Review: EarthNight

I have no idea what about this game prompted this title. While a lot of the game takes place in space, where it is dark like night, there’s not much about actual night. It feels like a title that in no small part exists because the most obvious title of Fall To Earth While Killing Dragons kind of reads as too pretentiously postmodern for what the game is trying to be.

Really, what it’s trying to be is right there. Whatever else it may have in its creative makeup, EarthNight is a game that wants you to be surfing on the back of a gigantic dragon as your lone character goes to kill the dang thing. It’s an homage in gameplay terms to the gentle fun and challenge of arcade titles, but with a modern game loop design based on enjoyment rather than contempt and a desire to earn your quarters.

This is not always completely to its credit. In focusing heavily on that same basic structure and in the way that the overall running action works, the game frequently runs afoul of expecting you to fail your way into understanding the mechanics. It’s just that it turns out a charming art style and a feeling of just the right sort of gentle difficulty ramp make it addictive enough that you won’t mind too much.

EarthNight is available on PC, Nintendo Switch, and PlayStation 4 on December 3rd. The PC version was played for this review.

A Lesson is Learned

EarthNight in general follows a pretty straightforward progression. You start off on the back of a dragon, running along its back and dodging enemies or killing them. Characters can defeat enemies via jumping on them, although some require either power-ups to be killed or special attacks like hitting the ground at a high velocity. Your goal is to collect the many, many non-enemy objects across said dragon’s back.

The majority of the things you encounter are simple collectibles that award players with more water, used as a currency between stages to unlock special power-ups as well as upgrading those power-ups. Beyond that, though, you’ll also grab the aforementioned powerups, several of which make enemies vulnerable to a specific type of damage and others providing basic powers like damage protection, double-jumps, more viewing distance, and so forth. These powerups can’t be collected until they’re unlocked, giving you more reason to kill dragons as you fall downward.

Both of the characters also play a little bit different. Stanley has a sword, which makes hacking away at enemies with the appropriate sword power-up far easier while also making him better at killing the dragon head at the end of the level. Sydney, meanwhile, can dash and double-jump by default, but she needs to use those dashes to damage things when she gains her own attack power-ups. Broadly, it’s a split between “better at killing stuff” and “better at maneuvering.”

Power-ups do not help with your health, though – that’s done by stringing together combos in which you kill larger numbers of enemies without touching the ground (or, if you have one of Stanley’s swords, in quick succession). Keep up a string longer than four and you’ll start regaining health. Once you run out of health, your spaceship beams you back in to unlock new powerups and lick your wounds, starting back over from the top of the atmosphere.

Dragons, ironically, won’t attack you directly. Instead, your goal is timing your stabs into the dragon’s head just right to harm them in the right time window; failing to do so leads to the dragon bucking you off, but your descent continues regardless. This is also where the last collectible item comes in, as you can grab up to three eggs on the dragon’s back, each one reducing the number of stabs needed to kill the dragon at the end.

Once you’re off a dragon, though, you’re plummeting back down, steering either away from dragons or toward them as you continue downward. There’s an element of risk and reward, of course. You get water from landing on dragons and going through their stages, but you also want to minimize the damage you take along the way. Do you go for the risky path and land on lots of dragons? Try to minimize how many you hit at the risk of not getting much from the run? It’s up to how you want to play.

All well and good. Unfortunately, there are elements that drag you down, starting with how badly some of this information is conveyed to players.

For example – the “bread” powerups that Sydney collects are how she makes enemies vulnerable to her dashes. This is conveyed to you only if you happen to check through the loading screen tips manually. The game doesn’t really tell you how many of these things work until after you’ve collected them, and not even then if we’re being honest.

Some enemies can’t be jumped on. How can you tell? Well, usually they have spikes, but it can be hard to see that when hurtling along (and you will be hurtling along). How can you tell if Sydney has charged her attack on the dragon? It turns out you look at the flames around it, which is also never mentioned anywhere.

