Greedfall's Detailed Role-Playing Can't Make Up For Its Unpleasant Setting

I have not enjoyed playing Greedfall, the latest role-playing game by Spiders. That’s not because it is a poor experience in terms of how it plays. Greedfall offers a BioWare-esque adventure with branching quests, companion characters, and exploration. Greedfall frustrates me because it’s a game of half-measures. In the nearly 10 hours that I have played it so far, it fails to pull its disparate threads into a cohesive whole.

Greedfall is set in a fictional universe that appears to be modelled after 18th century Europe and America. There are nobles and sailors, newly founded colonies, and dialogue trees full of characters engaging in courtly intrigue.

You play as De Sardet, the newly appointed diplomat of a merchant’s guild. Alongside your cousin, a jovial but clueless governor, you sail across the sea to the land of Teer Fradee in the hopes of locating the cure to a plague that is ravaging society in the old continent.

When you arrive on Teer Fradee, you learn about a burgeoning conflict between multiple factions⁠: a confederation founded by a progressive researchers and naturalists, a zealous church, and the local native population.

In addition to searching for a cure, your job as a diplomat is to liase with these factions and resolve disputes. Along the way, you’ll have the option for plenty of companion romances, arena battles, boss fights with magical creatures, persuasion checks, and complicated questlines.

In its best moments, Greedfall provides a solid mixture of role-playing elements and combat. Quests offer a variety of solutions based upon the items you have and the skills in which you’ve invested.

High charisma makes it easy to charm your way out of tricky situations, while points in the intuition trait will unlock unique dialog that leads to alternate solutions. With points in the science trait, you can make keen medical deductions or else craft potions that can be used in questlines and on the battlefield.

In an early quest, my master at arms Kurt asked me to doctor the contents of a shipping manifest so that important cargo could be smuggled onto a ship. This meant entering territory belonging to the Nauts, a sailor’s guild whose members join at a young age, Jedi-style. Intruding into their territory would draw their ire and cause me to lose precious reputation points with them.

To avoid conflict, I had numerous options at my disposal. I could simply sneak through their compound if I wanted to. Alternately, I could locate one of their uniforms to explore without worry. I could use my Science skill (if I’d had it) to brew a sleeping potion to knock them out after a round of drinks.

Greedfall delights in offering multiple solutions to quests, be it dialog options or other creative avenues. You are a diplomat first and a fighter second, and there’s plenty of ways to avoid combat even in the hairiest situations. It makes questing a genuinely enjoyable process no matter where you drop your skill points.

Combat is less enjoyable but has a certain degree of clumsy panache. Teer Fradee is packed with magical creatures that will attack you, and there are also plenty of ways to end up on a faction’s wrong side and end up having to face them. Combat is often avoidable, but in the rare moments that you’re forced to take a stand, the fighting works fine, even if your companions repeat the same combat barks over and over and over again.

You can fight with sabres or heavy weapons like larger swords and hammers. You can also use guns or specialise in magic. Fighting usually plays out like other action-RPGs such as The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. You dodge, you attack, you maybe use a magic spell to trap an enemy in stasis. If the fight’s moving too fast for you, you’re able to pause the game and select your next action in an impromptu turn-based manner that makes it easier to plan your next move or micromanage teammates.

If all of this sounds fine, that’s because it is. In isolation, judged only on the questing and combat, Greedfall is a remarkably playable bit of pulp. Whether it’s helping my companion solve the murder of a friend, outsmarting religious inquisitors, or fighting massive beasts, everything works fine. But it’s all done in the service of a setting and a narrative that is confused and often cowardly.

There’s no polite way of saying it. Greedfall is kind of fucked up. Wrapping yourself in the pageantry of the 18th century means recreating the iconography of colonial expansion and native slaughter. It means emulating a time when supposedly great men failed to do what was morally right, opting instead to do what was politically expedient. To merely call this a tension of Greedfall does it a disservice. It’s not just a momentary tension. It’s the entire game.

