I really expected this game to be awful. Having played my share of licensed movie tie-ins, I know that limited development time and limited budget usually translates to limited fun. Licensed role-playing games are the worst of the bunch, since they have to focus on weaving a lengthy story as well as crafting an engaging combat system, generally failing at both. Eragon on the Game Boy Advance, from publisher Sierra and developer Amaze Entertainment somehow sidesteps that legacy and delivers a product that's not perfect, but is consistently enjoyable with far more depth and customization than one might expect from a licensed game.
The story revolves around 15-year-old Eragon, a farmboy from Alagaesia who, after discovering a dragon's egg and watching his family murdered, realizes his destiny is to overthrow the evil King Galbatorix and bring balance back to the land. The player takes control of Eragon and several of his friends in a series of quests that lead them through Alagaesia and hundreds of random battles, on their way to avenge Eragon's family and fulfill his destiny as the last dragon-rider.
Gameplay should be familiar to any RPG fan. Characters come and go in Eragon's party, exploring an overworld and battling angry creatures and warriors in turn-based fashion. Characters level each of their abilities up and can craft weapons or mix potions to aide them on their journey. Since this game is based on the first book of a trilogy, it doesn't entirely wrap up Eragon's story at the end, but it still offers plenty of character development and plot twists along the way.
Combat occurs when Eragon and his crew (signified by a single avatar while exploring) bump into a band of enemies. Each member in Eragon's party takes a turn attacking the enemies in turn-based RPG fashion. The player selects which enemy to attack (enemies in the rear are guarded by those in the front, and can't be attacked until their guards are dead). Once an enemy is selected, each character can attack four times in a row, creating a combination with the A and B buttons (such as A-B-B-A). Each button has a default attack, but performing certain combos will unleash special moves and do more damage. These combos are learned throughout the game.
Characters can also dodge or block an attack by tapping the A or B button at the precise moment they are struck. It doesn't work every time, but when it does it greatly reduces the amount of damage done. What's interesting, too is how enemies are encountered in the game. Rather than being sucked into random battles without warning, the enemies in this game chase the player as sprites in the overworld map; no battle occurs until those two sprites collide, and the player can usually outrun any enemy by holding down the B button and choosing their path carefully. Even when sucked into a battle, most encounters can be fled from. Fleeing spits the player back out into the overworld without consequence, and flickers the enemy sprite for a few seconds so that they can't immediately start another battle. This means that it's entirely up to the player when they want to fight and level up, and when they want to just bypass enemies and focus on exploration. Why can't more RPGs be like this?
The combat isn't perfect. Enemies are pretty dumb and predictable, often using the same attack over and over without deviation. Characters also won't shift focus between enemies mid-attack. So if an ogre only has 50 hit points left and Eragon attacks it, doing 600 points of damage, the ogre will fall immediately and Eragon will keep stabbing the air over its corpse like a jackass. Allowing characters to redirect their attack chain (specifically because each character is using 4 attacks per assault) would have been appreciated.
Each character can be customized in regard to weapons, outfit and focus. Focus refers to which attributes are upgraded after each battle. So if a character is focused on Endurance, then after each battle they will level up in toughness and agility, but not Speed or Strength. Other areas of focus include herbs, magic, weapons and hunting. These impact not only mid-combat fighting and healing abilities, but also open up new opportunities; a character with high Herb attributes can pick plants unattainable by the other characters and use them to create potions. Magic allows a character to read ancient texts and learn new spells, endurance allows crates to be broken for item-hunting and hunting allows tracking footprints to discover hidden items (which is pretty fun). This system is a nice compromise between choosing a character's class, and having their attributes evenly distributed. Focus can be changed at any time, so if Eragon is already pretty powered up with his sword, his focus can be placed on magic and will start with the next battle.
The developers snuck in some bonus features for a few of the attributes when leveled up properly. For example, leveling up a character's endurance affects their health in battles, and their item-hunting during exploration, but it also gives that character specific new regenerative abilities when they reach level 20, 40, 60 and so on. Weapons can be forged or purchased, but also earned at the end of some random battles; some of the best weapons and weapon customizations I had in this game were found in the field.
The game is surprisingly long for a handheld licensed movie tie-in. Depending on the amount of leveling up and side quests engaged in, the game can take between 20 to 30 hours to complete. Objectives never get too repetitive, although there is really no reminder system in the game; it's not hard after a few dozen battles to forget just what or who the characters are supposed to be looking for. A quest menu would have helped greatly.
The game's also not very pretty to look at. Sprites look mushy and clay-like. Even in battle when the characters are shown closer up, they lack detail. Animation is smooth and appears to be handled using pre-rendered 3D characters, but it's very automated and stiff, lacking much personality or incidental details. Attacks are pretty boring with very little fanfare or special effects. Backgrounds look washed out and blurry, although the level design is handled pretty well. Each environment is memorable and the characters are able to walk around and behind just about every object in this game. But this is definitely a game to be played for its combat and story, not its visuals.
Musically, it's about average. The medieval music is catchy and matches the environments, although like most GBA games it repeats too often. Sound effects are pretty minimal, reserved for sword swipes and armor clanks, but they get the job done.
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