Spyro, The Dragon Review: Spyro, The Not So Magic Dragon

As a warning: if you love the original Spyro, The Dragon for Playstation, you may want to steer clear of this review. I wasn't a huge fan and you're probably just going to take umbrage. Now, on with the show.

As I mentioned in my Banjo Kazooie Review, platformers are kind of hit or miss for me. A lot of the time, they're just plain miss, because platformers have this way of being frustrating in ways other games avoid. For example - they might task you with going into a level, collecting all of the stuff in a level and then getting out. If you die during the course of the level, the game might not auto save, so you might have to collect all that stuff again. Depending on who you are, that might be frustrating.

Spyro, fortunately, doesn't commit this particular sin. It saw Banjo Kazooie commit it and narrowly avoided being a collect-a-thon out to waste your time. But then...I dunno...the Insomniac team kind of fell asleep at the wheel and ignored EVERY OTHER lesson from Banjo Kazooie [and, possibly, other evolving platformer of the time - I'm not sure. They're not my genre-of-choice. Someone more educated than me will have to weigh in here.]

For example: There are heights in Banjo Kazooie and you can fall from them, but you NEVER outright die from a fall. Sure, you might be momentarily inconvenienced, but there are no spikes or endless abysses [except for the very last level of the game - a boss fight] and there are very few bodies of water that will outright kill you. This is all design sensibility picked up from watching earlier games, figuring out that these are all cheap deaths and then avoiding that design space.

Spyro's designers may very well have played Banjo Kazooie, I'm not sure, but they then chose to ignore every positive stride made in that game and opted for bad, old design space that makes platforming into a frustration and not a joy.

Does the game have a bunch of Listerine you can fall into that instantly kills you, because Spyro can't swim? Yes. Yes, it does. It even has some on the home world of the first level. And there's no indication that Spyro's going to drown, either. No "Navi-like" fairy saying, "hey, don't jump into that, it's bad for your health." So the only way to discover that all water is fatal is, you know, by trial-and-error. In a game that has save points. With a life counter.

Does it have incredibly finicky platforming that requires that you get the jump absolutely right or you fall into an endless abyss of death? Oh my, I'm glad you asked, because yes. This game is filled with that trope. To the brim. It's cup runneth over.

Those two things - by themselves - are damning. But they'd probably just make Spyro a sub par game with a middling main character. Instead, Spyro goes for complete broke by adding other systems that just ratchet up the complete brutality of this outing.

See, Spyro is an old-school straight-up collect-a-thon. The items you can obtain are treasure, [which varies in amount from level to level] eggs [which are only really dimly explained] and other, frozen dragons that become save points as and when you find them. [they also dispense useless information that you should have figured out several levels ago.]

The eggs are generally held by little, blue dudes that run - at quite a clip - through some very dangerous portions of the level. Your job is to knock them over or use your fire breath to catch them and retrieve the egg they're carrying. But good luck with that when you have to make tight corners over dizzy heights or across bodies of water that will instantly kill you if you tip Spyro too far left or right.

Even this sin might be forgiven if it weren't for the flying levels. See. In order to absolutely 100% Spyro, you have to collect EVERY bit of treasure. And to do that, you get forced into flying levels [one of which is hidden, but most of which you can find through simply playing the game and exploring.] - these flying levels suddenly turn the game into a fast-paced flight game where you have to collect four different items, eight of which are strewn around in a level. And again, this wouldn't nearly be so bad if it wasn't for an ABSURD TIMER. When you collect one of the items, the game adds time to your clock, but as the levels wear on, the amount of time added becomes smaller and smaller, until you're contending with a twenty-or-so-second clock and you're gathering one second bonus increments each time you fly through a hoop or shatter a jewel. And God help you if you mis-steer. Spyro's handling in the air is pretty finicky. Hit a wall? Spyro plants against it, slides down it and might end up in the water. End up in the water? Well, you know all about that by this point.

I guess I should talk about the actual world and the music, too - and that stuff is all OK. The music feels a little weird and out of place - it's a kind of prog-rock-y score by Stewart Copeland, of The Police. It's not an awful score, but it's not anything you're going to remember for very long after the game has ended.

Likewise, most of the levels are kind of featureless and bland in a manner that is a little surprising, given the power of the Playstation. There are occasional boss-battles that spice things up too, and these aren't half-terrible, but by and large all of this pales in comparison to the game mechanics, making you forget the little bit of good buried under the pile of bad.

As for Spyro? I like the conceit. I love the idea of a game starring a dragon in a world full of dragons. [I suppose this is a heavy-handed suggestion that I should check out Blazing Dragons. That might work out better, who knows?] But what I don't like is Spyro's arrogance. It does feel "dragon-appropriate," I guess, but given that he's a young dragon it just comes across as unpleasant.

Do I recommend this game? Not at all. Oh God. I wanted to like this so very much, because I'd heard that it was a mild-mannered, sort of easy platformer that had a pleasant style and neat music and while some of that came through, it was completely and utterly marred by the awful, awful platforming. If you like dragons, I'm sorry, but this is most assuredly not the game for you. If you like platformers and you can stomach the silliness of the jumps you have to make, you might like this. But it's a bit of a letdown for me, I'm afraid.

This is a cross-post from Greywolfe's Blog