So we've got this thing on our controllers that many games over the past few years have made use of called a second analog stick. It's pretty great. Before it was around, we were stuck with static or poorly controlled cameras in 3D games and we often found ourselves lost behind bits of the environment. Playing Eragon is like having a flashback to that era. Not being able to control the camera is just the tip of the iceberg though. The gameplay is weak, the story is struggling to exist and the presentation is downright terrible. Everything about Eragon feels like a low budget release.
One would think that playing through a game based on a book with a major motion picture on the horizon would have an enthralling story. The best case scenario would be a game that left the player with a deeper understanding of the characters and world they've just engrossed themselves in. Having not read Eragon yet, I was looking forward to learning a little bit about the story that has received so much praise. After finishing the game, I'm still in the dark. The little flashes of grainy cutscenes that play between levels fail at even telling a good outline of what is going on, let alone any of the details. It's hard to feel like you're part of some epic fantasy quest when you hardly have a clue as to why you're fighting through some random villages and dungeons. The game seems to expect that you've already read the book or seen the movie. An odd move since the game was released well in advance of the film.
Perhaps you're a huge Eragon fan and the complaints about the severe lack of storytelling don't make a difference to you. Too bad the gameplay is equally wanting. Although the game expects you to have read the book or seen the movie, it apparently doesn't have as much confidence in your gaming skills. Eragon holds your hand through a great portion of the game. Giant icons inform you where you can use your magic to create new paths or make use of the environment in some way. The linear game is made even worse by the heavy use of tips, pointers and tutorials that bog down the first half of an already short game.
Once you get past the heavy lessons and directions, you'll find gameplay that seems like it might have some depth to it at first glance but fails to produce anything interesting or unique. There are some snazzy grapple moves, but the majority of the combat is uninspired and the progression is poor. You don't learn a single new combination attack throughout the entire game, so you're limited to strings of three button presses. Not that it matters as the jump attack is unblockable and nine times out of ten will knock any enemy you hit over a ledge for an instant kill. Sure, you can try blocks and counterattacks, but when you are fighting wave after wave of the same small set of enemies the allure of that insta-kill becomes strong.
You do learn a few spells in the first half of the game including a magic arrow, force push and fireball. That's the extent of expanding your arsenal through the game. The fireball provided the best moments in the game, but only because of how poorly it was implemented. The AI routine for any enemy that is on fire is for them to run directly off of a cliff. The first time it looks funny as you see the flaming guy fall to his doom. After a while you start to wonder why nobody in this entire world was taught the virtues of the "stop, drop and roll" technique as children. It looks like it would have saved thousands of lives over the more popular "run as fast you can off of a cliff" safety drill. Fire confusion in the world of Eragon extends even to those near or in water. One level takes place in a shallow river. If you light a guy on fire, you can watch him run screaming in circles until the flames eventually consume his life. It sure seems like it would have been easy to just take a knee and put those flames out. But no, this is Eragon and a little bit of fire means certain doom.
Along with the spells, you'll get several weapon and armor upgrades as you move through the game. You'll be informed of these at a static progression screen that pops up after you complete a stage. No hidden items or unlockable upgrade system exists here. You'll just be awarded equipment and abilities and be pushed along, sometimes without any explanation as to why you just got some new sword. As weak as this is, it gets worse. You can't go back and replay previous stages with these new spells or upgraded items. There are three difficulty levels, but since they'll play exactly the same way on successive times playing through them, you probably won't care to try them again.
But wait, wasn't this game supposed to feature a dragon? Eragon is supposedly a dragon rider, but there are only a handful of stages where the dragon even makes any sort of difference. Most of the gameplay takes place on foot with the dragon nowhere to be seen. At set times, you'll see a little dragon icon floating in the background informing you that you can call in your dragon friend. Tap a couple of buttons and you'll get to watch him swoop in and then leave. This dragon needed to be at your side throughout the whole game spewing fire and helping you kick ass instead of dropping in at select moments.
There are several stages where you actually get to hop onto the dragons back and fly around roasting things with your breath and firing off magic arrows. Unfortunately, the uncontrollable camera carries over into this mode and it hampers things to the point of making it not fun. Your dragon takes damage for running into branches or rock ledges, but you won't have any idea where the camera is going to pull you. Should you try to fly under that rock overhang? Maybe, but you won't know which way the camera is going to go until you get right to it. Half of the time, the camera will pull the opposite way and slam you right into the obstacle as you try to dodge it. You'll have to learn the stages inside and out to make it through unscathed. This won't take as long as you think as they're all just small closed loops. Each time around, the enemies you just killed will be back for you to fight again.
There are 16 levels in Eragon plus two bonus stages available only on Xbox 360. All told, the Xbox 360 version will take you about five or six hours to breeze through. That counts finding all of the secret eggs, of which there are one per level, to unlock all of the bonus content. If there is any replayablity to be had, it comes with the co-operative mode. No, you can't play it online. You can have a friend hop in and fight alongside you, though, as they take the role of one of the supporting characters that is controlled by AI in the solo mode.
Going hand in hand with the short story are the limited features. Maybe we've become spoiled, but we usually expect an options menu to have, you know, several options to adjust that allow us to fit the game to our liking. Eragon allows you to change the volume from the option screen -- only the overall volume and not individual sliders for music and sound effects. This was included for people whose televisions or home theaters didn't come with that feature. We did get several complaints from nearby editors asking us to turn off the generic gothic style music, so perhaps it wasn't such a terrible option to include after all. The controller options allow you to look at the control setup, but you can only change the dragon controls from inverted to normal. If you wanted to adjust anything else, you're out of luck. The options screen is rounded out with the ability to change the vibration on or off. Color us unimpressed.
The poor presentation doesn't stop with the options or the lack of storytelling. It continues straight into the menu screens that look like they're straight out of a Super NES game. Then there is the worst unlockable of all time. Although most of the things you get for hunting down the secret eggs are behind the scenes developer movies, the first piece of bonus content is the lamest thing ever. Believe it or not, but it is just a static screen with an ad for the book and the movie.
The graphics during the game aren't as bad as you might expect given the bland menu screens. The Xbox and PS2 versions are the black sheep of the bunch. Though they don't look bad compared to all of the other games on these systems, they certainly will make you think about a next-gen console. Some of the lighting that trickles through the trees does a good job of bringing the forested areas to life and there is a fairly decent variety of environments given how short the game is. The animations are all smooth, especially in the close combat fights. The biggest room for improvement is on the spell effects. The fireball is underwhelming and charging a piece of the environment up to manipulate it could have been enhanced dramatically from the slowly filling bar that you get to watch.
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