Almost synonymous with the Playstation brand, Spyro the Dragon has been around since Sony’s first console took the world by storm back in the mid ‘90s, leading up to the current Legend of Spyro trilogy. With the departure of Krome Studios as the team in charge, new developer Etranges Libellules comes aboard to offer up the final game in a trilogy that was supposed to reboot the franchise. Unfortunately, despite the high quality of the visuals and presentation (the voice work alone must have cost a fortune), Dawn of the Dragon barely escapes the problems that longtime fans of the series and 3D platforming fans in general would expect to have been overcome by now while simultaneously making things a bit more awkward for newcomers than they should be. While none of these problems in isolation deride from making the experience an enjoyable one, together they make Dawn of the Dragon a lackluster experience that ends the trilogy with a whimper instead of a bang.
It might sound like I’m not giving Etranges Libellules much leeway, even though it came aboard at the tail end of this storyline. In fact, my scrutiny of this release is based precisely on that fact, as the group should have scoured the two games before Dawn to figure out how to remedy errors in the gameplay and plot. Some of these issues were fixed, but many remain, and objections have been raised by many about how the story was handled, since those who haven’t played the previous two games might find themselves wondering what’s going on at the beginning. Former developer Krome Studios did a decent job of laying the groundwork in the previous two installments, A New Beginning and The Eternal Night, but Etranges Libellules failed to completely tie things together for new players with the final piece. The meager hints offered aren’t enough for gamers to fully appreciate events they way they should, and when one considers how effectively this was done in other recent sequels – most notably Sega’s Yakuza 2 – the resulting disorientation is worthy of a confused head shake, to say the least.
That’s not to say that nothing good is to be found here. It’s quite possible to simply play through Dawn of the Dragon without stopping for the story at all, but why would anyone do that, especially when so much care has obviously been taken to make it worth enjoying? Sierra Entertainment and Activision pulled out all the stops with the voice work, featuring such major names as Mark Hamill, Elijah Wood, Cristina, Ricci, Gary Oldman, and Wayne Brady. Sure, with the exception of Oldman, there aren’t many “A” list stars on that list, but anyone familiar with voice work at wall will greatly appreciate Hamill’s talents, and Wood does an excellent job as the main character.
As seasoned players of the trilogy admire the stunning visuals and the excellent cast, they’re sure to notice how improved the environments this time around. Yet despite this, there are still some odd limitations in place. The new flying dynamic, for instance, allows flight at any time, but it’s a bit too limited sometimes. The developers obviously wanted players to focus on platforming, but this often comes off a bit forced. Why jump around when I can simply fly over obstacles? Oh, that’s right, I can’t. The levels themselves add to this frustration by occasionally offering unclear objectives. Too much time can be spent wandering around, searching for the next thing to do, and this often takes away from the impact such gorgeous visuals have. No matter how beautiful a level looks, it kind of loses its luster when you’ve spent the better part of twenty minutes roaming around it without direction.
Spyro is now chained to his foe-turned-ally Cinder, and the player can switch between the two on the fly in their quest to save their land from the Dark Master Malefor. Both dragons have their strengths and weaknesses, and I’m sure Etranges Libellules expects players to use some strategy in combat and against bosses. Unfortunately, none of the combat requires much strategy at all. Each dragon has four elemental attacks that can be upgraded, but the combat is repetitive and never really seems to take off (no pun intended). The same problem plagues the boss battles, which are a bit too few and far between for my liking. They look incredible, but they’re too simple and predictable to be memorable.
The inclusion of co-op play is always a plus, but it’s lamentably restricted to an offline presence. Much like Traveler’s Tales Lego series, a second player can drop in or out at any time, and I suppose that’s better than nothing. I, for one, would have liked to see some online co-op play incorporated somehow, but I understand its exclusion, as it would have also suffered restrictions due to Cinder and Spyro being chained together. Offline co-op doesn’t even permit split-screen exploration because of it, so taking the feature online would have crippled things further than necessary.
Listen to that: “further than necessary.” Why should anything be crippled here at all? Why should a release for the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360 still have to suffer the limitations posed by the Wii and Playstation 2? Most of all, why does the AI partner get stuck on things, and why does the camera not work properly sometimes? These are all complaints that simply shouldn’t exist at this point in the current hardware cycle, but I suppose expecting a flawless 3D camera today is akin to 8 and 16-bit gamers dreaming in their day about an end to slowdown and sprite flicker. The more things change, I guess…
The issues I’ve raised with Dawn of the Dragon might sound like enough to ward people off from playing it. That’s not my intent, to be sure, and most of what I’ve mentioned is readily found in many other titles on both the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3. In spite of all its problems, Dawn of the Dragon is a decent platformer for the eight to ten hours it lasts, and while it closes out the latest Spyro storyline in less than spectacular fashion, it’s still worth some playtime.