Reviewed:November 4, 2008
Released: October 21, 2008
A franchise with its beginnings on the Sony PlayStation platform in 1998, Spyro the Dragon has since starred in many titles spanning multiple systems, including the PlayStation 2, Game Boy Advance, mobile phones, and now the Nintendo DS. The latest and last installment of The Legend of Spyro Trilogy, Dawn of the Dragon is a platform and action game that takes place roughly three years after the events of the second game in the trilogy, The Eternal Night.
The Legend of Spyro: Dawn of the Dragon starts with Spyro and his former adversary and fellow dragon Cynder regaining consciousness after a long time gap between the two games. They are joined by Spyroís brother Sparx and their guide Hunter, and in spite of any bad blood between them from previous games, the two dragons must now team up on a quest to stop the Dark Master from destroying the Dragon World.
Dawn of the Dragon is a fairly typical modern platformer game that, at first glance, shows excellent promise. The game opens up with a short intro sequence and little other ado, letting you guide Spyro and Cynder out of the dark ruins where they woke and back to the Dragon City. The game takes this opportunity to provide the player with an optional short tutorial that introduces a set of somewhat complicated controls. As might be expected, they include various actions that platform gamers have come to embrace, such as the basic jump, double jump, wall jump, dash, and attack. In addition, Spyro and Cynder are each able to glide for short amounts of time, as well as use elemental breath and strikes, both of which deplete a limited breath meter that regenerates slowly over time.
As a rare purple dragon, Spyro is able to switch among four different elements in his breath and strike attacks: Fire, Ice, Earth, and Electricity. Meanwhile, Cynder, as a dragon touched by darkness, gets another four elements: Wind, Poison, Shadow, and Fear. The developers, however, unfortunately didnít quite capture this opportunity to add variety and interest to the gameplay, since the two dragons play almost identically. True, sometimes one particular dragonís ability is better suited for a given situation, but I was disappointed to find that, for the most part, Spyro and Cynder are virtually just palette swaps of one another. This means that character swapping loses some of its potential fun factor, since all it really ends up doing is allowing for health and breath meter recovery of the swapped out dragon.
Swapping dragons is also somewhat confusing, mostly because of the way the screen and controls are laid out. By default, the R shoulder button cycles the active element, while the L shoulder button switches between charactersóbut because Spyro is displayed on the left side of the upper screen, and Cynder is displayed on the right side of the screen, I constantly felt like pressing the R button instead of the L button to switch to Cynder when I needed to switch out Spyro. Usually, this isnít a problem, but it can become an issue during combat.
Fighting in Dawn of the Dragon during the platform stages mostly involves executing a number of melee combos performed by pressing the attack button along with D-pad directions. I found the controls somewhat unresponsive when compared to the smoothness of other melee-oriented sidescrollers (such as the more recent Castlevania games), but theyíre not awful, either. The variety of attacks available is definitely a plus, especially as particular attack combinations are more effective against some kinds of enemies, thus injecting an element of fighting game strategy into melee. As a brawler aficionado, I liked this aspect of the game and just wished that the controls were less stiff so that actions would chain a bit more tightly. In the end, itís not that well executed, but at least the idea is there.
In any case, besides ordinary melee, both dragons can also use elemental strikes and breath attacks. This is where character and element swapping become tricky: while having a selection of four elements is an opportunity for added gameplay depth, in practice, itís difficult to take advantage of Dawn of the Dragonís system because each enemy is usually resistant or immune to most elements, and a creatureís vulnerability needs to be recognized quickly without wasting too much of your dragonís breath meter in trial and error.
The upper screen (which lists all available elements) displays the enemyís resistances and immunities, but given the large number of small icons scattered across the screen, itís unfortunately not that easy to quickly reference and swap elements. Moreover, cycling through your element choices takes time, and combined with the confusing setup of the element and character swapping buttons, picking out the right element on the spot just isnít as simple or quick as it should be, especially in an action game in which reaction time is important.
Nevertheless, with only one enemy, combat is relatively painless. Since the dragons canít seem to effectively attack multiple enemies at once, though, matters are complicated if two or more enemies are on the screen. The enemies usually have different vulnerabilities (which means more clunky element switching on the fly), and because attacks seem to target just one enemy at a time without an easy way to choose your target, even when more than one enemies occupy roughly the same space, combat quickly becomes a pain fest for Spyro (or Cynder) when thereís multiple baddies on the screen. Luckily, this doesnít happen overly often.
