Taking notes from roleplaying greats, GreedFall makes up for its faults with a lot of spirit.
Right from the off, through something as simple as fulfilling some last-minute preparations for your big sea voyage to The New World, Greedfall shows you the lengths to which you have to go to fulfil a quest. Everyone wants to set off, but the governor still hasn't shown. You start asking around for hints on the missing nobleman and visit the places where he was last seen. In a tavern, you first have to either settle his tab or repair the furniture he broke in a drunken stupor before you get the next hint.
Having acquired information on a kidnapper, you need to pass the time until he will appear at the tavern next, from where you sneakily follow him to his lair. There you can poison the guards at the door with sleeping potions, sneak past them or attempt to kill them. Several hours pass this way. GreedFall may look like an adventure filled with dashing explorers wearing capes, but at its heart, it's a detective game - and a very, very good one at that.
Your character De Sardet - it's up to you whether they're male or female - is part of the Congregation of Merchants, one of three factions colonising the island of Teer Fradee. Together with the religious zealots of Theleme and the scientific-minded Bridge Alliance, the Congregation travelled to Teer Fradee to find a cure for a mysterious plague-like illness called the Malichor. As a legate, De Sardet does a lot of, shall we say, legwork for their cousin Constantin. As Constantin is the new Congregation governor on the island to establish diplomatic relationships, there's a lot of jogging from one end of the island to the other.
GreedFall's world is composed of several locations with their own maps. None have the scale of Novigrad or the Hinterlands, though that's a plus - instead of aimlessly wandering in the hope of finding something of interest, here you will gradually uncover each map, discovering new locations as questlines guide you there. There are woodlands, marshes and caverns, all with ample branching paths that make them a joy to explore.
Combat takes some cues from The Witcher, having you duck and dive against your foe. You can choose between standard starting classes, but you earn enough skill points to give every category a go. GreedFall is less generous with the points you use for classic roleplaying attributes. Skills like endurance and agility determine what kind of equipment you can carry, and your proficiency in properties like charisma let you solve quests in a variety of ways. Unfortunately, GreedFall is also stacked with bugs. It's received a large patch since I started playing, but there's still a bit of everything: vanishing textures, lighting and colour bugs, AI glitches, bugs in the inventory, animation bugs, typos in the subtitles, loading lags, sound issues.
All of which is to tell you that GreedFall is very much a typical open-world RPG. If you have ever played one, you'll be familiar with all of this. Yet GreedFall, for its faults, improves upon most of the big-name games it wants to be compared to in a couple of choice ways. The quests are one. No task is ever complete in one journey, and fetch quests, while present, are always part of a bigger whole. While it can be exhausting to travel around to solve something as scintillating as a property dispute, no quest is quite like another - and that's an astounding feat.
I also highly encourage investing in a diverse skillset so that you can make use of a range of options for every situation, from diplomacy to acquiring hard facts to simply scrapping your way out. When you commit to a quest, you better follow it, because if you dawdle, the person in need of rescue may die, the culprit get away, or the conflict escalate. I usually don't like being told how to play my game, especially when a quest asks me to wait until nightfall and there's little to do to pass the time - especially annoying towards the endgame when you've filled most other quests. But the commitment to consequences shows a lot of love for good quest design.
On top of this, GreedFall has great crafting and inventory management. Since money is tight and wolves in the forest don't have coins falling out of their pelt pockets, you will need the skills to craft armour enhancements and potions. Loot drops are generous, but through crafting you can enhance your inventory in ways that are otherwise rare to achieve.
It's fun. It quickly sucks you in. And yet! My main criticism against GreedFall is character writing. Rather than having a personality, characters fulfil a function. Your party members are a representation of their factions, rather than actual people. They will chime in on quests, so if you are going to visit certain factions, you'll know whom to take and not to take, and each have personal quests and romance options, but it's all mostly bloodless. The voice actors are acting their hearts out, especially Jamie Blackley as male De Sardet and Ben Lloyd-Hugues as Constantin, the writing captures the atmosphere of each situation well, but something's always... missing. There's not enough background, not enough opportunities to speak to companions outside of quests, just a general spark missing that might elevate characters to something more than just their job description.
I also have to talk about the colonisation-shaped elephant in the room. When asked about it, developer Spiders was quick to point out the theme chosen for its visual aesthetic, but the narrative writers did put a little more effort into the theme than that after all. You mainly negotiate peace between Teer Fradee's native population and the settlers, and the more quests you complete, the better you get to know the different native clans and the dealings they've had with the newcomers.
GreedFall does little to escape the problem central to its storyline - that you are part of a nation that just started settling on an island without permission, auspiciously under the cover of looking for a cure. While it strongly encourages kindness towards the natives, that's not just out of moral concern. You need something from them, and in order to get it, you have to gain their trust first.
There's nothing to explain why several factions thought to build large-scale settlements over 15 years or why they started trying to convert the natives to their faith. You only step in when these actions go too far, because the story can't acknowledge the real problem, which is that it isn't on the natives to seek compromise in the first place. Siora, the native princess in your party, regularly tells her people that "there is so much to learn from these people", but she's met with the argument I can only echo while playing GreedFall: what you learn is that colonisers use their technical advantage to simply take what they want, an entirely one-sided definition of profit. As the hero, De Sardet has a crucial role to play, and some of GreedFall's endings are so clichéd in legitimising them as the chosen one that my only spoiler-free comment is heaving a gusty sigh. Suffice to say that simply leaving is not an option.
GreedFall has more than its fair share of faults, and its curious mix of the sweet and the sour is far from a roleplaying revelation. But the elements that matter have been imbued with such love and care - so much so that I quickly forgave this ambitious RPG its shortcomings.
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