Reviewed: December 20, 2006
Released: November 14, 2006
Eragon is still another addition to the ever-growing ranks of games based on hit movies (although I seem to recall this was a rather tepid hit at the box office). We’ve seen a LOT of these recently: “Scarface”, “The Godfather”, “King Kong”, “Batman Begins” and “X3: The Last Stand” among others. More than just playable versions of the movie, these titles always promise to take you “beyond the film” where you can see and do things that might have occurred “off screen”, performing deeds that never made it to celluloid.
Occasionally this formula works very well – the “Lord of the Rings” action games and “Enter the Matrix” are good examples – but more often these games fall into two categories: ill-advised “tributes” that only succeed in profaning classic films (“The Godfather”), or cookie-cutter rush jobs hurried into production to precisely coincide with the release of a new film, a game that trusts its success entirely to the popularity of the movie. It is in this last category that “Eragon” falls…like a dragon with its wings clipped.
This is a game review, not a book critique, so I’ll keep my comments on the plot brief. “Eragon” is based on the much ballyhooed fantasy novel of the same name, a novel that probably got more attention than it deserved because the author, Christopher Paloni, was a teenager when he wrote it. While the story is not terrible, it is achingly formulaic: wide-eyed, innocent protagonist – Eragon – runs afoul with the forces of evil, meets a sagely, exiled warrior who teaches him everything he knows, endures personal tragedy, meets a girl, saves a girl, finds his courage and vanquishes evil. The lynchpin of the plot is Eragon’s pet dragon, Sapphira, whose hatching heralds the return of the dragon riders, Jedi-ish protectors recently wiped out by the evil king and his minions.
To save the day you’ll be doing a tremendous amount of fighting. Using sword and bow and some handy grappling maneuvers, you’ll wade through a sea of henchmen consisting of an odd hodge-podge of uniformed soldiers, troll-like creatures, shirtless brigands, and some loose-limbed baddies with superhuman speed. The game promises a “deep” combat system, but in reality it’s all button-mashing, no technique required. The limited sword combos all pretty much do the same thing, defending yourself is almost never necessary, and it’s not uncommon to emerge victorious against 8 or 10 foes at a time. This is thanks in part to the “buddy” combat throughout – you fight alongside other characters – but it’s also because the fighting is just so damn easy. Abundant power-ups and health orbs make it easy to staunch your wounds, and the aptly-named “Fury Mode” that gives you a temporary power boost is practically never necessary.
Off-screen foes are fair game as well thanks to your insanely accurate bow. One well-placed shot can topple man or troll from something like 70 virtual yards away. There are instances where enemies can be picked off without ever being seen thanks to a fire-and-forget targeting system. It’s not fun, but the alternative is usually getting shot yourself by the unseen enemies.
Before long, Eragon learns to use the Force *cough*…excuse me…he learns magic, and the already easy fighting becomes even easier. Now enemies can be pushed, pulled, or set on fire, usually causing them to fall from whatever perch they might be on. Magic is also used to manipulate the physical environment, constructing telekinetic bridges or snagging something out of reach. Magic is finite but rechargeable, and your magic capacity increases each level. Fortunately, giant, un-missable icons and the constant chirping of Brom, Eragon’s mentor, ensures that the player never has to THINK about when to use magic – just do what you’re told every time and the game will progress.
Occasionally Eragon can summon Sapphira to help him out, usually to swoop down and destroy something big that gets in the way. But this option is almost never used, which is a shame since it makes for some of the coolest moments in the thick of a fight. Indeed, for a story all about dragons there doesn’t seem to be much for Sapphira to do. Eventually you’ll get to ride her and the flying levels are probably the most entertaining of all, but there are too few of these (with lots of perspective problems to boot) and too much of endlessly repetitious melee fighting. A few stealth-based segments fall flat and seem absolutely pointless considering how easy it is to mow down henchmen like so much chaff.
Only late in the game does the challenge elevate to something respectable. There are a couple of clever areas that will give even seasoned fighters pause, such as when Eragon and his buddy must advance up a raging river while beset by archers and trolls. Here I actually had to concentrate in order to survive, but it took something like 9 levels for the fights to really get good. My general impression throughout the game was that it was just “missing something”, something that made similar games like “The Return of the King” wildly entertaining while this was just…blah.
I should add that advancing in levels in almost no way advances the plot. As someone who has neither read the book nor seen the movie, I have to say the game never gave me a clue as to what was going on. Eragon and Brom were going SOMEwhere, but their destination was pretty vague. The game plays like a nature tour: two dudes walking from town to town to see the sights who just keep getting mugged by trolls.
