Looking back on our adventure through the fantasy world of Umbra, we can't help but be reminded of a quote from John Carmack, co-founder of id Software. Speaking about DOOM, Carmack said: "Story in a game is like a story in a porn movie. It's expected to be there, but it's not that important." While we don't necessarily agree in every case, some games may be better off side-lining their narratives altogether. Earthlock: Festival of Magic is one of them, but, thankfully, the game's shortcomings are more than made up for by some seriously compulsive core gameplay.

You play as Amon and, with a revolving cast of companions in tow, it's up to you to save the world from the nasties of the Suvian Empire. Umbra is also a world ravaged by environmental decay, where the population is left to shelter themselves in its limited habitable parts. Let us confess, much of the nitty gritty of the narrative needed researching after the credits had rolled: the story is paper thin and left us skipping cutscenes by the end. Poor writing doesn't help with the lack of effective character development either, as each companion is only distinctive in gameplay terms.

Yet, like our ol' buddy Carmack diplomatically said, this doesn't always matter. All the story missteps will be forgotten once you get into the meat of Earthlock's turn-based scraps. Heavily inspired by the likes of Fire Emblem and Pokémon, the core gameplay in Snowcastle Games' role player is deep and rewarding enough to sustain itself through its ten-hour campaign.

Things start slow as you're introduced to the battle system; one character becomes two and up to four as you get to grips with their various skills and weaknesses. Each character has two "stances" that govern which moves they can perform. Do you take a risk and leave your support character in an offensive stance without healing capabilities? Each character requires as much careful thought prior to a battle as it does during the skirmish itself. Naturally, then, it's vital that you become familiar with each character closely: Earthlock never allows you to relax into a comfortable rhythm.

Environments are formulaic in their design and structure, but their enemy types and ensuing battles are anything but. The traditional sand-swept temples, dank caves, and boggy swamps are not without charm in their painterly art style, but each locale hosts a similar blend of activities: introduce yourself to the distinct enemy types, struggle through a simple, laborious puzzle, and try your luck against a boss. Then you rinse and repeat, with your destinations linked by a wider world you must travel through Ni No Kuni style.

But, it's the tricksy denizens of each location that will undoubtedly leave you thinking on your feet. Initially, some encounters will feel like punishing difficulty spikes, but – as your gallant heroes repeat verbatim – if your strategy isn't working, try something else. Often you'll feel like you're out of options, which enhances the thrill when you work it out. This is where we resist making the comparison with that game in the "tough but fair" stakes. For another layer of complexity, each of your playable characters develop passive perks when paired together that can also turn the tide of a battle that risks going sour.

For the most part, the combat system is fair and, in such moments, it reveals remarkable nuance. For example, if you take the time to keep up with your bestiary, you'll know the primary weakness of the shuffling zombie: healing. In an inventive twist, your healing powers, if cast on your undead foe, will be most effective at dwindling their HP.

That said, frustratingly grindy latter-game sections risk undermining the careful balance struck elsewhere. Overall, anything that diverts you from the core gameplay will stick out. Multiple crafting and Pokémon-style collecting mechanics feature, and some characters interact with their environment differently in puzzle sections. All are noticeably half-baked and time might've been better spent ironing out some core gameplay headaches.

Conclusion

Earthlock: Festival of Magic is a surprisingly hardcore RPG that belies its child-friendly surface. Teeth-gnashing boss battles can almost always be overcome with careful consideration and patience, and, when you find the solution, you'll wonder why you were even annoyed in the first place. The story is guff with a set of bland characters that do little more than move you from place to place, but you could do worse.