Within 15 minutes of starting GreedFall I was given the choice of helping an alchemist escape the city of Serene, or arresting him. He had been unfairly forced out of his position at the University, and had dedicated his life to curing the mystical plague that was sweeping the city. To achieve this he was selling his experimental cures to the unsuspecting population, under the promise that they would cure every ailment (with the exception of the plague). Having cornered him, he assured me that his cure was completely harmless, but nevertheless ineffective against anything else. The man had been treated unfairly and had good intentions, but was conning people out of their money while simultaneously experimenting on them. To make the decision even harder, you are investigating him at the request the Bridge Alliance, a powerful faction you will want to keep on the right side of. It’s these sorts of morally ambiguous decisions that recur throughout the game, and they are part of what makes the game so compelling.
GreedFall is the new action RPG from Spiders. The French developer’s previous releases this generation, Bound by Flame and the Technomancer, received mixed reviews that criticised the combat and dialogue, but praised the worldbuilding. GreedFall itself has been likened to The Witcher 3 and Dragon Age: Inquisition, and while the technical aspects and writing don’t live up to those titles, that’s not to say GreedFall isn’t a strong achievement for a studio of fewer than 25 permanent staff.
Spiders’ trademark has always been their excellent worldbuilding, and GreedFall is no exception. The mix of the fantastical and the Age of Discovery works perfectly, and I enjoyed exploring a world that at first seems like a historical setting, but soon gives way to monsters and magic. The world looks great as well, and the island of Teer Fradee has a diverse collection of environments across its multiple open areas. Every region is well realised, and some of them are quite stunning. The inhabitants of the world are unfortunately not of the same quality. The various beasties are well designed (although lacking in variety), as are the many outfits you can dress your party in, but once characters start to move things go downhill. Facial animations are poor, with the dead-eyed manner in which the characters converse really distracting. Movement is also a little off, particularly when in stealth, where the models squat into a strange-looking crabwalk. There is also some significant reusing of assets, such as all of the faction leaders having mansions laid out in exactly the same way and guards for each faction having pallet swapped versions of the same uniform.
As well as exploring the world, it is the tricky decisions that will keep you playing. You are placed in the role of De Sardet, cousin of the new governor of Teer Fradee and charged with keeping the peace between various factions. As well as your own group, the Congregation of Merchants, you’ll come across the deeply religious Theleme, the scientist Bridge Alliance, the mercenary Coin Guard and the seafaring Nauts. Your actions will win you the approval and disapproval of these factions, as well as the Teer Fradee native population. Keeping everyone happy is an impossible job, particularly when they get up to some unpleasant activities. Often the game will force you to make a decision between what seems like the right thing to do and what would be best for your relationships – other times there isn’t even a “good” option. To make matters worse you have a group of companions drawn from each of the respective groups, and with two accompanying you at all times you risk upsetting them as well.
Another positive is that there are usually options for how to solve quests. There is a basic stealth system which doesn’t always work well, so often it’s simpler to buy or steal a faction’s outfit and not get too close to the guards. Alternatively you can swan in and kill everyone, but this will lower your reputation with the faction in question. Likewise there are options in dialogue. If you’re trying to get an answer from someone you’ll usually have the choice of bribery, persuasion (if your charisma is high enough) or having one of your companions talk to them if they’re of the same faction. In all honesty, raising your charisma is a bit of a cheat mode, since there are very few situations you can’t talk yourself out of.
Fans of RPG mechanics will have a field day, because as well as charisma there are skills, attributes and talents that can be levelled up during the game. Skills can be both passive and active, providing things like damage boosts or spells. Attributes boost your stats further, and also unlock better quality gear. If you want to equip better heavy weapons, you’ll need to invest in strength, or for magic rings you’ll need mental power. Talents are non-combat boosts, such as craftsmanship, lockpicking, and intuition, which open extra dialogue choices and exploration options. Whilst you pick a starting class of warrior, technical or magic, you are not restricted from spending your various upgrade points on an area outside of the traditional roles. You can respec the three boosts with a memory crystal, which are dropped by various bosses. Crafting is also available if you spend points in the right talents, or you can pay a shopkeeper to craft things for you if you want to spend the points elsewhere. At harder difficulty levels you’ll definitely need to optimise your gear and your upgrades, as well as choosing your companions carefully.
