The auto-runner genre is one that’s typically associated with the mobile gaming space, where microtransactions and shallow gameplay are an expected burden. Indeed, some examples—such as Super Mario Run—have shown there can be a little more depth to the concept than one might assume, but nonetheless, these games have achieved a reputation of being passable time-sinks. EarthNight, the latest release from Cleaversoft, clearly aims to shatter these expectations, as it presents the player with a gorgeous, dragon-infested world and some light roguelite elements to keep each successive run interesting. Although there’s only so much enjoyment one can glean from such a relatively short game, EarthNight nonetheless does a fantastic job of keeping the player’s interest and showing that the auto-runner genre can be quite compelling when done right.

The premise of EarthNight is simple, as you’re thrust into a world wherein space dragons have overrun the Earth and driven the remaining humans into orbit. On each run, you take control of either Stanley or Sydney, who are fed up with the change and begin a dragon-slaying, skydiving excursion through the layers of the atmosphere and back to the Earth. As you’d probably expect, the storytelling is kept to a bare minimum here in favor of a heightened focus on gameplay, but that’s not to say that the world isn’t expressive in its own way. Little things like an alien who follows you around in some levels and berates you or a quick-witted scientist who handles upgrades for your kit back on the ship help to inject some personality into the compelling and brutal gameplay, making it feel like more than just a weird trip across a dragon’s rainbow-scaled back.

You begin each run by falling to the Earth at terminal velocity, with swarms of multicolored dragons flying around between you and your target. Approach one of them, and you’ll descend onto its back, where you’ll begin a brief side-scrolling journey to reach the beast’s head. Along the way, loads of treasures can be picked up for later use and hordes of enemies will accost you from nearly every direction in a bid to protect their fire-breathing master. Most enemies can be dispatched with a standard stomp to the head, but many will also require the usage of some weapon pickups along the way.

Though you start out each level running along the dragon’s back, there’s actually a considerable amount of verticality to each dragon via a series of interconnected, randomly generated floating platforms that contain all sorts of goodies. Rather like in the older Sonic the Hedgehog games, taking the highest paths usually leads to the best kinds of rewards, but the journey there takes a considerable amount of skill to pull off successfully. You can alter your character’s speed and velocity to a certain degree, but you can’t make them stop running completely, which means that you have to constantly be calculating distances and jump heights as new obstacles are thrown at you. At first, you’ll no doubt be whiffing on plenty of jumps and find yourself careening face-first into enemies you intended to use as platforms, but continuous play teaches you that there’s a rhythm to each level that can help you plan better for risky or blind jumps.

Indeed, if we were to describe EarthNight’s gameplay in a single word, it would certainly be frantic. As soon as you land on a new dragon, it’s off to the races and the game wastes no time in assaulting you with enemies, collectibles, powerups, and tantalizingly placed platforms that all combine to positively overwhelm your senses. There’s no ‘right’ way to go in any given run, but you have to constantly be keeping an eye on all regions of the screen as you’re weighing various opportunities concurrently. Do you try to chain-stomp a series of easy enemies to top up your health reserves, or do you try to make that iffy jump to a platform way above you? Do you keep trying to climb to higher platforms, or do you drop down a few to grab that shield power up? Every second demands that you be decisive in all that you do, as opportunities will continually present themselves and be washed away as you embark on your mad dash to the dragon’s head.

Once you finally reach the dragon’s head, a small ‘boss fight’ will begin in which your character has a few seconds to use their chosen weapon to gnaw away at the dragon’s health bar. Though it requires nothing more than repeated presses of a single button, this turns out to be no small feat. Every dragon has a distinct rhythm you have to match to maximize your damage output, and if you happen to go off rhythm, it’s all too likely that you won’t have nearly enough time to fully empty the dragon’s health. Some dragons require slow, infrequent stabs while others can only be killed by button mashing, and still others have unique patterns that are only telegraphed by specific tells. Should you fail, you’re not directly punished in any way, but if you succeed, your character obtains a rare drop from the dragon, such as a tooth or an eye.

