REVIEWS -- Legend of Spyro: Dawn of the Dragon (The) -- Xbox360
A pixie with the heart of a dragon
by Sebastian Stefanov
Fun factor: Average
Worth to: Rent
Spyro fans will have to wait some more before our favorite dragon can grow a pair of wings capable of carrying him towards greatness
I actually feel bad for Gary Oldman, by far my favorite actor. Like Hollywood movies, video game projects sometimes generate enough buzz to assemble an all-star cast, only to fall apart in the final outcome. Such is the case with the Legend of Spyro Trilogy. It started out with promising verve when Etranges Libellules picked up the franchise and engrossed our favorite purple dragon in an epic tale. The first two games were somewhat average but they built the story up for an epic ending, and though Dawn of the Dragon wraps things up nicely story-wise, gameplay and levels feel rushed and uninspired. Like previous titles, Spyro again fails to leap into the horizon of fantasy by offering us a mundane title in a pretty wrapper. The all-star cast did their part but the game’s designers seem to have run out of flame where it mattered.
The Lord of the Crystals: The Fellowship of the Crystal
The game picks up three years after the events of The Eternal Night when Spyro, Cynder and Sparx froze in crystal to survive a crumbling Mount Doom, err… I mean Mountain of Malefor. The dragons are awakened by an unnamed enemy and chained together with a magical green snake. Action starts with both dragons forced to fight a giant Golem in an underground ruin that looks like Tolkien’s Khazad-dum. While escaping they meet Hunter of Avalar, a cat-like ranger sent by Spyro’s mentor, Ignitus. Our young dragons learn that a war against Malefor, the Dark Master, has been raging for the last three years so they head to a besieged Dragon City of Warfang.
The game’s story borrows heavily from The Lord of the Rings series with an epic tale involving familiar-looking faces (Hunter is a clearly the game’s Faramir/Aragorn) fighting an army of evil lead by an ominous Lord. Cynder and Spyro witness a massive battle that includes siege towers charging the ancient capital city of Warfang and a giant monster called The Destroyer that holds a striking resemblance to the fire demon, Balrog, from The Fellowship of the Ring. Creatures of various species forge an alliance to defeat a threat whose only goal is to destroy the world.
Both dragons must now work together to defend their land against a spreading evil. Players can fly at will for the first time in the Spyro franchise. The game also features a co-op mode, both in single and multiplayer. In solo mode players can switch between characters to advance in a game that mainly focuses on puzzle-solving. Everything looks set for a major hit, but unfortunately that is not to be. Previous games were criticized for being too difficult for children and too linear for adults. Sadly, it’s still true. The game is far from the masterpiece it deserves to be.
Linear, uninspired and boring, but a nice story
Production during gameplay is pretty much left in the parking lot. You can’t talk or interact with friendly characters during the game. Moments where you would normally expect supporting characters to interact with the two dragons are always silent. After cutscenes your friends just stand there like tree stumps, waiting for the dragons to finish an objective.
Outdoor levels are rather poorly designed. None of them give the impression they are part of a “real” world. This is mainly due to blocky and artificial layouts. Forests and landscapes look like man-made mazes or arenas. All levels are man-made, obviously, but good ones don’t give that impression - they have an organic flow. It’s hard to convey that feeling when the same giant boulders or trees are blocking strategic locations for the sake of creating artificial paths, which is the case in Dawn of the Dragon.
Cities are basically large square areas surrounded by walls and blocking volumes. After having collided with numerous invisible barriers blocking what look like areas you should be able to access, players will be conditioned to mistrust the very maps they play in, expecting force fields at every turn. Mistrusting the game you play is not a good thing. If that wasn’t enough, certain meshes float in mid-air because of careless placement and many surfaces are oversaturated with lighting.
Spyro and Cynder perform various missions throughout the game, which only compound the bad level designs. Stages are created around the tasks our two protagonists have to solve. This isn’t much of a problem in underground areas specifically designed to be giant puzzles, but in outside levels this is a negative. For instance, at one point Spyro and Cynder must bring a raft to an injured character. To do so, players must first get a key from a hermit living in a cave, then use the key to open a door to a room located at the base of a mountain in another part of the map. The room’s sole purpose is to contain trigger stones, which for some reason the hermit has a key for. The stones are used to unlock an ugly raft that happens to be hanging on a platform in the middle of nowhere by a river. And it should be noted that the hermit has no apparent relation to the raft... Everything feels tacked on and manufactured.
Here’s your puzzle, now find the pieces
Controls are simple on the ground, decent enough in the air but atrocious while climbing walls. Since the dragons are linked by a magical chain, failing to attach to a surface or running along a wall will lead to both characters falling. And fall they will… often. Sometimes the dragons won’t connect to a surface even though timing and positioning was spot on, making a large part of the game a living, fire-breathing hell.