Despite these foibles, it canít be said that Spyroís developers didnít try to spice things up with Dawn of the Dragon. The platform levels are interspersed with flying levels reminiscent of aerial areas in Star Fox or Mario 64, providing a bit of variety in perspective and gameplay. D-pad navigation on these levels works intuitively and much more smoothly than the platform controls, requiring you to avoid obstacles like stone columns, arches, and enemies on the screen, while the active dragon follows a set path through the level.
While flying, Spyro and Cynder can only attack enemies using stylus-targeted breath attacks, which is sometimes problematic because their breath meters are so limited, and itís easy to miss a target when youíre on the move. Furthermore, performing barrel rolls to dodge projectiles also inexplicably depletes the breath meter, making it even more difficult to ration out attack power when enemies are thick. Fortunately, switching out a dragon allows the inactive character to recover both health and breath, forcing you to focus on resource management more so than any other kind of task. All in all, itís a passable flight experience and a welcome break from the pure platform segments of the game, but it can also be a chore. It also makes you wonder why Spyro and Cinder donít just fly through the platform sequences, saving you all the jumping trouble.
Then, on top of platform and flying levels, there are also the shooter-style boss levels, in which the player faces off against an enormous boss creature and must target specific areas of the boss while dodging attacks by flying around a very limited area. While these boss fights are appropriately challenging compared to the other aspects of the game and add more diversity to the gameplay, they are agonizing because of several reasons. Dodging is extremely difficult because itís nearly impossible to tell which areas of the screen are actually safe, particularly because itís difficult to make out which boss motions are in the foreground and what will actually hit you.
Moreover, the dragons seem to have very poor mobility and fly very slowly in a small screen that never seems to show enough of the boss to attack effectively while still allowing for maneuverability; and, again, the breath meter is limiting in terms of how many times you can attack in a short time span, and itís easy to miss when youíre using a 2D interface to fight a 3D creature that can cover vulnerabilities in a dimension you canít reach. Taken as a whole, the boss fights were a bit of a mess to deal with, especially on the small DS screen.
In summary, Dawn of the Dragon takes a step in the right direction of providing an interesting platform action game by mixing different game elements and providing a variety of possible actions and attack combinations, but overall, the experience is marred by a myriad of small problemsólike stiff controls, imprecise targeting, and a somewhat confusing interface layoutóthat altogether make this an okay game rather than a great one.
Foregoing the usual 2D sprite graphics used in platform action games, Dawn of the Dragon instead uses side-scrolling 3D visuals that bring a certain amount of extra depth to the charactersí surroundings. Interactive objects like breakable crystals and enemies are typically clearly visible, and though some of the environments are a bit nondescript for my tastes, overall, it works.
The 3D character models are smoothly animated, and the breath and attack effects all have their unique visuals. Perhaps they donít pop out from the small DS screen as well as good 2D sprites usually do, but theyíre easy enough to make out.
The colorfully painted and expressive cartoon cut scene illustrations, however, are a highlight of the gameís graphics department. These still shots are beautifully done and help bring the cast of characters to life. Similarly, the menu and interface graphics are easy to read, yet aesthetically designed to match the fantasy theme of the game.
Dawn of the Dragonís soundtrack is somewhat reminiscent of those from a number of fantasy RPGs of the 90s, like Ultima or Might and Magic. If fairly typical for the genre and perhaps in need of just a few slightly more dramatic notes, itís still got a charming old-school quality to it. The sound quality is also consistently excellent, especially for a DS game.
The dialogue in the game is voiced over by big names such as Elijah Wood (as Spyro), Christina Ricci (as Cynder), Gary Oldman (as father figure Ignitus), and Mark Hamill (as Malefor, the Dark Master), and itís not bad. The voice actors certainly add to the game charactersí believability and enhance the game experience significantly.
Retailing for a middling $29.99, Dawn of the Dragon is a moderately challenging platform and action game that could potentially keep a player busy for a few days. Given that the stiff controls together with other minor problems could cause some frustration, though, both patience and skill level could factor into a decision to buy this game.
The Legend of Spyro: Dawn of the Dragon is a fairly decent DS platformer and action game, but because of its linear and somewhat shallow design, as well as a number of minor flaws, it doesnít quite make it past that. If youíve enjoyed previous installments of the trilogy, youíd probably like this one too, but personally, Iíd probably wait for a price drop before picking this up. Hereís hoping that the next Spyro game builds on the promise shown by Dawn of the Dragon and follows through on its potential.