Written for http://www.xboxgamezone.co.uk February 2009
Back in the late 1990s, when the Playstation 1 ruled the roost and the idea of a Microsoft console was a pipedream, there were two indominatable forces when it came to likeable platformer characters: Crash Bandicoot and Spyro the Dragon. They weren’t quite up there with the likes of Mario and Sonic but boy did they try! The first two Spyro games on the Playstation 1 were great fun, providing arguably some of the best experiences on the system for platformer fans. However, the Spyro series lost its way a bit over the years. The Playstation 2 and Xbox games garnered average to reasonable reviews, but they somewhat lacked in the magic that the earlier games provided. The latter two of these games provided the Legend of Spyro series, and this is where Dawn of the Dragon enters, as the culmination of that trilogy. Dawn of the Dragon also has the honour of being the first Spyro game on the Xbox 360.
For those of you who haven’t played the first two of the Legend of Spyro games, and there’s probably a lot of you considering this is the first Xbox 360 title, you may well be confused at the outset of the game. Starting out in rather dark and unwelcoming catacombs tethered to your companion Cynder with a huge monster staring at you, is not really the ideal way of starting a game, and certainly far from idea if you have just bought this game for your child. Having not played the first two games of this trilogy, I was certainly confused. I was particularly curious as to why Cynder, a female dragon, was now Spyro’s helpful companion rather than his nemesis, and I never did discover exactly why that was the case. However for the average gamer, it doesn’t take long to get into the swing of things. With the help of your friend, Hunter the Cheetah, the first level is part tutorial/part trying to escape from the Catacombs and this monster. The tutorial is quite a helpful introduction for those who haven’t played a Spyro game in a while as well as for getting to grips with the new flying that’s available to Spyro. Yes at last, after only ten years, Spyro can finally fly just like any self respecting dragon should be able to! Unfortunately, it’s not really as impressive as it could have been. It would have been great to see sandbox style sections where you can fly around and explore, but it’s all a bit linear really as for the most part, you feel constricted to follow the set path that’s open to you. It also doesn’t really feel like flying, more like gliding. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but it’s just not quite as exhilarating as I imagine flying should be. It is extremely simple to start flying with a few presses of the A button which is at least a plus point if you’re considering this game for a child. The controls on the whole are nice and simple, they’re perfectly aimed at children but an adult might find them a touch simplistic. You can get through the vast majority of battles by hammering the same button until the enemy’s destroyed. Elite enemies take a bit more thought, but again once you’ve learnt the method, it’s simple. You have to use your elemental attacks to destroy them, by using the opposite element to the one that they are shielded against, all simple gaming mechanics on the whole.
There is also the seemingly obligatory addition of Quick Time Events, which seem to be in every game possible at the moment! They are as always, very functional but it does feel a little lazy at times when surely other methods of interaction could have been used to make the player feel immersed in the experience. In places, I found that Spyro had some incredibly annoying jumps that were required to progress. For an experienced gamer, it didn’t take long to pass but for a child or novice gamer, I can see frustration kicking in extremely quickly. No one likes having to re-do a segment just because they missed one jump, especially not if they already struggled to do the previous jumps. To check if I was being patronising to novice gamers, I handed the game over to my mother, who loved it, that is until those infuriating jumps in places. She gave up in the end, which is a pity as it very nearly hooked her. There’s a lot about Spyro that nearly cuts it, and yet, much like the section I just described, it falls at the last hurdle. The jumping sequences aren’t helped at all by the somewhat cumbersome camera angles which can suddenly change the direction you’re facing, usually at the worst moment. It’s amazing how such a simple thing such as camera angles can really change just how well received a game is. No one likes the feeling of being cheated just because the camera changed direction just when you least expected it.
I don’t want to keep sounding too critical about Spyro, it does have redeeming features. I just hate seeing a game that had so much potential, but was ultimately squandered in favour of an easier route in development. One thing that is definitely a bonus is its 2 player co-op mode. I say it time and time again but every game I’ve ever encountered is infinitely improved if it has a co-op mode, and Spyro is no different. It’s just more fun to play alongside someone than an AI character. It is unfortunate that you can’t play online co-op but it’s still good fun. Considering Spyro is aimed at children for the most part, it makes sense in a lot of ways to not have any online modes as I know I would rather my young child was playing with a friend that is sitting next to them. Spyro and Cynder are tethered by a magical chain meaning that they can’t travel too far apart from each other; it works well and is integrated into the storyline in quite a meaningful way. As is always the way with two characters, they have their strengths and weaknesses. Spyro is able to use fire, electricity, earth and ice as parts of his attacks, while Cynder, being a dragon that was once controlled by the Dark Master (the main bad guy in the game), has the nastier elements: poison, wind, shadow and fear. This leads us onto the various upgrades available to both characters. To use elemental attacks, mana needs to be controlled through smashing up green coloured gems. To upgrade attacks, you need to collect blue gems which, once you collect a sufficient number, allow you to upgrade your attacks to some pretty impressive sights. It’s a nice but basic system that certainly provides a good introduction of basic RPG elements to children. Really, when it comes to presentation on the whole, Spyro ticks every box. It’s even managed to enlist some great talent for its voice acting, providing the likes of Elijah Wood, Christina Ricci, Gary Oldman and even Mark Hamill of Star Wars fame. However if only Etranges Libellules had put this much effort into the rest of the game as it really could have been something special.
As you can probably guess by now, I’m not overly impressed by Spyro. It has flashes of being a child’s Tomb Raider in places but it just doesn’t quite cut it. For an adult, it’ll only take 8-10 hours at most to complete and offers no replayability whatsoever, bar collecting every single gem possible which, frankly, gets a bit tedious after a while. Children will enjoy this at times, but other times they will be driven to distraction by the annoying jumps required and some of the boss fights which ramp up the difficulty far too suddenly. Sometimes I think the most disappointing games aren’t the ones that are terrible; they’re the ones that you know could have been so much more if a bit more time and effort had been paid to them. Spyro the Dragon was a great series of games back at its early conception, but it does feel that the series has lost its way a bit again and I’d love to see a developer help dear Spyro find his way back to the top of the platforming pile. Unfortunately for now, there are just too many games available that do things better. If you want an adult 3D platformer, then look towards the likes of Tomb Raider or Prince of Persia. If you’re looking for a game to play with your child or a novice gamer, then go for something such as Lego Star Wars or Lego Indiana Jones, both of which are much more forgiving and won’t frustrate the less experienced gamer, while still giving you something to enjoy. Finally, if you’re a diehard Spyro fan then you’ll enjoy seeing the culmination of the trilogy, but I’m sure even you will feel a bit disappointed at what could have been such a great game, ultimately let down by far too many frustrations.