|December 3rd, 2019
|Mobile, PC, PS4, Nintendo Switch
|E for Everyone – Fantasy Violence
As one of oprainfall’s biggest indie fans and promoters, I really wanted to like EarthNight more. After all, it’s stylish, it’s innovative, and it has rogue elements. Which are all usually things that make me love a game. And while I wouldn’t say I hated EarthNight by any stretch, there’s aspects of it that really prevented me from getting more invested in the game. Developed by Cleaversoft, a small indie team that has devoted many years to the development, it’s a mix of endless runner and rogue, with lots of platforming, dragon slaying and loot harvesting. EarthNight takes place in a post apocalyptic world where space dragons have overrun the earth and your job is to skydive through hordes of them, make it back to terra firma, and clear out the dragonic infestation. The question is, will you have the patience to achieve that goal?
The premise of the game is simple enough. You dive from your shuttle through various cloud layers, trying to reach earth. Every level takes place on the back of a dragon, and your job is to run from tail to head, and then stab the hell out of the dragon noggin. Destroying the head successfully (basically before time runs out) rewards you with special parts that net you currency when you return to your home ship, which happens each time you perish. It’s not quite that simple, since each dragon appears to be a veritable ecosystem of symbiotic organisms that all want you dead. Some ride astride the dragon’s back, others float, some are free flying and much more besides. You have a couple of ways of dealing with these varmints. Either you can bounce off their head, or you can dash into them. The tricky part is that sometimes you hurt yourself if you don’t hit them just right, and that in large part seems to be due to the enemy hitboxes. There’s also another element that frankly still has me utterly baffled. Some enemies are Light enemies, and others are Dark. You can’t really distinguish between them most of the time, though the game indicates you need special items to harm them. But when I unlocked those items, they felt superfluous. That was because apparently you don’t need them active to harm these foes, at least most of the time, which kind of defeated the purpose. This sort of confusion was a large part of why I didn’t love EarthNight, and it also brings us to the next section – the upgrades.
In EarthNight’s post apocalyptic world, the currency that matters is water. Which makes sense, since the entire human race has become space nomads. So when you collect mountains of loot on dragon’s backs, you trade it in at the Scrap Market, and get rewarded with agua. Later in the game you actually can use it to unlock things, but to start, all your upgrades are locked behind items that can only be acquired by killing space dragons. That’s not too hard initially, since most of them can be defeated with a few stabs of your weapon of choice (one character uses her spiritual dragon and the other has a sword). The key is waiting til the opportune time to strike, indicated visually, and then laying waste. It’s a bit of a mini rhythm game. The only challenge in these sections is that some dragons are more durable than others, and some will try and shake you off. The entire time, there’s a timer counting down, and once it’s out of sand, you are out of luck, and get tossed aside. Thankfully, given the fact you’ll have a chance to beat each type of dragon again every run, it’s not a huge deal. The problem is that once you start getting dragon bits and unlocking upgrades, they weren’t what I expected. I was hoping that they would be permanent passive boosts or new active abilities. Instead, you get powerups that provide a temporary benefit. You’ll see empty silhouettes on stages, and when the corresponding upgrade is acquired, an item will show up instead. Some examples are double jump boots and the aforementioned Dark enemy powerup, the Light Loaf.
The problem with these is twofold. First, the game is annoyingly cute and doesn’t directly tell you what they do. Instead, the Scrap Market merchant gives fanciful descriptions which would have made Rumplestiltskin smile with twisted glee. I’m all for flowery and fancy language, but I also demand to know what anything does in games I play. I’m fine losing because of my own failings, but not because the game didn’t explain things properly. The other issue is, these upgrades are strewn haphazardly throughout each stage, and often in large clumps. It’s very easy to miss the right one, such as the item that allows you to control a raging beast, or to touch an item and not be aware til much later. More than once, I’d find myself with a spherical shield I didn’t remember getting, or turned suddenly gigantic. While this is all novel, I really feel EarthNight would have been so much better with permanent upgrades. Hell, the game even jokes about the upgrade system itself, with the unintended effect of perfectly capturing what I disliked so much about the experience.
Now, none of my upgrade misery would matter if the game controlled well, but alas, this part was a mixed bag. You can control one of two characters, either Sydney, a young black woman with supernatural powers, or Stanley, a bald, sword wielding man with a massive beard. I played Sydney first, which turned out to be the right decision. She’s the more mobile of the characters, able to double jump, dash and generally bounce around. Stanley, by contrast, has no inherent double jump, and instead trades it for a long jump and a sword that possibly does more damage to space dragons. I couldn’t confirm that, cause after playing as Stanley once, I never wanted to play as him again. Thankfully, Sydney is much more mobile, and every time she bounces off an enemy, her movement reset, meaning she can double jump or dash again. This allows her a much broader range of movement, and it is doubly rewarding since it lends itself well to another gameplay element – recovering health.
