Fans of Oblivion and Zelda may finally have their DS game. Publisher Sierra and developer Amaze Entertainment, having just scored well with their Eragon game for the Game Boy Advance have also released one of the most ambitious 3D action adventure games on the DS. It lacks the polish of Nintendo's first-party games, and there are a couple of glaring problems, but Eragon features some of the best combat, touchscreen controls and world design seen yet on the DS.
The story (based on the popular books and recent film) follows a teenager named Eragon who discovers a dragon's egg that hatches and changes his life. Drawn into a plot to overthrow the evil king Galbatorix and exact revenge for the assault on his home village, Eragon wanders the land taking out ogres and wolves, all the while navigating through the maze-like environments. Unlike the GBA game, which focuses on Eragon and his friends as a band of young warriors, this game has Eragon running solo (with occasional help from his massive, blue dragon).
The levels in this game are massive, with fields and lakes that take minutes to cross. While most DS games take the confined, claustrophobic route in order to mask the system's low polygon resources, Amaze went huge with Eragon. The draw distance is fantastic and enemies and environments can be seen long before they're reached, with no distant pop-in problems. Enemies also have a nice detection threshold, so that the player can observe them and decide how to handle each foe long before they notice the player.
Unfortunately, as well as the environments are put together, they're not much to look at. Textures are murky and lack personality. Grass looks like it's been melted and the repetition in wall and rock textures is reminiscent of budget PC games. There is a consistent art direction here, but it's not a great one. Characters thankfully look better and, although obviously low-poly, are surprisingly articulated. Everyone in this game moves with great energy and Eragon himself attacks with a surprisingly wide variety of moves. The player begins with just the basic dagger attacks, but the more enemies Eragon dispenses with, the more special attacks he learns. These moves are picked up automatically and add new depth to gameplay. So whereas mashing the Y button earlier may have just alternated between dagger swipes, pressing the same button later might perform a devastating combo attack. These combinations are more than just visual; they're worth learning, as they do away with enemies much faster than just mashing buttons at random.
Enemies are exactly what they needed to be in this game: big, dumb and predictable. They do a surprising amount of damage to Eragon, especially early in the game where almost everything is a one-hit kill. But they can always be avoided or dealt with carefully, removing any cheap shot attacks on their part. Things take on a puzzle element when facing multiple enemies at once, since each enemy attacks with its own style. Deciding which enemy to face first, which direction to face it from and where to lead it during combat is all critical to surviving each fight. More variety in enemies would have been appreciated, but they're placed smartly enough in each level to keep combat from becoming stale. Boss battles aren't too challenging, usually offering just one mode of attack and weakness through the entire fight. But there is some creativity here, such as one boss protected by his regenerating birds, and another requiring Eragon to lead him to his dragon for some pummeling.
Combat is all handled in realtime (as opposed to the turn-based GBA game) and has Eragon swashbuckling through each level with his sword or dagger. This game is Z-target heaven. The player locks onto enemies by holding down the R button, and can strafe around them. Enemies (thankfully) don't snap to immediately face Eragon. A big part of the combat strategy is getting behind or beside enemies to dodge their frontal attacks and get in a few good hits before they turn around. Using the L button, the player can roll and dodge (just like Link) to avoid some of the crazier enemy attacks.
Firing arrows, on the other hand, isn't handled nearly as well. The player enters Eragon into a first-person perspective for bow attacks, controlling his aim with the +control pad. The cursor handles far too delicately, and pops around any enemy it crosses, making it difficult to properly line up a shot. Even worse, firing at an enemy without getting the cursor to latch onto them will usually do no damage, even if the arrow was obviously aimed directly at part of their body. Sometimes the target follows an enemy around automatically as he patrols, sometimes it doesn't. The entire bow and arrow system is pretty unreliable. As a result, most players will probably find themselves relying almost entirely on Eragon's sword, even against archers. Arrows also aren't unlimited and though the game does a decent job dispensing them as powerups from fallen enemies and shrubs, occasionally an area is encountered where arrows are needed and can't be immediately found. With how clunky the aiming system is and how rarely the player will use it instead of Eragon's sword, unlimited arrows would have been a great idea.
The player can cast spells learned during Eragon's adventure with the touchscreen. Going into spell mode slows down time momentarily. This offers a window of a few seconds to cast a spell by drawing different icons with the stylus. Once a spell is cast, it floats on the bottom screen and can be tossed at any enemy or piece of environment. Spells range from destructive attacks to mobility-affecting ones and are required for many puzzles in the game (such as removing boulders or freezing a shaky bridge). Requiring the player to flick their spell onto the top screen after performing it is gimmicky and a poor call, though. It's frustrating to take the time to freeze time and cast a spell, only to have it miss the intended object because of poor stylus marksmanship. Luckily, spell recognition is extremely forgiving.
The game could be considered an RPG of sorts, since Eragon increases his spell and attack abilities, as well as spell and health meters through the game. All of this occurs automatically, however, and doesn't require any thought or re-fighting enemies to level up. Health takes too long to begin increasing in the game, as Eragon's mini health meter gets him killed far too often and quickly. Herbs can be applied to restore some of Eragon's health, but many enemies encountered before that first health upgrade can kill Eragon in a single blow.
Since Eragon is a dragon-rider, some of the levels have the player taking control of his dragon. Flight feels very natural here and it's a blast flying around (albeit on-rails), swooping through towns and mountain ranges. Unfortunately, the developers felt the need to include floating hoops for the dragon to fly through (one of the most overused and unenjoyable gameplay exercises in existence). These definitely limit the fun of these sections of the game, but flying is still a nice break from the hack-and-slash levels with Eragon. In between levels, players 'speak' with their dragon by playing a bizarre tracing minigame. It's a little dull and feels somewhat out of place in this game.
Each area in the game has its own objective or goal, marked on the map. Objectives are pretty varied throughout the game and might deal with reaching a location, finding an object or setting off triggers. In addition, optional mini-quests can be engaged in by speaking to people Eragon encounters in each of the towns. These quests are small in scope, usually a timed fetch quest (such as finding a man's scattered beads for him). Although not incredibly deep, they give the NPCs personality and offer the player a break from the main quest.
Unfortunately, the developers may have gotten a little too ambitious in some areas of the game. Eragon usually encounters enemies in clusters of two or three, but any more than that and the game begins to start chugging like crazy. The poor frame rate doesn't completely ruin combat or mobility, but it makes it pretty boring. Levels can also get confusing in their layout. A map feature on the bottom screen helps greatly, and shows off the location of every enemy type and goal. The map vanishes, however, anytime a cutscene or spell occurs, forcing the player to open it back up over and over.
Saving is done by locating little statues distributed among the levels. Eragon can save his progress at any of these statues at any time. Unfortunately, this doesn't always save exactly where the player was in terms of their current quest; saving after completing a few minor objectives may force the player to replay them after a load. So even when a save point is easily accessible, there may be five or ten minutes of gameplay that need to be completed before truly saving progress.
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