The Heart of Ambition
GreedFall, the latest from French developer Spiders, is the type of game you can’t help but root for. Known for creating unique RPG games for a small budget, their reputation as an almost BioWare-esque studio has grown large enough to cement a loyal fanbase. Yet, for all of this, Spiders still struggles to break through the glass ceiling with a massive hit. Ultimately, their games, either restrained by budget or by ambition, tend to fall short of the goals they set for themselves.
It is not hard to be somewhat trepidatious considering Spiders reputation. A mid-budget RPG that hopes to emulate one of the most successful companies in the field is an easy sell, but rarely are they anywhere close to the quality of other companies. Yet, something is different with GreedFall, for unlike the monotonous slog of The Technomancer, or the broken mechanics of Bound by Flame, GreedFall seems to have overcome some of Spiders own deficiencies. While it doesn’t quite break that glass ceiling, it is certainly making a few cracks this time around.
Choices Without Much Consequence
GreedFall stars the character of De Sardet, a nobleman whose cousin, Constantin, is assigned Governor to the recently colonized island of Teer Fradee. As De Sardet, your job is playing diplomat against the numerous factions inhabiting Teer Fradee. This includes multiple nations of colonists as well as the island's own natives. All the while, you're searching for a cure to a mysterious disease known only as the Melichor.
You spend much of GreedFall as a diplomat, with Spiders once again giving the player a plethora of options to role-play conversations. Will you use charisma to convince characters to follow your lead, or will you rely on party members of a given faction to speak on your behalf? An adherence to optional design strengthens the overall narrative. At least on the surface, choices made in-game have definite consequences attached to them.
The weakness of this how consequences matter in the grand scheme of things. By my measure, 90% of the quest design works around player choice rather than integrating it. There are only a few instances where your choices affect the narrative in a significant way. The rest just boils down to choosing which character or plot revelation to pursue. The number of quests is quite small but each one chains together and usually ties into one of the five different factions. This allows for mini-stories to develop as you keep progressing.
Some side quests have more unique elements than the main plot. Finding evidence of a lost saint for a religious Theocracy or uncovering a grand conspiracy within a mercenary guild really play to the strengths of GreedFall; choices and consequences mixed with some intrigue. On the flip side, the main questline comes across as a jumbled, confusing mess. It tries to throw in multiple twists and turns but ultimately comes across as a rushed, disjointed plot with no payoff whatsoever.
The search for the aforementioned Melichor cure, for example, ends abruptly a few hours before GreedFall's climax. Its ultimate payoff came across as preachy and somewhat condescending in tone as well, making one of the major plot points fall incredibly flat. This is a fifteen-hour game stretched over thirty hours and really overstays its welcome by trying to ramp up the drama with false endings and unique twists.
The distinct lack of characterization in GreedFall certainly doesn't help the narrative. Most of the NPC and companions live comfortably within their own personal stereotypes. The worst offenders are perhaps the natives themselves. In concept, the druidic lore of the island natives seems unique. In execution, almost every single native character we meet, right down to the companion Siora, is just a ‘noble savage’ stereotype writ large and almost unabashed in comparison to the other groups. Any message of tolerance feels incredibly hollow thanks in part to the character writing, especially with the native faction.
Considering that the main theme of GreedFall is, well, greed, maybe that's the point. The story is full of self-absorbed characters constantly seeking their own desires. Be it ambition or belief, the comeuppance many receive for their hubris often comes at the end of long quest lines. Sometimes it gets in the way of making good role-playing decisions though. Early on, a cutscene showcases one overzealous inquisitor killing a native for not renouncing their gods. He is clearly a transparent villain, but you never get a final showdown with him. Instead, you forcibly gain his help on a side mission. It is that kind of wishy-washy use of characters, the path that refuses to take a side, that hurts GreedFall’s narrative and pacing.
Playing to Their Strengths
One area that Spiders has improved on is their mechanics. Many aspects of GreedFall feel like updated mechanics from The Technomancer. This includes both the crafting and third-person combat. All of this is standard Spiders fare, but for GreedFall the controls are much tighter than previous titles. GreedFall's combat is much more flexible, and the number of options available, while not super robust, offer different playstyles for the player to explore.
