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Spyro: Dawn of the Dragon

The third of the "new gen" (PS2, PS3, XBox, Wii) releases of "Spyro the Dragon."  It stars two dragons (Spyro and Cinder) that you can play.  The game has a good story, gameplay, and presentation, but nothing outstanding.  Here is my take on these aspects.

The story is that of "epic heroes" who, despite their small size and number, embark on a mission to save the entire world from a seemingly undefeatable evil menace.  Some people have criticized the game for being too much like "Lord of the Rings", but the "epic hero" theme is very common in many games and movies.  So the main plot is nothing new, but is presented well.
 
Some fans have complained that the story wasn't told well enough to develop the characters for new players.  They say things like the game never tells of how Cinder was formerly Spyro's nemesis.  I think they're crazy!  I understood that without playing any other PS2 Spyro games (I am a fan of the original PS1 version which had no Cinder)... I think they have an over-affection for the series.  Standing seperate from the other games of the series, I think the story of this game is well-told.  Further, it wouldn't enhance the game play and would be potentially boring to try to include a backstory for all the characters.  You can skip most cut scenes, which is always a nice feature.
 
I imagine Spyro fans would call the story good while others would rate it lower.  Some plot points are very contrived.  For example, in one chapter, you need to get a raft to an injured man.  Of course it is not so simple as go pick it up and bring it to him; there are several tasks that must be done to accomplish the goal.  Although the raft is not far outside the village, it is locked up and you have to get the key from some hermit living far away.  Who the hermit is and why he ran off with the key is never explained.  Of course I was too busy trying to remember all the tasks to notice this slight by the story author(s) on my first playthrough.  Another example is at the very end (after defeating the final boss) and one of the characters says something rather personal to the other, and I was baffled; where did that come from?  Perhaps there should be more of a backstory...

As a platform / action game, it revolves around exploration and button-mashing.  Don't play it if you're not confortable with that!  But if you like platform / action games, then you'll probably like this one.  It also has a bit of an RPG aspect to it; you gain experience to upgrade your characters' magic breath and you can also equip armor to increase their battle performance.

In this game, you control one of two small dragons who are both present through the entire game.  If you have a friend, (s)he can play the second dragon; otherwise the AI will take control.  If you play without a friend, you can easily switch between the two dragons at any time; in a few cases, switching is actually required.

Aside from magic elements, the action aspect is mainly button mashing.  There are a few combos you can do with physical attacks, but it mainly comes down to hitting quickly and repeatedly with occassional dodging.

It is a bit more complex with elemental magic (dragon breath).  Each of the two characters has a unique set of 4 elemental skills.  That's a total of 8 elements for you math-heads!  Although useful to inflict damage, each element has a special effect, but not all enemies are vulnerable.  So it is up to the player(s) to figure out what element(s) work best when confronting different enemies.  If you don't have a friend, you will often find it beneficial to switch between the two characters because the AI only does physical attacks.  Some people have criticized this, but the good thing is that the AI character almost never takes any damage!  This is very helpfull when playing alone: fight with your favorite character, and if (s)he gets very low on health, just switch to the other character who will usually be completely undamaged.  This is a very helpfull tactic but makes the game a bit easy.  The game can be even easier if you have a friend and both of you can coordinate your actions.

Besides combat, there is the platform / exploration element.  Many areas are closed off with little potential for exploration.  However a few areas are wide-open with a huge potential for exploration.  If you like a non-linear game, like me, these are the best parts!  If you like a simple linear game, this may drive you crazy.  All levels feature some platform action (jumping, climbing, flying).  For the first time in the series (and also very rare for platform games in general), you can fly whenever you want!  In wide-open areas, flight provides a breath-taking visual experience.

Along with exploration are puzzles (problem-solving).  Most of them are easy.  Some of them are frustrating if you mess up and have to start over.  A few of them are quite challenging.  Most puzzles are not timed; the timed ones start easy and even the hardest is not very strict.  Overall, good enterainment.  Although not a puzzle, the "Elite" enemies should pose a serious challenge to even experienced gamers.