Combat is kept relatively simple, particularly if you choose the warrior class, although you’ll find more variety in magic. I initially chose to play as a warrior, but quickly found the limited option of heavy attack, light attack, firearm and dodge becoming repetitive, so invested some points in magic. With spells such as Shadow Missile, Stasis and Shield of the Enlightened, it allows for a bit more customisation in your tactics than repeating attack, dodge ad infinitum. The technical tree likewise adds some more variety, with skills such as grenades and traps. Like Dragon Age, you can pause combat to equip potions or skills, or just for a breather to assess the situation. Unlike Dragon Age, you aren’t able to issue orders to companions, which is a shame.
The low budget does show in some minor design flaws, thankfully none of which are game-breaking. However, little things such as the female version of De Sardet being addressed as a male and multiple typos in the subtitles intrude quite often. On PS4 there was some significant video skipping in the travelling camp (which the game uses as a stalling tactic while it loads your destination). These are, however, all relatively minor problems that don’t hugely impact on the enjoyment of the game. Given the number of much buggier games that AAA studios are releasing, it’s astounding that a studio this size shipped a game with only these minor issues, which can easily be forgiven.
Less forgivable is the writing, both in terms of the story and dialogue. Whilst the world they have built is engrossing, the events and characters that fill it are not so fully realised. There are excellent, well-written sections, but consistency is severely lacking. The main plot driver, finding a cure for the plague, is not particularly compelling and an early effort to give the plague personal relevance for De Sardet doesn’t really land. A major lategame surprise reveal is telegraphed so aggressively from the start that I’m not sure it even counts as surprising. The companions are drawn from each of the major factions, and they seem to have very little personality beyond this. Events that should have had major emotional impact on them are quickly forgotten once their personal quests are over. Romance subplots are available with companions, however these relationships are fairly forced even by video game standards and feel like a late add-on. Other NPCs are often so over the top that they’re basically caricatures. Whilst the main narrative does pick up towards the end, the decisions that are a highlight of the game would have had so much more impact with a little extra emotional investment. There are so many independent games that present compelling narratives and engaging characters (arguably better than many AAA games), so this is something an RPG like GreedFall should have been able to do even on a smaller budget.
There is an additional issue with the narrative though, and the elephant in the room of GreedFall is its portrayal of colonialism, which was discussed at great length prior to release and continues to be now. Others will be able to speak to this much better than I can, so I’ll refrain from talking in detail, however I think there are problems with the game that could have been avoided. Criticisms of it appearing as a white saviour narrative, and it’s portrayal of native populations, are not entirely unfounded. Whilst I think the intention of the developers was to subvert these tropes, they are not entirely successful and have badly misjudged certain parts. To say how would be too spoilery, so I’ll leave it at that. There is an argument that the portrayal of colonialism is consistent with the historical influence (no one has similar complaints about Black Flag for example), but it is the events of the game, rather than the setting, that makes this more problematic. As I said, I think it was formulated with good intentions, and the game does handle some deeper themes well, but large chunks of the execution were not great.
GreedFall is not without flaws, some forgivable and some not so much. Leaving aside the colonialism aspect, it has plenty of technical and narratological issues that could hamper enjoyment. Nevertheless, I did have a lot of fun playing it, and would happily recommend it to others. As I said before, for such a small team to release such a stable a game as this with 40+ hours of content is an astounding achievement. Spiders is a developer that has buckets of potential, and whilst GreedFall is far from perfect, I look forward to what they produce next.
*Code kindly provided by the publisher for review*