"To make matters worse, sometimes you aren't provided with enough information to solve puzzles even when you're looking right at the various components of a given solution. Though each challenge you face is logical and you'll find yourself saying “Aha!” at several points throughout the game, the many situations where you just don't know what to do can be exasperating."
Deep below the earth's surface, two dragons sleep within a magical crystal. There they seem destined to remain forever, until one day a group of monsters happens upon them. The two slumbering creatures are broken free from their prison and strange necklaces are placed around their necks. When finally they awaken, they find themselves forced to battle for their very lives within an underground arena. A huge beast has been summoned from the pool of lava that surrounds them. Now he's ready to crush them into dust with his massive stone fists.
The Legend of Spyro: Dawn of the Dragon, the final installment in a trilogy intended to give the old PlayStation franchise a reboot for the next generation, starts with a narrative bang and some demanding gameplay to match. Dodging attacks from the golem while picking up the game's control scheme is difficult enough that my first attempt failed spectacularly. I hadn't anticipated much resistance from a game that clearly was aimed largely at younger gamers. My expectations set me up to be slaughtered.
Once the golem is stymied--though not killed--it's time to flee the arena and head toward the surface far above. Here the game falls into something closer to its usual routine. Spyro and Cynder (the female dragon that you're shackled to for the game's duration) move pretty slowly as they romp through the expansive environments that make up the various stages. Getting from point 'A' to point 'B' is never as simple as running along a few ledges. There are levers to be pulled and enemies to be defeated, plus you'll need to explore each area carefully if you don't want to miss out on stat boosts and useful armor.
Because Cynder and Spyro are forced to stay within spitting range of one another, you can never search anywhere that the developers didn't have in mind. Even though you can swap between them at will by pressing the 'L' button, one will always trail behind if the other tries to fly too high. You also have to search for gusts of wind if the dragons are to reach the loftiest heights. Aside from some notable exceptions, air currents generally aren't visible unless gales are blowing against you. Guesswork plays a major role until you get a feel for where you can expect to find the best updrafts.
Such limitations are to be expected, since the game has to implement boundaries somehow, so I didn't generally mind flying until the lousy camera got in the way. It simply isn't up to the task of letting you look around. Generally you can see everything when you're headed in the direction the developers have in mind for that particular leg of your journey, but you'll struggle the minute you try to explore the outer edges. The camera hangs up something fierce and turning it around is a huge hassle. You just have to fly blind for awhile. Even when you're on the ground in the middle of an area, rotating is often limited to slight nudges left or right. Many areas must be crisscrossed like crazy, so the only way to stay sane is to memorize every hill, drop-off and platform. Otherwise, expect to cuss a lot.
Because of the lackluster camera, some players will likely decide that they can do without the various items secreted throughout each area. Even that won't alleviate the problem entirely, however; many of the objectives require that you thoroughly explore the map. For example, one early stage asks you to find a missing fellow named Meadow, who it turns out is being held against his will in a cavern behind a waterfall. Once you find him, you'll next have to search for a hermit who lives in a hidden canyon accessed by following a trail located to the left of yet another waterfall (on the opposite edge of the map, no less), then scaling some dangerous ledges. Then you have to take the key you gain and wander along a different cliff face to find a storehouse where magical orbs are generated, then position them near a device that holds a raft before finally riding it downstream to the poor fellow stuck in the cave. That's all within one level, and most of the rest of the game is the same way.
To make matters worse, sometimes you aren't provided with enough information to solve puzzles even when you're looking right at the various components of a given solution. Though each challenge you face is logical and you'll find yourself saying “Aha!” at several points throughout the game, the many situations where you just don't know what to do can be exasperating. The game might instruct you to open a gate, for example, but it'll leave out details on how to do so. This normally wouldn't be a concern, but solutions might involve things like sliding under a low-hanging door as Cynder when you haven't even realized that you have that move available to you. Or you might walk by an inconspicuous statue of an angel with a trumpet without realizing that you can use a move to blow wind at it and make sound to raise a critical ledge. Half of the time this isn't an issue and the developers give you all of the information you need, but that other half is a killer.
When you're not stuck backtracking all over the place, battling the camera or wondering just what it is that you were asked to do, the game is actually a rewarding experience. Many of the puzzles are clever and would be fun to solve if the afore-mentioned issues didn't bring such tedium to the process. There also are numerous enemy encounters to keep things interesting. Defeating your adversaries is fun because you have so many cool attacks at your disposal. Each dragon has four elemental attacks that can make quick work of nasty critters, but that drains energy that must then be refilled by beating green crystals out of monsters. This balances combat a bit and encourages players to experiment with grappling moves (or even strikes from the air).
Another point in the game's favor is its first-rate set of production values. Many of the stages are absolutely gorgeous and really help to establish that all-important sense of scale. You'll see raging rivers, thundering waterfalls, massive towers and battlefields swarming with enemy troops, just for starters. The sound is similarly excellent, with soothing music that makes the atmosphere seem mystical when you're exploring and rousing selections that burst to the forefront when you're battling monsters. Between stages, narrative sequences feature excellent voice acting from a diverse cast, including Elijah Wood (who sounds much better here than he did as Frodo Baggins), Mark Hamill, Gary Oldman and Christina Ricci. Whoever put all of that together deserves mad props.
Those compelling things that The Legend of Spyro: Dawn of the Dragon gets right almost made it great. The production values and the genuinely clever puzzles really show that the team behind the game was dedicated to making a spectacular product worthy of the purple dragon's legacy. Ambitious level design and an epic scale help, as well. Yet there are problems--big ones--that keep the title from reaching the lofty heights toward which it so eagerly soared. Some extra time in development to iron out those issues could have worked wonders and perhaps produced something spectacular. Instead, the final product landed squarely in 'rent before buying' territory. Play it to see how the story ends, but then you'll likely forget it. I probably will.
Staff review by Jason Venter (November 11, 2008)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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