility potions) but it doesn’t make any sense for a guard to suddenly walk off at a 45 degree angle from the corridor he’s guarding so that he can stare at a wall for a couple of minutes. Greedfall doesn’t even bother trying to build the fiction that its NPCs are people instead of barely-programmed robots, and that did a lot to break Greedfall’s spell; for all of the work it had done on the companions and the quests, it didn’t seem particularly interested in convincing me that this was a properly living world and not just a functional set of conversation nodes stuck in a series of identikit locations.
Then there’s the character dialogue. The actual voice acting for the major characters is probably the one single element about Greedfall that retains its quality the longest, but the supporting stuff around it collapses into a janky singularity far earlier than the voice acting does. Whoever was responsible for the translating and proofreading on the subtitles and UI options — which, let us remember, did not start all that well with a distressingly high incidence of misspellings and typos — clearly just gives up about halfway through the game, as every single subtitle after this point has at least one spelling error in it, and more often several. Greedfall often forgot that my character was a woman, with both the subtitles and the spoken dialogue misgendering her with a frequency that seemed to exponentially increase the closer I got to the end of the game. Finally, while the voice actors are making an absolutely heroic effort with the nonsense script that’s been put in front of them (I was impressed at how consistently the native language was pronounced) there are points towards the end where they’ve clearly been given no direction or context as to the things they’re saying and the lines end up being either spoken in a robot monotone or given a completely inappropriate inflection for the situation they’re currently in.
Worst of all, I think, is that there was a significant chunk of the back half of the game which was simply missing. I’m not talking about stuff that was cut for time or lack of resources — if that had happened, then Greedfall might have ended up being a much better game. I’m talking about things that are clearly supposed to happen in cutscenes, but those cutscenes don’t exist for whatever reason and so Greedfall just skips to the next gameplay segment while your character talks about what happened in the cutscene that you didn’t see. The most egregious example is a cryptic vision your character is supposed to have near a mystical stone circle; they have one earlier on in the game which does get its own cutscene so you know what they’re supposed to look like, but the second one fades to black and then immediately fades back into the game while your character says “Wow, that vision sure was weird!” Then they get to pacify a nearby boss monster by solving a puzzle, after which they’re supposed to go up and Tame it by pressing A. I duly went up to it and pressed A, only for it to suddenly pop out of existence like it was never there. Again, there was supposed to be a cutscene of me taming the monster there, but that cutscene doesn’t exist and so all I got was this janky half-finished bullshit.
The further into the game you get, the less interested Greedfall is in pretending it’s a proper Bioware successor, and the more its true eurojank nature shows through. Partly this is because it’s been rushed out of the door to meet a deadline and so has the usual lack of polish that’s all too common for high-profile releases these days, but mostly it is, I think, because Spiders simply don’t have the resources to make the kind of game they want to make. They clearly want to make a Bioware-style RPG, and they even have some fairly good ideas on how to make that happen, but they’re let down time and again by their ability to execute on those ideas for a sustained period of time. The portions of the game where they’ve focused the bulk of their effort — the first ten hours, say, which is where all of their trailer content and probably all of their streaming coverage comes from — aren’t too bad. They’re not too good, either, but I was having fun with the game and so I could make allowances for all of the odd tics and ugly blemishes. If Spiders had made a 10-hour RPG I think I’d be quite positive about Greedfall; unfortunately Bioware don’t make 10-hour RPGs and so Spiders haven’t either. They’ve made a 25-hour RPG with 10 hours of actually decent content and an additional 15 hours of spreading themselves way too thin; to keep a game interesting for that long you need to have far more money to spend on art and animation and polish than Spiders have on hand.
And so whatever positive impression Greedfall initially makes is gradually worn away by its increasingly shoddy presentation, to the point where I was actually quite relieved when I finished it because that meant I wouldn’t have to look at it any more. I think it might actually be worse than a straight eurojank game, such as Elex. Elex was so stodgy I couldn’t get more than a few hours into it, but at least it was honest about it; I knew it would be stodgy going in, and so I could hardly complain when it delivered in spades. By contrast Greedfall actively lies to you; it spends a lot of time and effort pretending to be something it’s not, and then when it has your attention and your hopes it drops the act and cruelly dashes them upon the rocks of development reality. The expectation shortfall is significantly greater than it might have been if they’d just played it straight, and the bad taste it left in my mouth after finishing it was commensurately worse. Greedfall does a lot that is promising and Spiders are not without talent; I suspect that if you gave them Bioware resources and Bioware time they’d surprise us all. However, that’s precisely what they don’t have right now, and they should have picked a design spec that played to their strengths as a developer instead of going full tilt for that Bioware-shaped gap in the market and falling considerably short. As a eurojank game Greedfall is okay, and maybe worth picking up on sale if you like the sound of what it’s doing and are fully aware of what it really is. Unfortunately Greedfall thinks its a full-fat AAA RPG Experience and has the £45 price tag to match, and by those standards it makes even Bioware’s recent efforts look positively resplendent3.
- Have you been watching The Expanse? If you haven’t you should really go and fix that, but if you have you’ll have a good touchstone for what the native accents sound like: imagine the Belter creole, but done really, really shittily. ↩
- Where everyone thought it was making a point about the casually-inhuman detachment of remote-control war, but it turned out years later that the developers just put it into the game because they thought it was really cool. ↩
- Except Andromeda. Fuck that game. ↩