The visual language at play in this game harkens back to some vile shit. That isn’t to say that no art could use a setting like this, but it needs to be used with an awareness of what this setting actually means. Greedfall doesn’t demonstrate that level of care.

The magical New World is mostly a playground for the player, not a means to examine complex issues. Greedfall wears a costume, perhaps not ignorant to what the costume means, but seemingly unwilling to do anything too powerful with it.

In the time I’ve played Greedfall, it’s clear that while I can alienate factions (sometimes gaining favour with my companions for doings so) there’s a great deal of advantage to placating all parties and maintaining the status quo on Teer Fradee. Don’t rock the boat. Make sure to bow before the racist cardinal even if you want to stab them in the neck.

Dedicate yourself to a milquetoast middle path that keeps a peace but transforms nothing. Greedfall often pays lip service to the hypocrisies of its various factions — by what right does that inquisitor have to call anyone a barbarian, as he gleefully kills any native that fails to convert to his religion? — but in my first 10 hours of playing, I’ve yet to see these moments of awareness coalesce into anything actionable.

You might prevent a tragedy here or there, but as long as there’s a mechanical incentive to acquiesce to formality and political decency, there’s no room for any transformative action.

The fact that Greedfall tosses occasional scorn against colonial powers and dogmatism only makes it more frustrating that this is a game that appears to be about upholding the status quo, not enacting systemic change.

These brief moments feel trite, as if Greedfall is uncomfortable with itself. Can I do anything about these injustices? Can I tear down the system that perpetuates them? For the moment, the answer seems to be no. I would love to be proven wrong.

I ask: what is Greedfall saying? What messages does it want to communicate to me? What themes are on display? I have no answers to these questions and if Greedfall does, it’s not been kind enough to reveal them yet.

“It was never going to do that anyway,” my cynical brain says. But if part of my job is call on games to do better, then I also need to open myself up to the possibility that even fraught games may have the potential to achieve clarity.

I could continue onward and find that after all this lengthy preamble, Greedfall musters the strength to use its setting as more than window dressing. But based on what I’ve played so far, I’m not getting my hopes up.

Some players may not be disturbed by this setting. For those players, what will matter is whether the combat is decent. It mostly is. What may also matter is whether the role-play offers options for solving quests. It does, although you can probably just get by with high charisma. That Greedfall is a decent RPG will be enough, for some. For me, it isn’t.

I see, from time to time, slivers of what Greedfall might be, and I trudge along in what feels like a misguided pipe dream that it will deliver something, anything deeper than what I’ve seen so far. I don’t dislike the raw moment-to-moment experience of Greedfall.

It scratches a particular itch that I’ve been eager to scratch in the absence of Dragon Age. If you’re eager for an RPG of that form, Greedfall will oblige. Regardless of my misgivings, I admit to a horrible curiosity in what might come next. But those misgivings are powerful and can’t be ignored.

Greedfall might manage to capture some of what made BioWare’s adventures great, but it feels aimless. It has, so far, not managed to speak up and say anything worthwhile, even as it offers meagre acknowledgement that something isn’t quite right with its world. That lack of conviction, so far, is a black mark that I cannot get over and which leaves a frustration that overshadows everything else.

Greedfall is out today on PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC.


Comments

    As to your complaint the game "does not have anything to say"...
    1: Does every game really need to have a grandiose moral message that can be summed up in a neat paragraph?
    2: You yourself said the period was a time when "Supposedly great men failed to do what was morally right, opting instead to do what was politically expedient."
    But is that not exactly the place you described finding yourself in as a player? That "it’s clear that while I can alienate factions (sometimes gaining favour with my companions for doings so) there’s a great deal of advantage to placating all parties and maintaining the status quo."
    Perhaps the message is that the moral high road is often the hard one and it is challenging you the player to put your money where your platitudes are and do any different.

    Could be wrong. But I'm kinda interested to see for myself now.

