TO READ PART 1, CLICK HERE
(Warning: Spoilers ahead!)
Part 3 begins right where Part 2 left off, and I think now is a good time to talk about Radiant Hope as a character. What do I think of Hope? I think she's a perfectly fine character, but her motivations and situational reactions are very skewed. I don't mean in the respect that she doesn't know what restoring Sombra will mean in the long run or that she's being used by the umbrum (spoilers: Hope is being used by the umbrum) -- she reacts to certain situations in ways that we as readers don't expect her to. And that isn't as painfully obvious as in this scene.
Hope just watched two Equestrian princesses -- her personal magic instructors -- get turned to stone, and she shrugs it off like nothing happened. She reacted to Princess Amore getting shattered to pieces with more emotion. Does Hope not feel any attachment to the princesses beyond that of ruler and subject? Scenes like this, where Hope shows no emotion toward what's happening, make it hard to sympathize with her character troubles. Some parts do, but parts like this don't. Like one step forward, one step back.
Anyway, with all the princesses (except Cadance) out of the way, Sombra announces his plan to release the umbrum from their prison. And here's where the whole villain team-up thing finally gets interesting.
Chrysalis knows for a fact that releasing the umbrum will mean the possible end of Equestria, and the rest of the villains think to themselves, "You know what? This isn't exactly what I signed on for." Chrysalis and the changelings head for the hills, and the villains are left without any guidance. (REMEMBER THIS! THIS WILL BE IMPORTANT LATER!)
So after Sombra briefly isolates himself to "be alone with his thoughts", we have a one-on-one between Radiant Hope and Cadance. To prevent Hope from warning Sombra about her, Cadance uses dark magic for the first time. (REMEMBER THIS TOO!)
Cadance tells Hope the umbrum are evil. Hope says they're not. Cadance says "prove it". Time for a road trip to the umbrum's world. (Oh, and Twilight's friends break Sombra's sealing spell on her horn through the magic of friendship or... plot convenience or something. That happens too.) In the umbrum's world, Cadance meets the umbrum and realizes how cute and cuddly they are. But things are a little dark. So Cadance literally sheds some light on the situation and--
OH, MY GOD, WHAT LOVECRAFTIAN SLICE OF HELL IS THIS?!?
This is some of the most impressive, if terrifying, MLP-related art I've ever seen. Mad props, Price.
The umbrum reveal to Cadance and Hope their true nature and Sombra's true purpose, and they barely escape back to the castle. Hope tries to warn Sombra about the umbrum, but by this time Sombra's already uncovered the door keeping them caged and the Mane Six have arrived to stop him. When Twilight's magic attack causes Hope to get hurt, Sombra angrily releases the umbrum from captivity.
Well, that ain't good, is it?
Which brings us to Part 4 of "Siege of the Crystal Empire" (Oh, no, I'm sorry. "SEIGE of the Crystal Empire". Were the proofreaders half-unconscious?*) and quite possibly my favorite part of the whole story.
The first half of Part 4 is brilliantly written and paced; the stakes and tension have never been higher. The umbrum roam free. The Crystal Ponies have retreated into their homes. Celestia and Luna are still trapped in stone. Twilight's friends have escaped while she, Cadance, and Shining Armor have been taken prisoner. Emperor Sombra now reigns supreme. The umbrum put the screws to Twilight and Cadance to reveal their friends' (the "rebels"') location, and Twilight and Cadance are basically set to be publicly executed.
Meanwhile, Hope has essentially shut down. This, in my opinion, is Hope at her most sympathetic. I think having been fed lies for a thousand years, finally realizing how wrong she was, and really asking herself what she's been fighting for this whole time and not knowing the answer was simply too much for her to handle. And it gives way to what I believe is Hope's best quality:
She doesn't believe in destiny. Despite having seen her predicted future as a princess in her reflection in the Crystal Heart, she never resigned herself to that fate. She chose to abandon her destiny to save her friend. I really like this. Radiant Hope is far from a perfect character, but for all I've said about her skewed motivations, she does have positive qualities.
But unfortunately, as much as I enjoyed the first half of this issue, the second half is... tremendously underwhelming. The rebellion has returned to take back the empire. And what do they fight back with? Magic? Weapons? Brute force? ...No.
