As a season premiere, "The Crystal Empire" both solidifies the growing visual decadence of "Friendship is Magic" and suggests that there isn't always a need for a two-parter at the start of every season. The growing tradition of attempting to become increasingly more 'epic' with every new season has, for the first time, failed to capture what the writers were undoubtedly going for with these two episodes. Nonsensical and lacking a focused direction, the "The Crystal Empire" struggles to channel its lofty ambitions into episode format.
While fans fell in love with Season 2's Discord, and an enormous PR campaign backed up the "Canterlot Wedding" episodes, those two-part episodes bookmarked the season quite nicely, offering up some interesting villains and stories that were a little over-ambitious but still reasonably well-paced, for the most part. With "The Crystal Empire" things have taken a turn for the narrative worst, sadly, and in part this is most likely because the episodes are shoehorned in without much context. While the same could be said for the introduction of Cadance and Shining Armor last season, the characters were used in a fairly meaningful manner. In "The Crystal Empire" an entirely new empire has sprung up, but its placement seems bereft of any real purpose. Whereas previous two-part episodes have dealt with existing areas Canterlot, mainly this new season has introduced an entirely new place for the sake of the episode.
While I'm all for expanding upon existing lore, nothing of particular worth occurs in this episode. Shining Armour and Princess Cadance make a return, but their involvement in the episode is a little anticlimactic. They use their magic to protect the Crystal Empire, but other than that, and a short scene at the end marking the return of the Crystal Princess, they fail to add much to what little story there is in the premiere. Part 1 is fairly basic and could be described in a couple of sentences. It traces Twilight Sparkle receiving her assignment and arriving in the Crystal Empire, and then setting up the fair. Bar a minor encounter with the new villain, King Sombra, the episode fails to add much to this basic template, apart from a couple of songs that are fairly decent.
To explore King Sombra first, it doesn't seem all that inappropriate to suggest that he's the worst villain in the history of the show. There's absolutely no depth to him in the way there was to Nightmare Moon, Discord or even Queen Chrysalis. With barely any spoken dialogue, he's an evil entity who needs to be disposed of and little more. He has barely any involvement in the episode at all, and his power over illusion or making characters see what they fear most - isn't dissimilar to what we've seen already, especially through the far more charismatic character of Discord. Ultimately, he's an incredibly simplistic villain who lacks any development or personality. That it is easy to discredit his character in a single paragraph speaks volumes about his lack of effectiveness.
Those songs, on the other hand, are a step in the other direction. While not among the series' best, Twilight's song about being prepared leaked a while back is above average, and the "Crystal Pony" song sung by the core cast is one of the better shorter songs that we've seen from "Friendship is Magic". The reprise in Part 2 of "The Crystal Empire" definitely gets the hairs on the back of the neck sticking up, with some of the vocal harmonies working really well. The one downside is that the song is too short, which certainly suggests that it's a good listen while it lasts.
Part 2, after the establishing episode that is the first part, is slightly more interesting, playing off of a few references: the hole and the mystical door at the bottom that Twilight encounters seems to have similarities with "Alice in Wonderland", which is pretty cool. However, just as the first episode failed to really go anywhere, the second part here is mostly about Twilight running from Point A to Point B, ignoring Spike's help due to her facetious personal flaws that really have no place when the fate of the world is in question. It's easy after two entire seasons to know that Twilight Sparkle is self-motivated and headstrong, but her character's insistence on punctuality and her fear of failing is starting to become irritating. Her rant at the start of "The Crystal Empire" about not being prepared for her test implies that she hasn't learned anything from episodes like "Lesson Zero" or "It's About Time", which is disappointing.