      Yeah, I'm sold. This sounds amazing. I don't sare the author's queasiness about games 'refusing to boldly take a political, moral stance', and it sounds a lot like everything other than that aspect is right up my alley.

        Yeah I'm still waiting for the day some reporters around here take the brave, bold stance to actually not inject their own personal political agenda and/or moral ideals into the 'impression' or 'review' of games they play.

        And before anyone starts with the "But impressions/reviews are subjective!" shit... That's a copout argument. Professional reporters being paid should damn well know better, and be able to identify and curb their bias from drastically colouring articles.

        And any supposed professionals who can't play certain types of games (or any game from Ubisoft as far as Kotaku is concerned) without doing so, simply shouldn't be reviewing them or giving their 'official' impressions to the masses.

          I mean... I don't mind that the author has that view and that it completely ruins the game for them. That's on them. They've probably got an audience who'll feel the same and should probably be warned.

          But it's just not me. I don't share that view. So it sounds fantastic. And from what I've played so far, I'm not disappointed.

          Yeah I'm still waiting for the day some reporters around here take the brave, bold stance to actually not inject their own personal political agenda and/or moral ideals into the 'impression' or 'review' of games they play.

          How exactly is that "brave" or "bold"? Isn't that the simplest path? A mechanical description of factoids and features disconnected from ones' personal enjoyment (or lack thereof) sounds like the lamest, most boring and safest sort of review. Something that a machine could do. Injecting one's beliefs and personality into writing is what connects with readers and you cannot pretend that one person whose thoughts and feelings regarding a thing differ from yours is objectively wrong.

          At this point, I'd say the responsibility falls back on you to exclusively read the writers that you find yourself usually agreeing with while disregarding those who you usually disagree with and make you angry, though I'd rather you keep reading from both and allow yourself to be challenged.

          I'm not saying that you have to agree with their point of view, just understand that different people, informed by different life experiences can have diverse opinions and that's right. It's not as though the author is saying that someone who disagrees with her is a bigot that likes the game because they are colonialist wannabes or anything of the sort; in fact she fully admits the possibility that some people will not be fussed by the same stuff that troubles her and that such people will obtain more enjoyment of the game. If you disagree with her, she literally recommended this game to you, so why resent her opinion?

      Exactly my thoughts reading that too, but couldn't be bothered typing it all out.
      Sounds like a really interesting game.

      Agreed, so sick of Kotaku US shitting on a game because it doesn't have a political or moral message that they wanted it to have. The entire argument seems to be 'It kinda looks like the 17th or 18th century and colonialism was a thing so where's my moralising?!"

      I mean we're drowning in vapid indie titles equally devoid of political commentary (or alternatively, so heavy handed that it's a parody), but there's no apathetic dismissal of them.

        Hold on. It's not shitting on Greedfall because of the themes - it's raising a complaint because you're pitched as this diplomat in the middle of these conflicting ideologies, and you're not given the agency to influence things in any particular direction. That's a weird position for a diplomat.

        The agency issue might change in the end game, but we'll find out what that's like in due course.

          100% disagree - this entire piece reads like a criticism because the game doesn't push a political or moral message, or offers the player the option to push their morals. Games don't have to offer this option, and it isn't a 'weird position' for a diplomat. This can mirror real life - diplomatic efforts failed miserably at the start of WW1 and WW2 for example. Sometimes, perhaps even frequently, diplomats are at the mercy of the states they interact with. And stuff like this:
          The magical New World is mostly a playground for the player, not a means to examine complex issues....suggests that the issue isn't agency as much as it is about lacking an apparent moral condemnation and deconstruction of colonialism. Even the closing lines speak more about 'conviction' and 'speaking up to say something worthwhile'. Player agency seems to be secondary and only as a vehicle for the author to follow through on the missing moral message.

