As one of the most popular and revered fantasy series out there, Eragon is experiencing massive success beyond the novel. The feature film will soon hit theatres on December 15, and as usual, such success goes hand-in-hand with a video game release. Sporting the story of a young man and his dragon, the concept is stellar and the action is evident, which should translate beautifully to either the big-screen or the game world. The verdict is still out on the movie - although previews appear awfully impressive - but the game released a full month before the film, and we get a chance to check it out.
Fortunately or unfortunately (depending on how you look at it, no pun intended), Eragon's strength centers on the visuals. The cut-scenes can't compete with the likes of Final Fantasy XII, of course, but they're effective and relatively consistent, despite having a few graphical errors here and there. The gameplay itself sports some nicely detailed backdrops and environments, but they fail to impress in terms of refinement and polish. Still, the game really gets a chance to shine when you sit astride your mighty dragon, as you'll be greeted with surprisingly gorgeous and vibrant landscapes. It's actually some of the prettiest visuals you'll see on the PS2, but you're simply not on that beast long enough.
The sound is very similar to the graphics, in that there are glimpses of top-notch quality and even brilliance, but that's all they are: glimpses. Unfortunately, the standard and ho-hum battle effects dominate the majority of the gameplay, so it's sometimes difficult to spot those glimpses, but they do exist. The voiceovers are solid, and unlike some other action/adventure titles, the balance between soundtrack and effects is actually quite good. However, while some of the music fits the action quite well, there isn't enough variety as you progress through each level. Before long, you'll become quite tired of the generic strikes, scrapes, thuds, and grunts of the ground combat, and the soundtrack loses its luster all too soon. There isn't anything below average, per se, but overall, the sound doesn't stand out in the least.
Given the aforementioned concept of intense battles and a magical fantastical dragon, Eragon seems primed to deliver an engrossing gaming experience. But when you instill the idea of a fixed camera without actually understanding the purpose of player visibility, and you give the most intriguing character (the dragon, damnit!) extremely limited screen time, that great concept falls flat. The final redeeming factor for a game based on a well-written and extraordinary fantasy tale is, of course, the story...but to add insult to injury, the developers decided that wasn't quite important enough to matter. We're painting a dismal picture here, though, so let's start with the basics and some good stuff.
As we mentioned before, the graphics really aren't bad, and those flying missions are a visual treat. The forest environments are lush and lively, and each town is rife with both enemy and civilian activity, all of which adds a great deal to our immersion in the adventure. You'll quickly learn how to utilize several devastating sword combos, combined with an added combat skill of the grapple, which allows you to grab a hold of your foes in a number of ways. You can bend them back and nail them with a few sword-handle cracks, land a few vicious knees to the stomach, or even leap atop a big brute and snap his neck. But your skills don't end here.
This young lad, who goes by the name of Eragon, has a good teacher in Brom, who instructs him in the ways of bow-sniping, magic, and general combat. You'll be able to fire a bow quickly and accurately simply by targeting with the R1 button and letting it fly; you can even focus in by holding down the X button. Eragon soon discovers magic as well, including Telekinesis, the ability to enchant your arrows, and a powerful fireball. You can use that impressive power to move objects so as to create bridges and pathways, or fling sharp spears at the enemy with a flick of your hand. All in all, the gamer is presented with an array of battle options right off the bat, and you learn more at a good clip.
But it's all diminished by clunky control, abysmal AI, and a camera that will give you fits. Eragon unfortunately spends most of his time on the ground, fighting legion after legion of marauding baddies, and you'll soon find yourself abusing certain combat eccentricities that must've been overlooked during development. First off, you can pretty much push and pull enemies to your heart's content by taking advantage of that Telekinesis, which immediately gives you a major edge. You'll also soon realize that the combos you learn at the start are the only ones you're going to learn, and against tougher enemies, it's just easier to jump and attack, over and over again.
Eragon can block, but as much of the stronger attacks he'll face break through his defenses, it's even more reason to stay in the air as much as possible. Using the bow in battle is a nice touch, but it seems ridiculously erratic; sometimes you'll fell a charging enemy with a single shot, other times, you'll fail to bring them down with a hail of arrows. And for another magic issue that's actually quite comical, setting enemies alight works wonders...especially because their first instinct is to pitch themselves off the nearest precipice when on fire. This goes along nicely with knocking them off on your own (another move you'll abuse no end), but to actually watch them do it voluntarily is pretty funny.
However, none of this represents the worst part; the worst part is, without any shadow of a doubt, that unbearable camera. It's fixed, and while some games have done an admirable job with this style (Capcom's Devil May Cry 3 is a good example), the camera in Eragon fails miserably. You'll find yourself constantly looking around in vain, trying to figure out where to go. Only when you notice that almost invisible ledge or nearly completely hidden stairway will you be able to advance, shaking your head the whole way. When using a fixed camera, the player still has to be able to see; there were some instances in the game where the characters were so far away you could barely spot their actions. In short, this fixed camera is a major crutch.
Brom will accompany you throughout the first half of the game, and during that time, he doesn't seem all that helpful when it comes to battle. On the other hand, the first few hours of the game is like one giant tutorial (no game hand-holds like Eragon), so it doesn't really matter. We tolerated the repetitive and seemingly pointless combat until we finally got the chance to wing around on our dragon. Our hopes instantly skyrocketed, as it looks amazing and the dragon can breathe deadly fire or execute a stinging tail whip. Eragon can even fire magic errors from her back in mid-air! At that point, we admit to getting somewhat stoked.
That warm and fuzzy feeling lasted all of ten minutes during the tutorial. As soon as we entered the first flying mission, we were disappointed all over again. Stormfront decided to keep that fixed camera for the flying portions of the game, and that's an even worse idea than having it for the ground areas. You have no idea when or where the camera will rotate to take you along another set path, and you'll consistently smash into obstacles just because you went one way and the camera went the other. As pretty and smooth as it is, this crucial issue immediately ruins your interest in conquering the skies. Still, it's more fun than typical battles.
And finally, it's clear they must've ignored a huge amount of the story and quickly jammed any other plot elements into the game, resulting in a disjointed and almost incomprehensible storyline. Half the time, we had no idea what the point of our current mission was, and thanks to the cut-scenes that only gave us the basics, we really didn't care. The entire adventure lasts only about six hours, and although each level offers a Secret Egg to find, the rewards aren't worth the extra time to find them, and mean nothing in terms of a replay.
Obviously, Eragon has some glaring problems that can't be ignored. Terrible AI, an atrocious camera, battles that rely on skills learned mostly in the first few hours, and the lack of a cohesive or interesting story all combine to lower the game's score a great deal. However, we must say we were mildly entertained during some of the gameplay, the visuals (especially on the dragon) impressed in a variety of areas, and the levels are well-designed with a fair amount of consistent action and intensity. Furthermore, we imagine Eragon fans would be content with what the game presents; it gives them the correct atmosphere they should appreciate.
But generally speaking, unless you're a big fan of the books, we really can't recommend Eragon to any selective gamer. There are simply too many issues that override the tidbits of "good" sprinkled throughout.
12/7/2006 Ben Dutka