Both characters have to be used in tandem. The magical chain does add some depth to gameplay but Etranges Libellules unfortunately didn’t use its full potential. Puzzles are usually easy to figure out. The only instances they give players a hard time is when puzzle elements are not obvious or visible. This reviewer spent a good hour running around helplessly in a level that involves activating four dragon statues, merely because a switch Spyro has to flip with his lightning skill wasn’t properly highlighted as a piece of the puzzle (it looks like some decoration). The camera usually gives us a narrow view of our surroundings. Platforms that need to be accessed are often out of view so players progress with tunnel vision, despite the ability to soar. This is especially true while climbing walls.
For the most part mission scenarios are fairly entertaining. The dragons will assist other characters, carry buckets of water and be tasked with opening or closing various gates. Both characters have unique element skills, which are used to unlock or reach various parts of the game. Spyro can burn plant obstacles and break down some surfaces with his Earth element, and Cynder can use her Shadow skill to pass under specific gates. More time will be spent figuring out puzzles than fighting, which is a good thing because combat is rather shallow.
Fights often pit our friendly lizards against multiple opponents so things can get a little chaotic. Spyro and Cynder have a strong and weak attack, four unique element spells and a grab. Grabs can swing enemies around and lift them in the air leaving them vulnerable to numerous scratches from the dragon’s hind legs (like when a cat play-fights with your hand while on his back). Playing “fairly” involves all the aforementioned skills and usually means getting your scaly hind knocked around. Playing “unfairly” means relying on a single element skill: Cynder’s Shadow element, more specifically the shadow “uppercut” move. The latter clears anybody in Cynder’s vicinity and turns surviving enemies against each other. It’s so effective players will seldom use anything else. Not that you will care; enemies are as dumb as they look (and they are all pretty ugly) so fighting is just sometime you want out of the way. Enemies will usually appear out of thin air and block all means of escaping until your pair takes care of them.
Experience points, used to upgrade element skills, are gained by killing enemies, breaking blue “experience” crystals and destroying various objects left behind by whoever lived in the unpopulated levels. Fighting enemies the hard way (by using attacks and grabs) gives more point than using elements, but even if players strictly rely on magic they will max out all their skills three-thirds into the game. Players can also find armor that gives protection and increases various attributes. Health and magic bars are upgraded by finding egg-shaped crystals.
Bonus material in the form of concept art is unlocked after reaching milestones during the game. The material in question is well done. Most games have static galleries but Etranges Libellules took the time to create beautiful montages with music. Speaking of music, Dawn of the Dragons has an epic score. A few memorable tunes will leave you humming. Along with great voice acting courtesy of Elijah Wood (Spyro), Christina Ricci (Cynder), Gary Oldman (Ignitus) and Mark “Luke Skywalker” Hamill, to name a few, as well as an original end-song, it appears designers took at least some parts of the game seriously. Too bad they didn’t put as much effort into level designs and gameplay.
The Legend of Spyro: Dawn of the Dragon finishes the Trilogy with a rather disappointingly rushed third installment. Levels are unprofessional and puzzles are either too easy or made needlessly complicated because of gameplay issues. So what can Spyro do to improve future games? For starters, it should improve its level designs. They suck. They have nice effects and pretty concept art, but in practice they are boring. Secondly, Spyro should focus on “gamefun” not “gameplay” – it’s the only way it can appeal to both the young and old. Lego games hit the nail on the head with perfect gamefun, where getting as much out of levels is what matters, not simply completing them. But that requires details and good level designs, something the Spyro franchise has yet to master. We won’t give up on the little dragon. He’s cute and lives in a world most fans of the series want to explore. With the addition of Cynder and Hunter things are bound, nay… “deserve”, to get better. But Etranges Libellules needs to get their act together during actual production. Nice concept art, good music and great voice-acting won’t expand Spyro’s world - better levels and gameplay will. The Legend of Spyro: Dawn of the Dragon has a large heart, unfortunately it is stuck inside the body of a firefly.
Publisher: Vivendi Games / Sierra Entertainment
Developer: Etranges Libellules
Release Date: October 21, 2008
Review Date: 06-11-2008
Numbers of Players: 1-2
Players Online: No
Notes: Xbox Live
Nice effects but not enough details and unnatural-looking level designs
Too easy if you use Cynder’s Shadow element and too hard if you don’t. Levels can leave you stumped for a while
Nice cutscenes and story, and some of the best gallery montages you’ll see in a while, but the story doesn’t convey well in-game
The stars do a great job and music will leave you humming. Sadly, no need for various sound effects because of the bleak maps
Finishing the game isn’t enough to get all the extras but at 12 hours the first time around getting the rest won’t stretch things out by much