None of this is a crippling weakness, of course. Heck, it’s almost in keeping with the idea of a very arcade-like game; you expect those not to tell you everything. But the reliance on forcing you to try and fail repeatedly before explaining anything is also a bit on the frustrating side. Everyone’s going to run to a different point on that particular scale.

It’s the sort of thing that makes the game just another beautiful lush arcade-esque title instead of a real slam dunk. And discussing the lushness of the game is as good a place as any to start talking about the story.

The Damage is Irreversible

I say “story,” but the thing about the story is that it’s both pointedly and intentionally bare-bones. Dragons emerge and prove entirely unscathed by mortal devices, so a pair of relentless humans by the names of Sydney and Stanley take on the dragons via the bold strategy of “dropping from near-Earth orbit and then stabbing dragons in the head.” The story is exactly as fleshed out as it needs to be to get you to that point.

In other words, it’s an excuse plot to get you to the stuff the developers care about. Fortunately, it’s exactly long enough to mesh with the game’s dreamlike and gauzy atmosphere, conveyed with sprites bursting with color and vibrancy set against minimal 3D elements, largely in the background.

Make no mistake, the dreamlike logic carries through in the visuals, with the sprites and the pixelated enemies looking like Hiernymous Bosch by way of Lisa Frank. You run loops along the back of the dragon as its spine curves and twists, each one bearing the long and serpentine shape of an Eastern dragon as they twirl their way through the atmosphere. The tableau is dreamlike and inspiring, beautiful even as you try to swerve clear of all the damage coming your way.

With so much made up by hand-drawn sprites, often with astonishingly detailed animations that you only get to see in glimpses as you hurtle past your enemies, the faintly disturbing spectre of the 3D-rendered dragons either in the background or when you descent toward them feels…off-putting and wrong, but in an intentional way. Like the moments in an aforementioned dream with your mind filling in things that may or may not be there. Both characters have a distinct and memorable design, so it’s easy to pick yourself out against the crowds of stuff on screen at any given moment.

All of this is helped along by the soundtrack as well, using a mixture of full tracks complete with proper instruments and chiptune-based renditions of the same songs. You can choose to only listen to one or the other, but the game’s default mode is to weave between the two almost seamlessly. Again, it’s like being inside of a dream; everything makes emotional sense rather than logical sense, a perfect addition to the already trance-like state you reach when you’re happily cruising along in an arcade title to begin with.

The biggest downside to all of this, sadly, is that the aforementioned pace of gameplay is at odds with all of this. So much of the lovely artwork gets left behind as you are encouraged – nay, pushed to do everything as quickly as possible, regardless of how much you might want to stop and admire all the art ahead of you. While there’s no timer for stages, there’s a functional timer to much of it, and that means you’ll probably play multiple times before you even start to notice some of the artistic flourishes in the game.

Then again, that’s probably part of the intent, isn’t it? You want to come back to progress further in the dream, with new flashes of oddity and surreal trances hidden further beneath the clouds. While there are a few hiccups with that progression, it ultimately relies chiefly on feel and satisfaction to keep you plying, not the promise of more plot.

Dive and Roar

There are lots of other little things to like about EarthNight. I enjoy the fact that the game plays not just well but intuitively on a keyboard, with a simple control scheme that feels not-at-all weakened by lack of a D-pad. There’s the fact that you can just turn the UI off altogether if you want, trusting yourself to intuit how close you are to death and not concern yourself with mechanics too much.

But after a certain point it’s just restating the same basic points. This is a game that both looks gorgeous and hits its target in terms of straightforward play that keeps bringing you back for another round of diving and slashing to the surface of the Earth. If you’re keen on losing yourself in that dream-like trance, it’s going to do a good job of that.

Sadly, it has just enough downsides that the game becomes impossible to recommend to people who aren’t interested in that. Which is a shame, because the stuff it gets right is really charming and fun. But if you’re just charmed by the visuals, you’ll find enough fun in here to keep playing just for that, and the gentle curve upward in difficulty makes it clear that you will eventually get through everything.

~ Final Score: 7/10 ~

Review copy provided by Cleaversoft for PC. Screenshots courtesy of Cleaversoft.