As the biggest fantasy epic to hit the box office this holiday season, it's not surprising that Eragon has already spawned a video game adaptation for just about every platform on the market. Of these, the Eragon for the Nintendo DS is easily one of the best. It's a simple action adventure game with some platforming elements and touch-screen control gimmicks, but Eragon also has good graphics, a simple but effective combat system, and an impressively large world to explore. It won't change the way you think about the book or the movie, but Eragon is a surprisingly enjoyable game while it lasts.
As the story goes, the world of Alagaesia was once full of dragons and the special warriors who commanded them, known as dragon riders. But an evil tyrant decided that the dragon riders were standing between him and total world dominance, so he killed off most of the dragon riders and dragons. Eragon is a young farmer who finds a mysterious blue stone in the woods one day. Taking it home, he finds out that it's not a stone, but a dragon egg. The dragon hatches, and Eragon soon finds out that he has a mysterious bond with the magic beast, and that he has been chosen to become a dragon rider. It's up to Eragon to save the world from the forces of evil.
You control Eragon and you have to fight your way through five large areas, killing enemies, solving puzzles, and completing side quests. For most of the game you'll wander through the mazelike levels fighting two or three enemies at a time. Eragon has both a sword and a bow, each of which get stronger as you use them. For melee combat you have a quick attack and a slower, stronger attack. You can string these moves together to perform combos, and as you become more proficient with your sword you'll learn new combos. The combat is made easier by the targeting system, which lets you lock on to an enemy and then circle-strafe around him. While you're locked on, you can tap the R button and any direction on the D pad to roll and tumble out of the way of enemy attacks. This makes it easy to dodge and counter, and unless you're up against several enemies at a time you don't have to worry about getting hurt. You can even use the same dodge-and-strike technique to easily finish off most of the handful of bosses in the game.
In addition to basic melee combat, you can attack with your bow. You have a limited number of arrows, but since the bow isn't very useful you'll always seem to have more than enough arrows on hand. To use the bow you have to tap an icon on the touch screen to enter first-person mode. You can then aim with the D pad, face buttons, or touch screen, and fire arrows with the L or R buttons. The problem is you can't move at all while using your bow, and if you get close enough to actually be within firing range of an enemy it will just rush you and start attacking before you can finish it off with your arrows.
Since Eragon is a dragon rider, he's able to use magic. Eragon will eventually learn a few magic spells, although only a couple of them are ever actually useful. There are a couple of spots in the game where you have to use a spell, such as a harden spell that will steady a wobbly bridge, or a bolt spell that will clear debris from a switch you need to hit. For the most part, though, you'll want to use magic as little as possible, because it's a pain to cast a spell. To cast a spell, you start by drawing a symbol on the lower screen. If you draw the symbol correctly a small spell icon will appear, which you have to touch with the stylus and "flick" toward the top screen to execute the spell. It's a cumbersome interface that just doesn't work well when you're in the midst of combat. You can activate "Spellcast time," which slows time for a few seconds to let you get your spell off, but it doesn't make the process any less of a hassle. To make this control mechanic even worse, the touch screen is often unresponsive, so it either won't recognize the symbol you draw, or it will incorrectly interpret your scribblings and you'll end up casting the wrong spell.
There are a couple of flying sections in the game as well, where you hop atop your dragon, Saphira, and fly through a series of floating rings. That's right, floating rings. Hasn't game design progressed beyond this by now? Apparently not for Eragon. These levels are thankfully short, and they're extremely easy. Each time you miss a ring you lose health, but since you're stuck flying on rails there's hardly any room to deviate from the path, which means you actually have to go out of your way to miss rings. You are rewarded for putting up with the tedium, though, in the form of a couple of minigames that you'll unlock when you fly through enough rings. One of the minigames just has you tracing symbols as they appear on the bottom screen, and it's every bit as inane as it sounds. The other minigame is a top-down shooter in which you dogfight with up to three other dragons and score points by shooting your enemies. It's certainly better than the symbol-tracing minigame, but it still doesn't lend the game any longevity.
You can finish Eragon in four or five hours, and once you do there's not much reason to ever go back to it. There are some side quests that you can pick up from non-player characters throughout the world, but they are mostly just fetch tasks that require you to collect a certain number of a specific item. You can earn items for completing these quests, but the items aren't necessary or useful.
The graphics in Eragon are good. The character models are all a little blocky, but they're fairly detailed for 3D characters in a handheld game. They also animate quite well, and Eragon in particular has an impressive array of attack animations that all look good. The highlight of the presentation is the level design. The areas you'll explore are all very large, and the draw distance gives you a great view of distant landscapes. The levels all feel different and look good, with the wide-open spaces of outdoor areas and the narrow, twisting corridors of dark castles and underground caverns. The one problem with the presentation is the unstable frame rate. When there are a couple of enemies onscreen the game tends to slow considerably. The drop in frame rate is usually sustained for several seconds at a time, and it happens frequently. Unlike the frame rate, the music keeps up with the action quite well. The tunes do get slightly repetitive after awhile, but in most areas you'll find that the music sounds clear and fits the theme of each area perfectly.
Eragon does have its problems, but it's still a decent game overall. The combat is repetitive but it works well, the levels are huge and fun to explore, and the game is easy on the eyes. The touch-screen controls are poorly designed and tend to clash with the rest of the action, but for the most part you can ignore them. The game is also quite short and can easily be finished on a single charge of your DS. But despite all of that, Eragon is worth a look if you're in the market for a simple action adventure game.