I like the look of “Eragon”, even though the very linear level design and pre-rendered art probably does not do justice to the settings described in Paloni’s book (and the 360 version is probably better). But there is still a lot to enjoy here: lush forests, violent rivers, detail-rich towns and ports, and an admirable use of the surrounding environment as an element of gameplay, i.e. using magic to destroy bridges or topple boulders onto enemies. More than once I stopped to take in the view and admire the very large color palate.
Level design is uneven. The exterior areas are easy on the eyes, but the interior fortress and underground levels are just ugly. I found them to be claustrophobic, and it was here that I fell prey time and again to the dreaded off-screen enemies. The fixed camera eliminates most “angle” issues and ensures very few visual hiccups, but perspective is often a problem. Many times the camera pulls back into a huge IMAX view with Eragon only a tiny smudge in the background. This would be okay if it was just an occasional fancy cinematic shot, but too often this happened in the middle of a fight, where it’s easy to get surrounded and suddenly not be able to see a bloody thing. This also causes problems when you can’t see the entirety of a room and the switch/ledge/path you’re looking for is almost out of sight.
Unfortunately, movies and cutscenes do nothing to enhance the “Eragon” experience. The scenes in between levels are a film school-student nightmare; all jerky camera movements and an awful, annoying “strobe” effect that makes everything jump and flicker. I felt I was on the verge of an epileptic seizure just watching them. In-game cutscenes are very clunky – the characters have no facial expressions and movement of any kind seems to twist their poorly-rendered limbs into very painful poses.
I was dismayed to see that many of the actors in the “Eragon” film did not contribute their voices to the game. That may sound presumptuous on my part, but consider the LOTR games all featured the original actors doing original dialogue. I liked this because it lent weight to the sound of the game and made it so much more fun to play. I suppose a voice is a voice, but I could help but be disappointed by the absence of accomplished talkers like John Malkovich, Rachel Weitz and Jeremy Irons. The rest of the voices are passable (Eragon is voiced by the same actor who played him in the movie) but they don’t stand out.
The effects are a plus, however. All the explosions, collapses and crashes are punctuated by some nicely jarring sounds and the magic effects are cool, not unlike the “rumbling” sound that accompanies the use of the Force in Star Wars (yeah, another Force reference…)
A typically massive orchestral score, absolutely required for any fantasy film now, is present in a muted, diminished form. I’m not sure whether the game makers just didn’t bother matching pieces from the soundtrack to the levels (like the makers of the LOTR games did) or whether the “Eragon” soundtrack was just lame to begin with, but the music just doesn’t soar.
While this title would obviously be a must for any die-hard “Eragon” fan, most everyday gamers would probably not add this one to their collection. While the action is non-stop it is not varied or interesting, and the combat system is far from deep, leaving you no incentive to master combos or do anything to improve your fighting skills. Combine that with the relative ease of the game and you come up with a very low replay factor. It’s cool that there is a 2 player mode, where a buddy can join in as Brom or Eragon’s other companions, but it doesn’t add anything to the gameplay.
The only elements in the plus column for “Eragon” are the fact that you can replay every level, allowing you to go back and snag any items you may have missed (or just enjoy some of the more entertaining parts of the game) and giving you ample opportunities to find the hidden dragon egg squirreled away in each level. Acquiring the dragon egg unlocks the only other thing that adds some value to this package: making-of featurettes, cast interviews, trailers, and lots of other bonus material. Here I will confess a definite weakness: I’m a bonus material junkie. Even if the game is sub-par, I love watching vids detailing how it all came together. I’ll give “Eragon” a point or two for that, but not enough to bring it out of the “rent it, don’t buy it” category.
“Eragon” leaves me with that same feeling of regret that I’ve had about so many movie-based games: if the powers-that-be had taken their time with it, this could’ve been a good game. I don’t think it could ever reach the point of being a “great” game, but I think with patience and effort this could’ve been a more solid package. The combat system was simplistic and the overall degree of challenge was limp. The dragon riding segments felt tacked on, like an afterthought, and Saphirra was never properly utilized. The levels were short and lacked ambition, and only a few days of playing saw me easily three quarters through the entire game.
I wish I could say I was surprised but, like so many other film-inspired titles, “Eragon” was clearly meant to be just another cog in the giant marketing machine – quality took a backseat to just getting it done in time for the film’s premiere. Our loss.