We rather appreciated this take on fighting the dragons, as it walks a strange line between being relaxed and intense. It takes a second or two at the start of every fight to get a feel for the dragon’s rhythm, and then it becomes a stress-inducing experience of keeping the rhythm while watching the clock tick away your few precious seconds to kill the dragon and get your loot. These fights never outstay their welcome, and they prove to provide just enough of a break from the frantic gameplay that you feel ready to go again once you arrive at that next dragon.

A complete run of EarthNight should take you no more than thirty minutes tops, but it’s a harrowing journey, one that you are near-certain to fail whether it be your first try or your fifteenth. Enemy waves become ever more relentless as you get closer to the Earth and encounter new dragons, and its all too easy to go from top health to dead after just a few critical mistakes. When you die, all the treasure you collected along the way is converted into water (the main currency) while all the dragon parts you won are handed over to the scientist for safekeeping. Depending on what you grabbed, he may be able to make a new powerup for you, and these powerups are critical in ensuring that future runs will be more viable.

For example, an early powerup takes the shape of a boot that you can pick up at random on your journey which will grant you a temporary double jump capability. Or, in another example, a magnifying glass pickup can slowly zoom out the camera and give you a better idea of what lies ahead. Nothing on its own is particularly game changing, but having more of these pickups available along the way has a cumulative effect of giving you more of a fighting chance. This, in turn, means that you’re more likely to get more yield out of each run, which gives you more options for unlocking new powerups and upgrading existing ones. It’s a rewarding feedback loop, one that helps to take the sting out of watching a promising twenty-minute run go up in smoke because of a silly mistake. No death is completely without merit, as you’re always picking up new stuff and more loot that will help your next runs be that much easier.

We’d be remiss to discuss EarthNight without paying some special attention to the absolutely stellar presentation. Lead artist Paul Davey drew and painted around 10,000 pieces of art and animation for EarthNight, and that attention to detail is abundantly clear in every frame. In many ways, EarthNight embodies the spirit of notebook doodles coming to life, as the imaginative and wild spacescapes bustle with light, color, and activity. Weird monsters and gorgeous backgrounds are par for the course here, making each run an absolute delight to behold. All of this is backed by a catchy chiptune soundtrack from Paul Weinstein, which manages to strike a nice balance between a perky, Animanaguchi-esque sound and a more dreamlike and relaxing vibe. Though there are only a relative few tracks on the soundtrack, each one of them is special in its own way and perfectly matches the pace of the action happening on screen.

All of this is well-and-good, though our biggest complaint is something that ultimately comes with the territory for an auto-runner: the length. EarthNight is designed to be played over and over in brief thirty-minute bursts, and though this is fine to begin with, there’s a lingering sense of diminishing returns that sets in as the hours begin to roll by. Once you’ve gotten most of the unlocks and have mastered the jumping mechanics, a sense of repetition sets in that’s hard to ignore, as you find yourself in more ‘been there, done that’ scenarios. To be fair, it’s not entirely a bad thing when our main complaint about a game is that there simply isn’t enough of it, but nonetheless, just be aware that EarthNight isn’t a game with a terribly long tail.

Another more minor issue is that the performance isn’t always as rock solid as we wish it would be. It’s not too common, but there are spare moments where the screen is so swarmed with treasure and enemies that the framerate take a noticeable dive. Things pick up again quickly, but there were a few moments where these dropped frames resulted in us missing jumps and making mistakes that otherwise wouldn’t have happened. Hopefully the developers will find a way to fix this with a patch, as it stands as a notable blemish on an otherwise seamless experience.

Conclusion

EarthNight stands as a shining example of what an auto-runner can be, combining rewarding feedback loops, fun gameplay, and excellent presentation into one compelling package. Though it isn’t a particularly long experience and performance hiccups can occasionally hinder gameplay, these issues are mostly ignorable when compared with the impressive quality of everything else on display. If you consider yourself a fan of platformers or are looking to buy a game for your Switch that’ll be easy to get into regarding the time investment, we’d highly recommend EarthNight. Auto-runners don’t get much better than this, and it’s a blast to play through.