[REVIEW] EarthNight (Switch)

Lands on one foot with style over substance.

EarthNight is one of those games that can have a gravitational pull on players by stellar presentation alone. The crisp live/chip soundtrack creating beautiful wavelengths joyfully tickling your eardrums while you take control of flight through the outer reaches of your planet running across the backs and long stretches of gorgeous dragons can be a carefree exhilaration like no other. The team at Cleaversoft have worked an exact handful of years to make this auto-runner stand out. It’s best in short bursts because it is short. However, it falls short on something more worthwhile for the long run. EarthNight’s ideas feel unnecessary in order to draw out the experience for continuous play leaving no real incentive to keep playing.

It’s the dragon apocalypse and dragons have taken over Earth. You want to reach home and in order for you to take it back you must evacuate your spacecraft and dive down to it. The way EarthNight presents itself leaves you immersed in its absolutely kick-ass style as every transition in the gameplay makes you look cool every hop, dive & step of the way. Save for one NPC, words are completely void when it comes to getting a full story. The art direction and animation will have to speak for itself and it manages to do so just fine. The main menu dawns your two playable characters and screen selections by art alone. Pretty much from the get-go, you’re immediately allowed to take on your adventure with very little instruction. Controls are easy to grasp, however, and there’s visual aids that serve as tips which can be found in the settings.

Being an auto-runner, moving constantly is the core gameplay here. You can change your tempo on the fly at all times, though. Even during jumps. You take control from either 1 of two characters of your preference. Both play with slight differences. Sydney has the ability for jumping in mid-air allowing for a double-jump, as well as another move allowing her to take a dive while in the air. Stanley can’t perform those moves, but he does have a longer jump distance and the ability to cause an area-of-effect when diving towards the ground properly; useful for clearing away nearby enemies.

Everything is all about your current run. Each level has you race through it on a dragon’s back jumping and bouncing off enemies, reaching heights to new platformers, collecting powerups and then finally reach the dragon’s head at the end to kill it. The showdown on the dragon’s head is of a time limit and it must be taken down within that constraint in order to acquire a key item, but failing to do so will still fling you off to the next portion of your current run. One major factor to the differently themed levels is that everything is procedurally generated. This is a so-so approach.

As you attempt to reach your end destination with your downward descend, players are greeted with diving portions between the different layers of spheres that blanket the Earth. Like parasites swimming in an ocean of air, new types of dragons will come and go allowing you to choose which one you will take on next. Essentially choose your own level within the spheres. Should you fail to claim a dragon’s demise, you can remain in the same sphere to try again or another dragon. Ultimately, you can bypass them altogether and enter the next sphere if you so choose.

The behavior of dragons will vary between them. Some dragons are more aggressive in shaking you off than others. Some required to be attacked differently. It all requires the same input, however. There’s not much depth when it comes to dragons. By pressing Down, Sydney or Stanley will attack. Sydney summons a spirit while Stanley wields a sword. More damage can be done if the player allows Sydney’s spirit to charge up or Stanley to raise his sword before attacking. This is useful for dragons that require it. Others have a harder shell and need to be attacked repeatedly, so agility is a factor rather than timing here.

Defeating dragons is crucial in order to obtain the right ingredients, such as dragon fangs, to upgrade powerups you’ve found during your runs. There are many powerups to aid you during your runs. You can be protected by shields that allow you to go through enemies and defeat them without you taking any damage. There are boots that allow an extra jump, allowing Stanley to have the benefit that Sydney has, at the same time giving Sydney even another one. There will be lots of pickups in levels, such as food, that is necessary to collect as it will be converted into water (it is the apocalypse after all), necessary for survival. You just don’t feel that urge that people are trying to survive. Upgrading the water tank allows for better upgrades, but it all seems like a convoluted way to maximize having a more enjoyable experience that you should feel on your first run instead of working your way up to that point.

One run can take about 15 minutes. Optimizing your runs can take upward to 30 minutes. EarthNight is relatively short and once I’ve experienced a few runs I’ve pretty much felt nothing else to compel me to continue playing, despite doing so. There are the different dragons to tackle and deserve being taken on. The core gameplay loop just feels contradictory to different playstyle which makes the entire experience feel oddly confusing at times and even frustrating. I’m not sure what EarthNight is trying to be in the grander picture. There’s a certain satisfaction when playing runners that is meant to put you into a groove of nailing the right speed and timing jumps properly that creates a rhythm and flow worth getting into, whether it’s chaining combos or getting through platforming sections with proper maneuvering. EarthNight feels a bit off.

EarthNight has platforms and it has its enemies, but the random nature of it all means you have to play according to its rules even if it doesn’t always offer a clear solution to feeling like a natural part of gameplay. Taking hits means you lose health. The only way to gain health is to chain landing on at least 5 enemies in a row without touching any ground. Performing the chain as long as you like will return you health for as long as you can keep going. The problem here is you’ll never know what’s ahead of you and if you manage to get a good rhythm of bouncing on enemies, another enemy may interrupt you abruptly, which could’ve been avoided if you had a right powerup, which all goes back to not having it in the first place due to lack of ingredients needed from many required runs or it just didn’t show up for you to pickup.

Since speed is in your control, it can make runs feel typically awkward. Going at a decent speed might not be optimal as you’ll have to slow your role if you want to pick up a certain item or land on an enemy. Successful jumping or diving onto an enemy allows you to perform an extra jump. Reaching heights and getting good airtime from pouncing on enemies is a good way to see what’s in store above, but the randomly generated platforms and enemies are a guess. You might not find something above, and when you’re floating down you may just get hit by an enemy or miss it by an inch since your set flow feels like it mostly doesn’t matter. And the fact that down-thrusting a kick is floaty and slow means timing any landing feels sluggish when it should feel snappy instead.

It also suffers from no online leaderboards. This is probably the case of the game not needing one anyway, but completion time + total pickups could at least extend longevity to some degree. EarthNight’s artstyle lends itself well. It’s a pretty game. The sound and transitions of music is a pleasure. This type of auto-runner is going to vary between people. Without much incentive to keep playing on top of the frustrating choices, it can be hard to fully recommend. I can’t undersell that EarthNight has a heart. That alone means it’s worth checking it out to see if it’s for you.

Summary
EarthNight is superb audio-visual experience that has its own style. It just simply looks awesome. The rather short gameplay with no incentive to keep playing is one issue, but can be overlooked if you just like the gameplay for what it is. The convoluted way of padding for upgrades and the procedurally-generated elements that can't commit to one unique playstyle that is player-dependent is what hurts it overall.
The Stellar
  • Vibrant artstyle and thoughtful art direction.
  • Juicy drum & bass and chiptune soundtrack.
  • Unique style.
The Lesser
  • Procedurally generated elements are hit or miss.
  • Short, no real incentive to keep playing.
  • Gameplay doesn't conform to one specific play style over another at any given moment.
6.9
Decent
Gameplay - 6
Visual - 7.5
Audio - 8
Value - 6

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