          When most of the criticism of the article is about the missing moral message surrounding colonialism, and any complaints of agency are directly related to that, it's hard for me to agree with you that the complaint is about influencing the plot as opposed to the plot simply not doing what the author wanted. The author is of course entitled to write criticisms of the game for that reason, and I'm glad they can do so, but to me (and others, apparently) the complaints ring hollow. It comes across as overly aggressive by suggesting that games must have a moral or political message to have value. I'd have to see the final review before I pass too much judgement, but if this forms the core of the criticism, I'd say it's somewhat unfair.

            You can't quote half a paragraph ...

            The magical New World is mostly a playground for the player, not a means to examine complex issues. Greedfall wears a costume, perhaps not ignorant to what the costume means, but seemingly unwilling to do anything too powerful with it.

            And regarding the agency not being an issue...

            These brief moments feel trite, as if Greedfall is uncomfortable with itself. Can I do anything about these injustices? Can I tear down the system that perpetuates them? For the moment, the answer seems to be no. I would love to be proven wrong.

            It's a criticism that gets levelled at Ubisoft games a lot, and people are pretty on board with that - if you're going to leverage uncomfortable settings or events, then do something meaningful with them or give the player the means to do something about it.

            Greedfall might do that. We'll see.

              Even in context nothing of what I've said changes - the only reason the author cares about 'agency' is as a chance to push political or moral commentary. 'Do something meaningful' merely translates to 'push this message' in this article - and I don't think games must do this, because sometimes merely bearing witness to uncomfortable things is enough. Sometimes it's up to the player to reflect on it, not for the game to slap you in the face and go "Hey, this is bad, okay?" like a preachy sermon.

              Honestly a story where I can't tear down a system I find abhorrent but instead am forced to work within it seems more interesting than yet another hero/power fantasy where I am the sole agent of chance and revolutionise the world. It's like saying TIE Fighter sucks because you can't turn Rebel and dismantle the Empire - that's not the point of the game.

                Tie Fighter comparison is pretty goddamn on point.

          It's not shitting on Greedfall because of the themes

          Hi Alex (great job mod-ing BTW!), I *think* I understand what you are trying to say in your follow-up responses to soldant.

          But, THE HEADLINE ("Greedfall's Detailed Role-Playing Can't Make Up For Its Unpleasant Setting") as well as the overall tone of this "impression" is much closer to how soldant described it. It was certainly the expectation I had when I clicked on the article (due to the title), and also the impression I walked away with afterwards.

          I won't comment on whether or not the author was right to highlight (and focus on) that aspect of the game, because I honestly don't know.

          But you cannot publish a piece like this and expect the *average* reader to parse through all the nuance AND HEADLINE to conclude that the author's complaint is mainly about Player Agency.

          The article is ultimately a criticism of the "Unpleasant Setting", because the title literally spelled it out in that way. If you folks at Kotaku disagree, please at least revise the title so that it's clearer what the actual point is.

            Titles / headlines aren't supposed to be full summaries of an article, which people consistently forget, but there's always going to be cases where the material or the story is a little more complex than what can be spelled out cleanly in a headline. That's part of the art of headlines, but it's also really tricky (and why people bounce off headlines a lot).

            Anyway, I'm in the same boat as everyone. I was going to pick up BL3, but when I get a moment I'll probably end up grabbing this instead because all of the furore now makes me want to see where it's headed.

              FYI, for the sake of setting expectations... it's very much a AA Focus game punching above its weight. Not as pretty as the trailers, not as polished in UI or facial animations as you'd hope, but there's some good, crunchy RPG mechanics under the awkwardness.

              The PC Gamer review is probably the best that matches my experiences in the few hours I got to spend with it last night.

          It's a game inspired by a bloody and brutal time period in which progessive values did not exist. I would expect any choices in the game to follow what decisions may have been made then.

            I wouldn't say that progressive values didn't exist, rather, that they were not mainstream. Take for example slavery: do you think nobody ever felt bad about the plight of slaves before the abolition and civil war? I'm sure many did, but their voices were few and small and cowed by the strong voices supporting it. You could totally make a game from the point of view of someone who has an embattled conscience about what's going on and I'd argue, it'd be much more interesting than simply getting into the shoes of the archetype and doing the bad things that most did just because it's "historically accurate" or something like that.

