Developer: Stormfront Studios
Release Date: Fall 2006
Buoyed by the sudden interest in fantasy fiction that followed in the wake of the Lord of the Rings movies and the monstrous success of Harry Potter, Christopher Paolini's Eragon novels soared to the tops of the bestseller lists despite being written by a fifteen-year-old and being arguably quite derivative. 20th Century Fox promptly snapped up the rights to make an Eragon film, and a veritable deluge of Eragon related media - the film, the final novel of the trilogy, and a video game - are all poised to hit the market at once in late 2006. Regardless of how the film or the final novel turns out, even a brief look at the Eragon game Sierra's been working on for four long years is enough to betray some truly superior craftsmanship.
Eragon is likely to a game that continues in the Chronicles of Riddick tradition, completely defying the stereotype of the rushed-out, hackneyed licensed game. Instead, it seems to be an inspired blend of combo-driven action gaming blended with dragon-riding sequences that play out like a next-gen Panzer Dragoon. By blending short-range, long-range, and magical combat abilities with context-sensitive abilities, Eragon lets gamers pull off amazing stunts and clear their way through epic battles in much the same third-person gameplay spirit as God of War. The tone, of course, is far more that of a family-friendly fantasy adventure, although the dragon sequences give it an epic scope that games rarely capture.
While much of the visuals for Eragon are drawn from the upcoming film, the storyline for the game expands on the film by liberally drawing upon material from the novels. Some of this is based on scenes included but removed in early drafts of the film script for runtime and other reasons, while some is simply to make the game longer and more satisfying from a gameplay perspective. Each of the third-person levels are designed with a lot of background elements to interact with, and certain context-sensitive moves a player can choose to use or not use as they see fit.
One of the most powerful involves summoning the dragon Saphira, who can swoop in from above to attack enemies or provide valuable distractions. She can only be summoned at certain points in each level to perform specific tasks, so players can't wholly rely on her power to breeze through the foot-combat levels. In a similar spirit, the game's combo system penalizes button-mashing and instead rewards players who combine swordplay, archery, and magic with a sense of timing and variety behind their moves. A clever player will be able to learn from context which moves best chain into others, and which kind of attack is best suited to a certain circumstance.
The build we saw was still being fine-tuned and polished, but featured some absolutely amazing graphics given that it was running on a PS2. Better yet was the news that the title would be going multiplatform on the XBox, 360, and PC, where the graphics could only get better. Particularly striking was the use of color and lighting in the engine, which the developers chalked up to the addition of Academy Award-winning effects specialists from such groups as ILM joining the Eragon development team very early in its incredible four-year development cycle.
With an approach to affects driven more by a desire to build mood and tension than simply to recreate reality, the Eragon developers feel these artists have helped bring an unusually cinematic, story-focused quality to the game's look. Light often plays off of distant surfaces in ways that create distinct emotional reactions in the player, rather than simply trying to inspire awe or present lots of details. In some ways, the game world of Eragon looks like an incredible matte painting that, somehow, you can adventure through and interact with freely.
The majority of the game will follow the protagonist, Eragon, as he battles on foot through the film's various adventures. There will still be a significant number of "flight" levels that take place as Eragon rides on Saphira's back and uses a combination of his abilities and hers to beat enemies, while dodging obstacles. The look of the levels bears an unmistakable resemblance to the Panzer Dragoon titles, which the developers admit as an influence.
Still, while the Panzer Dragoon games were in many respects rail shooters, Eragon's dragon-flight levels allow the player to move freely and truly control where Saphira goes in a level. They also allow far richer interaction with the environment, by letting both Saphira and Eragon use objects or the placement of enemy groups to set up spectacular-looking multi-kills. Eragon can snipe from Saphira's back with his bow, while Saphira herself has her powerful tail and eventually fire breath at her disposal. The fire breath is particularly significant, since it allows you to burn fields of grass to send enemy troops fleeing.
There will also be titles under the Eragon name produced for the DS, GBA, and PSP, but they will all be fundamentally different games in terms of genre and content. The PSP version will be a dragon flight sim, the DS title an action RPG, and the GBA title a traditional turn-based RPG. All of the games, however, use the same approach to building the story as the main console game, blending elements of the film and the novel to hopefully create a satisfying experience for the player. None of the portable Eragon titles were on display at the event where we saw the console build, unfortunately.
Still, the console build is shaping up to deliver a rich and unusually beautiful gameplay experience. The developers on hand were quick to cite the game's long development cycle as the reason behind its unusual quality. Often tie-in games are produced on rushed schedules, perhaps fourteen or sixteen months at most, which doesn't give game designers time to do much more than slap the license onto a stock game genre. The best fans can hope for is something solid, but rarely can they expect something innovative or high-quality. Eragon's gameplay blatantly bucks the trend, and obviously because developers had time enough with the license to figure out truly new gameplay ideas that suited it. If this game lives up to the potential it's shown in our early look, then we hope that its careful development becomes the new gold standard for making tie-in games.
More articles about Eragon