First, the musical numbers. I'm sorry to say that I found them mostly uninspired. "The Ballad of the Crystal Empire" was nice enough, being both pleasing to listen to and serving as a montage of preparations for the fair, but "The Failure Song" and "The Success Song" did nothing for me and felt shoe-horned in to meet a quota of musical numbers. Less is more, folks, and always remember that musical numbers really should only happen when the character's emotions reach a point where just talking won't cut it. I was not buying that as the case for Twilight here. Maybe for "The Failure Song" but definitely not "The Success Song." And, perhaps more crucially, if you removed these two songs, nothing would be lost, which is a good way of identifying extraneous musical numbers. Take "The Failure Song." We've already seen Twilight over-prepare for the test before leaving for Canterlot, and the first two seasons also show her scholarly abilities and growth as a person (well, pony). And her lament about not being prepared for the task which Celestia set her is also covered before the song even starts, when Twilight voices just such concerns to her mentor. I also think that the tone of song doesn't fit with the relatively darker tone of the rest of the two-parter. It feels too Disney coming off the heels of a fairly tense book scene (if you'll pardon the theatre lingo). There's some legitimately discomfiting stuff in these episodes, and there's some mood whiplash here.
But as far as the actual story goes, I have no complaint. Twilight is summoned by Princess Celestia to save the Crystal Empire by stopping Kind Sombra from stealing back control of the empire with his black crystals. I'm kind of hazy on the details, having only watched this once, but the best parts of the episode don't deal with minutia, they focus on Twilight's character arc. Enjoyable parts include the very first scene with her packing for a test in Canterlot and having a mini-version of her "Lesson Zero" freakout. She may have learned her lesson then, but that doesn't mean that Twilight's studies aren't the most important thing to her after friends and family. Besides this scene being funny, it also hearkens back to previous character moments as well as setting up how important it is to Twilight to pass this episode's test. I liked seeing Princess Luna again, and there were some cryptic exchanges between the two princesses of which I was unsure whether they were just for setting up the atmosphere of the episode or if they were hinting at a possible plot arc for this season, in the same way that the Grand Galloping Gala was a plot arc for the first season. We'll skip the first song, as I've already talked about it. When Twilight and friends arrive in the north and meet Shining Armor, that was actually fairly, well, not scary, but definitely eerier than I'd been expecting. Something I did expect which didn't come to pass was that the black crystal chunks on Shining Armor's horn would factor more into the plot than to block his magic, but I guess having him get possessed would be too much like what happened to his bride last season. The Crystal Empire itself was really freaking eerie, sort of deserted and dystopian. And the overhanging sense of oncoming doom kept the tension in the episode high. I was glad that the story followed through on Twilight having to find the Crystal Heart alone; again, that keeps the stakes high and the focus on the character who is undergoing a development arc. And Spike coming along made sense; he's her number one assistant, a nice foil for her, and the way they helped each other helped Twilight learn something about herself and helping others. This time was different from the usual sort of friendship lesson. Instead of learning to work as a team to overcome an obstacle, it was, as Princess Celestia said, about self-sacrifice, about acting on your own, but still for the good of others. And even though it hurt for Twilight to go against the conditions of the test, she made the call without much dithering, because she knew it was the right thing.
Twilight Sparkle is the protagonist of this story, but Friendship is Magic is overall an ensemble show, and the narrative for these episodes does a nice balance of keeping her at the center of things while not giving the other ponies short shrift. Rarity acts completely in character, being a supportive friend even while she is understandably distracted by all of the shiny things. Applejack is the loyal lancer to Twilight, holding down the fort and keeping things on track. Rainbow Dash is headstrong, unthinking, and a source of comic relief, especially when paired with inoffensive and timid Fluttershy. And Pinkie is just Pinkie. These five all get moments to themselves, such as when they're searching for information and running the fair, which helps balance the episode. And Spike is allowed his fair share of screen time as well, and his relationship with Twilight is, as always, adorable.
Overall I was very pleased with these two episodes as the opener for season three. Unlike some highly anticipated pieces of media, the build-up did not let down all of the fanbase's hopes and dreams. On a completely unrelated note, I think I might start crossposting my Golden Sun: Dark Dawn reviews/gameblogs here from my old blog. Keep an eye out for that, as well as for more MLP and other reviews.