You’d think that in a game with tons of items everywhere, some would heal you, but that’s not the case. Instead, the only way you can heal is by jumping off 5+ enemies in a row, without touching flat ground in between. Sydney is pretty good at this, and there were times I was bouncing and bouncing, essentially invincible. The tricky part is, each stage is huge and multi-tiered, and you never know exactly when an enemy is gonna appear. I would have given my right arm for some sort of mini-map or radar. This is exacerbated when you’re falling from a great height, and have no idea what’s below you. It’s also made more problematic by the fact that the speed of the game is inconsistent at best. You’re able to either speed up or slow down manually, both while running and when in mid-air, but I found this did little to help me. The game moves in fits and starts, like Sonic the Hedgehog on crystal meth. When it flows smoothly, it’s a dream, but the vast majority of my time was spent careening through the air like a comet and praying I landed on an enemy.
Now, despite the speed problems I encountered in the Switch version of EarthNight, I acknowledge that issue might be a console one-off. And to be fair, there’s a lot about the game design that I liked in theory. It’s cool running on the backs of dragons, getting random powerups and getting closer and closer to reaching Earth. The enemies are varied and the strange worlds which erupt from these dragons’ backs are imaginative and full of life. There’s giant purple meteors with faces that gulp you up and spit you out, floating ruins you can hide in and a vast diversity of space dragons to encounter. That’s all great. I just wish most of the game didn’t feel quite so random. Yes, I know it’s rogue, but that genre only works when you can make some sense of your environment and concoct strategies to take advantage of it. In a game where you’re always running forward through procedurally generated gauntlets, it’s much harder to make use of those rogue tools.
Also, while I do like fighting the dragons, at a certain point they get way too durable. There’s one creature called a Crystal Dragon, and besides having particularly powerful creatures and traps strewn across his back, he’s also almost impossible to slay. Now, EarthNight does have a feature where collecting 3 dragon eggs in each level will weaken the dragon itself, but I went against the Crystal Dragon with 2 out of 3 eggs, and still couldn’t beat it in time. This brings me back to my complaint about the upgrades. If there was a persistent upgrade that made me more powerful while attacking dragons, this wouldn’t have bothered me nearly as much. But instead, the game forces you to try and get 3 randomly placed eggs each time, and if you don’t, you’re out of luck. Unfortunately, all the dragons I faced after the Chemosphere’s Crystal Dragon were equally hard, and that goes double for the final one you face on Earth itself. Unlike the others, he’s not content to wait for you to kill him, and instead viciously attacks you the entire stage. Suffice to say, I wasn’t able to beat this wolf-like dragon, and he made pretty short work of me.
Now, if you don’t mind the grindy and repetitive nature of EarthNight, you might find more to enjoy than I did. But when I was about 5 hours in, and just didn’t feel like I was making sufficient progress, I started to get really frustrated. This was made worse by all the other problems I mentioned earlier, as well as the following. There is one particular enemy I utterly hated, a yellow bird that flies around and randomly dive bombs you. This winged bastard frequently threw me off, and constantly messed up my combos. I also really wish that the game was a bit more diverse in terms of level design. Most of them feel very samey, and once you’ve seen one type of dragon, you’ve seen pretty much all of them. Each cloud layer’s space dragons are pretty similar, and though they get harder the farther you fall, they don’t vary all that much. They just get meaner, and start throwing more annoying enemies and traps at you, such as one creature that spits laser beams in your face. And though I am not docking any points for this, the plot of the game also disappointed me. The premise was cool in the introduction, and then it goes absolutely nowhere. There’s no development for Sydney or Stanley, and that made it harder to feel immersed in this world. Though it’s very possible the narrative gets fleshed out after beating the final stage, I didn’t have enough patience to find out.
It might seem like I disliked more than I enjoyed in EarthNight, but there is one area I feel it excelled – the design. I was initially drawn to demo the game cause of the art of Mattahan, which reminds me of a mix of Ren & Stimpy and Toejam & Earl, but with more fantasy flavor. Everything in the game is bursting with personality, from Sydney and Stanley to the menagerie of beasts living on dragons to the space dragons themselves. The music, by Chipocrite, is also fantastic. It’s charming, weird and never wears out its welcome. I also liked how some levels had different tunes, but none that made me forget the main theme. If I were just grading EarthNight on visuals and sound, it would easily have gotten a perfect score.
My biggest complaint with EarthNight is that the game was constantly tripping over its own ideas, even the good ones. For $14.99, it’s not an expensive game, but I still find it hard to recommend. If you like rogue and don’t mind a very grindy, often confusing experience, you might wanna pick it up. For everybody else, at least wait til some patches have smoothed out the rough edges in the Switch version. Despite all that, I was impressed by Cleaversoft’s creativity in EarthNight, and hope it is put to better use in their next adventure.
Review Copy Provided by Publisher