They fight back with party cannons. They fight back with "fabulousness". They fight back with lassos. And they enlist the help of fillies. (Whose idea was it to bring the Cutie Mark Crusaders to a battlefield?!) Probably the only entertaining part in all this is Discord as he lets slip the... furry critters of war. (XD)
Unfortunately, it highlights a glaring problem I have with the umbrum: THEY'RE A JOKE. These are not the same monsters that Chrysalis and her swarm fled from in the last issue. Chrysalis said they laid waste to the empire and spread despair during her time. And here they are going down from ropes, shiny clothes, and apples to the face. This sort of fight scene fit in more in the Nightmare Rarity arc because the Nightmare Forces are introduced as menacing but goofy. With the umbrum, it's just a disappointing sight after Chrysalis was so afraid of them in the last issue.
Oh, and that reminds me. Where are Iron Will, Lightning Dust, and the Flim Flams? The previous issue left them doubting themselves about their role in the empire invasion, and now they're suddenly gone. No participation in the rebellion. No atonement for what they did. No one even mentions them again, making the big villain team-up from three issues past... ultimately pointless.
What happens next? Lots of talk about choosing one's own destiny and reflections -- at this point, I've honestly stopped caring. Sombra betrays the umbrum, he puts the Crystal Heart back on its pedestal, the umbrum are imprisoned again, crisis over.
There is a silver lining though: this moment between Hope and Sombra.
All things considered, it's a pretty emotional and heartbreaking moment. I'd compare it to Celestia and Mirror Sombra's final moments in Reflections. (...Ohhhh, I see what you did there, Whitley.) In fact, if there's one other thing I really liked about this story arc, it's how it built upon the relationship between Hope and Sombra that was established back in FIENDship is Magic. Sombra and Hope are seconds away from being separated again, possibly forever, and Sombra takes solace in finally seeing the Crystal Faire.
...Now! Had the story ended right there, I would've been satisfied. I still would've had issues with the final battle, but the first half of the issue and ending would have somewhat made up for it. And hey, Hope and Sombra could've still kept in touch through the red crystal in the Arctic Wastes. There'd be possibility for yet another follow-up story. But did it end right there?
Oh, no-no-no-no-no. Instead we get this.
I just... What...? Why...? How...? I'm not even angry or upset by this development; I'm just... confused. Heck, even some of the princesses are confused, implying even they don't know how this happened. And they contributed to it happening!
(sigh) ANYWAY, Hope and the newly unicorn-ified Sombra set out to collect the fragments of Princess Amore. The end.
So in case it isn't obvious by now, I had a lot of problems with this story. There were some parts I liked, but there weren't enough to make it a worthwhile experience. For one thing, despite the arc's four-issue length, it introduces too many story elements to keep track of -- the villain team-up, Hope's character turmoil, the villains' doubts, Cadance's apparent issues with rage, etc. -- causing some to be forgotten as soon as they're brought up and others to be forgotten later without any resolution.
Celestia and Luna are used to absolutely poor effect, the threat of the umbrum is severely and jarringly downplayed from one issue to the next, the climactic battle in Part 4 mostly consists of out-of-place slapstick, and Sombra's reformation is literally blink-and-you'll-miss-it. (Not to mention some of the lazy presentation including the aforementioned Part 4 title typo and this page in Part 2 -- if you look closely, the text bubbles appear again shrunken down in the second panel.)
Having said all this, do I think it's the worst MLP story ever told? No. There is some good to be found here: Andy Price's artwork is as vivid and expressive as ever, portions of Hope's character are intriguing to follow (especially her relationship with Sombra), and again, the first half of Part 4 is fantastic.
Do I think Jeremy Whitley is a bad writer? Absolutely not. He's written some of my favorite one-shot stories, including Friends Forever Issue 2, Friends Forever Issue 7, Friends Forever Issue 13, Friendship is Magic Issue 24, and of course FIENDship is Magic Issue 1. And I think that's Whitley's strong suit: one-shots. I think with something like this, he just got a little too ambitious, and the end product turned out cluttered. Try a two-parter next time, Jerome.
Final Score: 5/10
*To be fair, this and a few other aesthetic errors are fixed in the Volume 9 trade paperback that includes all four parts of the arc, so at least the presentation is a little better.