Other disappointing characters include Pinkie Pie, who is being written at this point to be stupidly random for no apparent reason. While Season 1's Pinkie Pie was quite quirky, the humour she served up never seemed to really infringe on the episode. In Season 2, there were a few points where she was given completely random lines that almost seemed nonsensical in relation to the core storylines. "The Crystal Empire" doesn't shy away from this, and so in the reprise at the end of the episode she's walking on stilts for some reason, and throughout the episode she's made to dive into her random persona, because that's the only way she can actually be in the episode in any apparent way.
At least Applejack gets a bunch of lines in these episodes. The humorous exchanges between her, Rarity and Rainbow Dash are definitely an example of strong writing; turns of phrase that elicit a positive response, rather than just random nonsense that feels forced. There are quite a few lines between the group that work well, especially the dialogue between Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy during the jousting match. It is nice to see the characters interacting in a meaningful way: whether it's through Applejack chiding Rarity upon the group's arrival at the Crystal Empire for being too focused on the aesthetic brilliance of the place, which reminds the viewer of episodes such as "Look Before you Sleep", to Rarity making quips about how she had to construct a hat out of hay and a drinking straw, there is some effective dialogue in the episode that builds upon what we already know and like about these characters.
The merits of an episode cannot be based entirely on its supporting cast, however, and it is the main plot-line of "The Crystal Empire" that really lets it down. I'm all for Twilight Sparkle being the main character after all, she is the main character of "Friendship is Magic" - but her scenes in this episode didn't seem to be all that interesting. It was nice to see her bonding with Spike, of course, and a couple of exchanges between her and characters such as Rainbow Dash were good, but what we saw of Twilight didn't really seem like it had much purpose, and neither was there any real sense of danger pursuing her. King Sombra's ability to create dark illusions was fairly underused and pulled out of nowhere, and what Twilight Sparkle's sections of the episode essentially boiled down to was a fight against dark coloured rocks.
Keeping the fair going was a reasonable task for the group, but it also felt quite weak, as if they had no real purpose to serve in the episode, and thus were given the duty of keeping the crystal ponies away from the Crystal Heart. It wasn't offensively bad, by any means, and it did make for a few amusing scenes, but generally speaking, there wasn't a lot to really sink your teeth into: there weren't many scenes particularly based around the character's individual traits, such as in "The Return of Harmony" or the "Mare in the Moon" episodes, and instead we were left with a fairly bland Twilight Sparkle episode with a decorative supporting cast veneer over the top of it.
That Twilight Sparkle actually thought that she might fail at the end of the episode because she wasn't the one to obtain the crystal heart was fairly ridiculous, even when taking her emotional state into consideration. Furthermore, the chosen-one story of, "Twilight, only you can do this!" felt lacking in purpose, especially as she wasn't the one who ultimately saved the day. Even if she learned an important lesson during the process, the writing in the episode opened up a few holes that weren't filled.
At least fans can rejoice that Luna made a triumphant return, even if she pretty much shrugged off Twilight Sparkle and cast negative aspersions wherever she could. On the flip-side, the visuals this time around are definitely among the series' best: from a topographical perspective, the Crystal Empire is fairly outstanding and the interior locations are wonderful. Even the crystal ponies themselves, when crystallized, look great. The episode offers plenty of excellent new facial expressions just waiting to be vectored, and some of the magic spells and the like illustrate the growing ambition and technical abilities of the artists working on the show.
While it's nice to see that there's a train track still leading to the Crystal Empire, despite its neglected state for a thousand years or so - Equestrian rail maintenance is clearly more efficient than it is in the UK "The Crystal Empire" across its entire duration is a lackluster season premiere. Unlike other episodes, it doesn't especially add anything to the universe, despite introducing viewers to an entirely new location: the villain is a vacuous 'evil' entity lacking in personality; the story is another trip into Twilight Sparkle's excessive insecurities; and, apart from some well-written dialogue, the majority of the cast are sidelined. It is nice to see Spike prove to be the hero along with Cadance and the like this time around, but such plot twists aren't enough to stop "The Crystal Empire" from objectively being the worst two-part episode so far in the history of "Friendship is Magic".