      Does every game really need to have a grandiose moral message that can be summed up in a neat paragraph?

      A game like this that is based around diplomacy and talking, just as much as action, yes, just like Witcher had something to say. In an indirect way. Its not making a political statement, or choosing sides but Witcher 3 said A LOT about human nature. Everything i saw about this game leading up made me think it was going to have something to say.

      I see where see is coming from and while I may not agree totally, after only a day or two in two in, most things feel toothless.

      1: This is reductive enough to almost be a strawman argument. This is a decently long article so clearly she's not hoping for some cheapo feel-good one-sentence paragraph, nor it has to be "grandiose", just, you know, well-thought. Now, if what you want to argue, without unnecessary hyperbole is that not every game needs a message /at all/, well that's debatable but there's a discussion there to be had. My personal point of view is that we owe each other to better ourselves, to prop ourselves higher for our sakes and the future generations' sake. I can see how some stuff is ok being "mindless" fun, but when you create a game that contains a narrative, I believe that a "message" is simply inevitable and you are responsible for ensuring that said message is constructive.

      2: I'm sure that she's not arguing that she personally can't take the high road; obviously, the fact that she can write all of this about it means that she's someone who will put more thought into it than that. However, she can realize that people who put less thought or into it, or want to optimise gameplay, be faster, etc will be incentivised to accidentally (or not, I guess) create a bad narrative that will become internalised.

    I'm reading it and going waiting for "Oh the combat is buggy or the framerate dips"

    But I'm reading a unique story, where talking is better than fighting as you're diplomat...This sounds awesome!

    I used to play RPGs as a smooth talker and I love the setting...

    This article just sold me on it.

    That's a real shame. There's potential there. And I want it. I'll stick to dice on my table for my RPGs until game developers want to try to challenge the status quo.

      Keep in mind the author only played it for 10 hours and for an RPG that's nothing. The complaints revolve around not pulling together its themes and allowing agency but maybe it does in the later game. Who knows? Certainly not this author.

        True, but what she says here pretty much echoes most the reviewers I have watched today.

        10 hours, man? That's not a short amount of time. If it took 10 hours for a TV show to get good would I keep watching or choose something else?

          Well the complaints aren't that the game isn't good, they are about the politics and murky morals and them having no payoff which it may likely have towards the end. Maybe not but it's a weird thing to complain about only 10 hours into an RPG. Most RPGs usually boast at least 20 hours of gameplay and the average is probably closer to 50.

      I think 11 downvotes may be a personal record. Thanks guys, but was this the comment that deserved it? Seriously?

    If I wanted preachy edutainment I would watch christian movies. The way the game is described in this article as a morally grey rpg with conflict in your choices between what's right and what's personally beneficial does sound pretty cool.

    Is it fair to review games based on what you think it should have done, rather than what it appears to have tried to do? Is this considered a particular type of review style?

      It's not a review, it's an impressions piece. It's very clear about being the impressions in the first ten hours, and that Heather's still playing through the game (and we'll hear more about that when she finishes).

        It's really hard to see the distinction. I thought it was the official Kotaku review and it wasn't until I read your comment that I realised it wasn't.

      She clearly isn't reviewing the game. Its obviously an impressions piece. Anyone who has played an RPG knows that they are long haul things, and she is clearly talking about the things getting in her way of enjoying it for the long haul. Her only mistake was overestimating some of her reader's ability to tell the difference.

        Oh blow it out your arse. You’ve always sat on some make believe high horse but his comment was straight up ridiculous.

    Really sick of moral and political messages. Played a few hours and the game is great.

    I wasn't really interested in buying the game.

    Thanks to this article now i do. The game looks awesome.

      Admittedly she did sell the game on the interesting stuff while actively trying to not sell it due to it's not being set in 2019.

        It's like someone saying you shouldn't drink coke because it tastes amazing.

