Cleaversoft’s EarthNight will throw all of your conceptions about the endless runner genre out the window and then kick them to the curb. EarthNight offers an intense, high-skill ceiling platformer experience, set in a gorgeous hand-painted “alt-fantasy universe” of men and dragons. It’s both artistically gorgeous and sports addictive “easy to learn, hard to master” mechanics.

At PAX East, I was given the opportunity to play a show floor demo of EarthNight. Plus, I had the chance to sit down with Rich Siegel, creator of the game and founder of Cleaversoft. Here’s what we got out of our experience.

The Basics

In EarthNight’s take on the endless runner genre, you run atop the backs of massive dragons with each run boasting procedurally generated layouts and platforms that are scattered with dangerous and weird fantasy creatures. Each level culminates with a brief rhythmically timed sequence where you get to slay the dragon before moving on to the next dragon or world; it’s a gratifying moment when you take a break from the running to indulge in the sheer awesomeness.

First off, you’ll want to avoid dashing headfirst into these enemies by jumping over them or bouncing off their heads, as you’d normally expect to do in a platformer. You’ve got a health bar that, once it depletes, it’s Game Over and back to the beginning so you have to carefully plan your every move. There is a myriad of power-ups and items that give you points, as well, to help you on your journey.

Timing is key here: mashing the button hits the dragon with pathetically feeble attacks that do little damage; you might as well be petting the dragon’s head. Syncing with the game’s rhythm, though, will allow you to deal strong, meaty attacks with satisfying animations whether you either gouge or deliver a strong kick to the dragon.

The game follows a simple two button format: “Jump” and using the control stick to either slow down or speed up. It’s simple to learn, but difficult to master. When you actually sit down with the game, the game moves fast and there’s a lot happening on screen to distract you; it would be easy for an inexperienced player to find themselves struggling with timing the arc of their jump, or running into enemies by mistake. The real make-or-break between a novice and a skilled player, though, is the combo system. Combos allow you to regenerate health and affect your score multiplier. Depending on your RNG and which dragon you choose, you can potentially full combo an entire level with the right skills. As Siegel put it, the difference between a novice and an expert

The real make-or-break between a novice and a skilled player, though, is the combo system. Combos allow you to regenerate health and affect your score multiplier. Depending on your RNG and which dragon you choose, and with the right skills, players could potentially full-combo an entire level. As Siegel put it, the difference between a novice and an expert “is a very wide chasm.”

The full game might take only as short as half an hour, but you’ve got to master this game’s mechanics if you want to make it all the way through. Your journey ends once you land on the planet and clear the final level, EarthNight. Getting that far will require lots of practice, trial and error, and mental breakthroughs about how to play. “EarthNight is all about trial and error, and that sense of discovery. There’s so much more things that are more complicated ‘You can jump on this enemy, this one you can’t,” Siegel told me. Even once you beat it, you’ll be tempted to keep coming back to prove your skills: whether it’s attempting to combo harder for higher scores or attempting the fastest speedrun of the game.

Siegel was inspired to design a game for “a whole new generation of people who have never played platformers that are playing them for the first time.” He pointed out that mobile runner games are cool, but lack depth – yet, despite this, they’ve been successful in reaching a younger audience. EarthNight was designed as a take on that genre with all the depth of a console game. It doesn’t hold back the punches with its difficulty; it’s a game meant for both hardcore and casual gamers.

The Playable Characters and Choosing Your Playstyle

Meet Sydney and Stanley. Sydney is the game’s poster girl; while Stanley is recommended towards novices, Sydney offers room for much more technical and advanced play.

Stanley has a basic floating jump and will passively swat down smaller enemies with his sword. In comparison, Sydney has very complex jump mechanics. By tapping “Jump” again at the peak of her jump, she’ll execute a double jump. By tapping “Jump” mid-jump before its peak, she’ll perform a dash. By tapping “Jump” while you’re falling from a jump, she’ll divekick down – think Sonic’s homing attack.

As can be assumed, Stanley is definitely the easier of the two to control. His jumps stay relatively consistent and he’s a solid option for players who are trying to clear the game for the first time. However, as Siegel puts it, Sydney has “more potential, but also more potential for downfall”. Double jumping, dashing, and diving offer more potential to extend combos or narrowly dodge enemies. In my experience, though, “more potential for downfall” was definitely true. I sometimes would double jump and not realize that the jump would land me in front of an enemy, or to dive and fall short of the enemy’s head. But, with Sydney, I found that there were cool things I could pull off that I couldn’t do as Stanley.

Another character may arrive after the game officially launches. This will add a third possible playstyle in the game, though there are no details on that yet.

Designing the Game’s Aesthetic

EarthNight would not have come to fruition without its hand-painted art style. After all, Siegel’s biggest inspiration for the game was the game’s artist Paul Davey, known as Mattahan online. By creating EarthNight, he wanted to “bring his art to life.” Every frame you see on screen is a beautiful hand-painted labor, and it’s part of the game’s charm.

Siegel pointed out that EarthNight may have “more texture memory in our game than any 2D game that’s ever been made” in order to make its hand-painted art style possible. Each character consists of around 350 frames, with enemies having tons of frames each.

Working out the game’s hand-painted art style is part of why development has taken so long. However, the art style is an important stylistic choice crucial to Siegel and the team at Cleaversoft that they’d never compromise. “We want it to be a living breathing work of art. We want it to push the boundaries of what we can possibly do with the hardware,” he expressed.

Looking Out Towards Launch

EarthNight will launch in Q4 2017 for PS4 and PS Vita, coming later to Mac and PC. Siegel also expressed his interest in bringing his game to the Switch.

For me, EarthNight was a roaring good time. EarthNight offers tight mechanical play as you speed through the levels, comboing on enemies’ heads and jumping onto platforms while jamming to Chipocrite’s high-energy chiptune soundtrack. Each time I hopped into the game, I told myself that I’d learn something new about how to play better. I did but, even as a platforming veteran, I still suck and have a long way to go. The game has an infectious charm that will keep players coming back and, when the game launches, that for sure will include me.