Presentation is very good.  First the visuals and cut scenes are well-done.  Although some people have complained about the colors, frame-rate or textures, I found them all flawless (PS2).  The colors are very bright and saturated, much like the orignal Spyro from the PS1; love it or hate it.  I never noticed any frame-rate issues on the PS2.  Textures and lighting are good, although not the best a PS2 can do, and nowhere near full potential of a PS3.

The game gives you the option to play in one of 6 different languages!  The game has an "auto-continue" feature, so if you die you automatically re-start from a nearby location.  This saves the player(s) a lot of time because the save points are few and far between.  As a bonus, any items or experience you aquired are not lost with auto-continue!  This really enhances the playability of the game, but it does make it easier than most games.
 
The game has a nice replay feature.  You start the game in "Story Mode" which is like most other games: the plot unfolds, you get to play (saving along the way), going to new areas ("Chapters"), eventually reach the "final boss", and finally see the credits and epilogue.  This replay feature is called "Chapter Mode."  Once you have a save game file, you can select Chapter Mode.  This lets you return to previous areas to search for missed items or battle enemies for experience or just for fun.  You return to the previous levels with all enhancements from your current point in Story Mode (this really helps with the optional bosses).  And you can save when you exit Chapter Mode; any items or experience you aquired will carry forward if you resume Story Mode.  This is an excellent system, allowing you to get 100% completion much faster than replaying the entire game, and it allows you to jump to any "Chapter" at random without having dozens of save files.  Too bad there isn't much re-playability.
 
The game also includes a good built-in tutorial.  Just as important, you can turn this feature off.  Outside the game proper (in the menu), you can review most of the help from the in-game tutorials.  But this is inconsistant; the in-game tutorial mentions a few things not in the menu for review and, likewise, the menu command review has some things never presented in game tutorials.  Unfortunately, neither help system explains Fury which is absolutely essential to beat the game!  In short, promising and useful but ultimately fatal in-game help system.  (To be fair to the publishers, the Fury command is briefly mentioned in the game's printed instruction manual;  I hope you have one!)
 
A significant flaw is the unreliable camera controls.  It's understandable when playing co-op that the game can't possibly know the right direction to face the camera when each player is trying to do different things.  But in single-player mode, there is no reason the camera shouldn't show what is directly in front of your character (unless maybe you have your nose against a wall).  Normally the game does a good job, but sometimes (and for no appearant reason) the camera will show what's behind or to the side of your character.  That would be a minor nuisance, because you have manual control of the camera in theory.  But in reality, the camera will sometimes not obey your manual controls.  And per Murphy's Law, the camera control stops working when you really need it.  This turns a minor nuisance into a significant flaw.
 
If you have this game, do a little experiment:
  1. Go into an area of the game where you can walk around and the camera automatically points straight ahead (in the direction your character is facing).
  2. Now try the manual camera control.  I bet it works fine to change the view to any direction!
  3. Next try going to one of the many ledges in the game, but find one where the camera is facing backwards (you can see your own dragon's eyes).
  4. Now try to manually control the camera.  I bet it doesn't work very well!
Now I just need 200 subjects to conduct this experiment and send me the results!  Seriously, it's hard to command your dragon when you can't see what is directly in front of its eyes!  Fortunately the glitch never seems to be fatal to your characters, and doesn't happen very often, but is still very frustrating when it happens.  The fact that the other game controls work perfectly makes this flaw really stand out.
 
Other flaws in the presentation include strange (or absent) logic in certain abilities such as flying or running on walls.  For example with flight: you are normally limited as to how high you can fly (it wouldn't be much of a platform game if you could fly anywhere you wanted!), but sometimes you can fly "up" almost without limit; on the other end you can sometimes only dive "down" to a certain level.  With wall-running: the game tells you this is possible on "certain" walls, and usually there is a visual indication; however there are many walls you can run on with no visual indication and some that look like you could run on them but actually cannot.  Most of this is poor level desgin.  The wall-running is very simple to fix: just be consistant in the design.  The flight issue would require significant changes to the levels' design. 
 