There is also something charming about the simplicity of the system. You have three parts to it, skills, attributes, and talents, but talents and attributes are scattered. Attributes include your agility, strength, and accuracy to name a few. This allows you to equip heavier armor or use high-level weapons, regenerate mana and health, and even affect the damage of your weapon of choice. Talents are the more role-playing options; having points in science, for example, allows you to craft potions and traps, among other things. A high vigor, however, allows you to access hidden or difficult terrain in the open world.
The system is simple but effective and really helps to flesh out De Sardet. Talents are also see heavy use outside of combat, giving players even more options to solve questlines that help align with their own character builds. It's just one more way Greedfall offers unique role-playing choices throughout its campaign. It may be minor things, such as examining bodies with science or using crafting to fix broken machines, but I appreciate how these options give the world some dynamism.
A Flawed World
Spiders once again gives us a unique world to play in as well. The island of Teer Fradee is mostly zones of bogs and wilderness, with occasional encampments and native villages sprinkled in. Sometimes, the game looks gorgeous from a distance, with a warm sheen of light and fog shining through the treelines of the world. Other times, the constant recycling of assets takes you out of the experience. Some of the biggest offenders include the copy-pasted interiors and NPC faces, along with reskinned enemies who constantly respawn in small, motionless packs.
In many ways, GreedFall resembles the look and feel of a mid-2000’s BioWare game, right down to the stiff camera angles used for conversations. This is not necessarily a bad thing; for the most part Spiders is able to overcome the static camera with decent voice acting to compensate. Though it is kind of jarring to see the same deficiencies as BioWare in a much jankier state. Poor facial animations plague the cutscenes heavily, and often dialogue becomes overly verbose to the point of padding the game's runtime.
The padding also extends to questlines, which become annoying long and plodding at points. One questline, which involved fetching contracts made by the natives and the colonists, had me visit the same four locations three times in a row to figure out a diplomatic, legal way to resolve a dispute, only to have this quest lead into a brand new quest arc that had nothing to do with the previous legal decision. Pacing, frankly, is all over the place here, a massive deficiency in GreedFall's quest design.
GreedFall Review | A Passionate Heart Goes a Long Way
I know it seems I’m being harsh on GreedFall, but at the end of the day, for all its faults, I cannot deny the heart and soul that Spiders poured into their work. The studio really tried this time around to deliver something that can match their ambitions, and in that regard, GreedFall takes a ton of risks that few studios would do with double the budget at their disposal. Spiders is able to make it work despite the obvious cut corners, simply because the risks that do pay off elevate GreedFall to be better than the sum of its parts.
Fans often compare Spiders to BioWare, mainly because Spiders tends to emulate their style of RPG. When you compare Greedfall to BioWare’s catalog, it really is uncanny how closely it fits the old-school style of the Canadian studio from the mid-2000s. GreedFall is easily Spiders best game, but it pretty much on par with the weakest titles made by developers like BioWare. Mass Effect: Andromeda for all of its numerous faults, is a better title than GreedFall mechanically, narratively, even graphically. Yet, GreedFall has the heart that Andromeda severely lacked. Even if it stumbles hard at times, it's willing to fail on its own merits. In that way, GreedFall is a better game than Andromeda, and perhaps one of the reasons why Spiders has such a cult following to this day.
GreedFall has problems across the board. It fails to create a cohesive or interesting main plot, struggles visually, and relies heavily on stereotypes and poor narrative cheats at times that hamper any choices and consequences that do work. Yet, it is a game that is uniquely charming in all its faults, has refined its mechanics, and has found a way to be appealing through the passion that is clearly poured into the screen. It is not an instant classic, but GreedFall will be a cult favorite among RPG fanatics, and really shows the growth of Spiders as they continue to inch closer to prominence in the big-budget RPG market.
- Unique World...
- Some Really Strong Narrative Beats...
- Flexible Character Creation and Mechanics...
- Has a Lot of Heart...
- ...Feels Small at Times.
- ...Poor Overarching Plotline.
- ...A lot of Technical Issues.
- ...Relies Too Much on Stereotypes.