          More like saying coke tastes amazing but it's really not very good for you, it is possible to see the good and bad in something.

          I can see where's she's coming from, even though I don't really agree with her or the idea that every game has to be a moral commentary.

      I was on the fence but after this article I'm downloading it right now.

    The game sounds great. I like the idea of transplanting the morally ambiguous setting of 18th century Europe to a fantasy background.

    Not sure I am sold on the idea of it needing to have a moralistic message about the pitfalls and horrors of colonialism etc. The people of the time are not looking at it with the 21st century lens of hindsight, they are just trying to do best by themselves and their own people.

    It kind of tires me to read the preachy stuff. I am not ignorant by any means, I am well educated in the history of the parallel period of our own world. I guess I am just looking to play games for some escapism and fun, not to be taught "lessons".

      The thing, though, is that you want it or not, a narrative inherently has "lessons". If you are well educated or at least consider carefully things you can read between lines, you can separate reality from fiction and you can draw positive conclusions even from morally-grey stuff. But what about those who don't (which, arguably, may make the bigger percentage of gamers playing this game)? They'll rush through the campaign, enjoy the game, move into the next and sometime later all that will remain is the feeling of "fun" which may subconsciously become attached to irresponsible ideas such as "colonialism is great", etc.

      You don't need to be "preachy" to have a positive take on a negative setting such as this one. You just need to provide tools to the player to not take things at face value.

    I do wonder if this game can make Spiders the next CDProjekt Red or at least put them on the same path. It seems like they both started roughly the same time, one would think they'll get close.

    Last edited 10/09/19 9:15 pm

    A game inspired by a bloody and brutal history has choices and dialogue structured around a bloody and brutal theme in which you can't be a progressive. imagine my shock. you'd end up dead quickly if you could express those views in these periods. or be carted to their phyche ward equivalent.

      It is a fantasy tale, you know what makes some fantasy great, taking some historical time frames and creating this wealth of creativity around but then having the themes to explore such issues beyond the time frame.

      Also we as a society wouldn't have evolve with out such people in history butting heads with 'the normal'. Take slavery it was only ended because such people stood up in a time that have saw them dead or at least ruined. History is full of such examples.

        sure but, it took all of human history to reach now didn't it. you can have reformers. people that want to change the world but, the world didn't change quickly did it?

          No, it did not. Paradigm shifts when there was a critical mass of counter-cultural feeling widely spread across the masses. This means that every little thing that contributes to change people's mind is an agent of change. Saying "it's ok not to try because it's not as though this little thing by itself will change the world" is both defeatist and inaccurate.

    TL;DR: is good. worth money. 100% recommend. do the buy.

    I played it for about 6 hours last night and the game is very engaging. Your role as a legate or representative feels like trying to choose what is right, and what is right by your laws or position. If there are implications for making a bad decision it is not obvious yet, as your reputation with groups goes up and down in small increments.

    The unpleasant setting gives me Dishonored vibes to start with, and the conversations and skills feel more like the Technomancer than Dragon Age or Mass effect. What makes it so fun for me is the different ways to solve a problem (with different risks involved), and the conversations don't feel like as much of a commitment.

    The combat is jarring at first because when you dodge or block/parry I almost expected to do a flourishing roll or a fanciful twirl to get out of combat range but all you really do is side step, duck, or jump a few feet back - and it feels GOOD. You need to be careful about where you place yourself, and if you're a caster then you need to make sure you're aware of your surroundings. This makes the choices of solving things with stealth, conversation, or combat even more impactful.

    Killing people of a faction reduces your reputation with them, being caught sneaking in out of bounds areas means they will attack you, saying the wrong thing in a conversation can reduce your rep as well.. I seems like all the small things that are happening are going to big differences later.

    I feel like in a position of privilege and authority your character isn't held as accountable for his actions in the moment, but the natural decline of relations with factions because of your choices will impact it later.

    I mean it's called "Greedfall" not "Be nice to the natives and single-handedly re-write an alternate history to conform to a modern social agenda fall"

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