I noticed a minor animation glitch once.  In the cavern areas which have no bottom (and in the Floating City), your dragons can only fly so low (they hit the "glass floor").  Considering the bad level design, this is understandable.  Normally what happens is the dragon will remain "in flight" with its wings extended and it will continue moving forward.  But in the Floating City, somewhere I hit the "glass floor" and both dragons' animation turned to standing mode (wings retracted).  It was really bizarre to see them "standing" in mid-air!  I wish I had taken a snapshot, because I haven't been able to repeat the glitch.
 
Some more common animation glitches occur in single-player mode.  Sometimes the AI-controlled dragon will go into spasms.  This is probably an AI glitch where it can't decide exactly where to place the AI-dragon relative to your dragon.  Another animation glitch is when the AI character wants to walk up beside your dragon but there is an obsticle so it just walks in place.  Of course these types of errors are present in many other games that feature AI-controlled allies, but not in the good ones.  I remember this sort of problem from Final Fantasy VIII released back in 1998.  Well ten years later, the problem has yet to be solved... at least not in this game!

The game is rather short.  I took a lot of time exploring and trying different tactics, and still beat the game in about 24 hours.  Others report beating the game in less than 20 hours.  Even if you take the time to go back and collect missing items, you probably won't spend more than 36 hours on the game.  Very disappointing in my opinion.  Most games take me much longer (sometime a lot longer) to finish with "100%" completion.  It's been several years since I played the original PS1 Spyro game, so I could be wrong, but I remember playing that game for a few weeks...

In summary: Decent story, good sound and visuals (but not great), lots of button-mashing combat (love it or hate it) with elemental breath attacks for variety, non-linear gameplay in some areas, lots of platform activity with puzzles ranging from simple to difficult, fun co-op play, and not very long.
 
Playability: 9.2
The characters respond quickly to commands.  Although physical attacks are very repetative with only a few combos, there are several elements to play with.  Besides combat, there is lots of platform action and puzzles requiring varying amounts of skill.  Free flight and co-op play are fun changes from the typical game but both need polishing.  Some levels are straight-forward while others are non-linear.  The camera controls are unreliable.
 
Graphics: 9.0
Well-polished game engine: frame rate, polygons, and textures are glitch-free.  Rare animation glitches.  Nice character and scenery design.  Very little dynamic lighting and only a few particle effects.  The consoles targeted by the game can do better.  Some say the colors are too bright (and I say it must be their eyes or TV settings).
 
Sound: 8.5
Music is nice, and importantly not obnoxious.  Each score fits well into the story but none are outstanding.  Others have said some of the music was ripped from previous games.  There seems to be few sound effects; those that exist (mainly character actions) work well but are otherwise unremarkable.  Dialog volume is perfectly balanced with music and sound effects, but a few characters are incomprehensible (thankfully subtitles are an option).
 
Presentation: 9.0
A good telling of an "epic heroes" story; this time it serves to complete the trilogy of Spyro.  Professional voice actors.  Nice and usefull menu system.  Very helpfull auto-continue and replay features.  In-game tutorials and in-menu command reference are very helpful but each help system is slightly different and both omit the ultimately essential Fury command.  Level design and dragon AI could use some polishing.
 
Lasting Appeal: 6.0
Aside from the fixed story dialog, there are no character interactions, no alternate paths or alternate endings, and no mini-games.  Once you beat the game with "100%" (shouldn't take too long) there isn't any point to play it again... unless you like flying dragons!  The replay (Chapter) mode is great, and so is the ability skip cut-scenes and tutorials.
 
Overall: 8.3
If you don't like button-mashing, non-linear play, or platform jumping, then you will like it less.  If you like action / platform games (or Spyro in particular), you might rate it the same (or higher).  A well-polished game with a few flaws; good but not great.

© H2Obsession, 2010
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