Reviewed: November 13, 2006
Released: October 17, 2006
It was convenient timing that the new Spyro game hit the GCM offices this week. You see, I have a five year old daughter and four year old son, and in an attempt to introduce them to the world of quality gaming we have been playing our way through a chronological history of the best 3D character-platformers. We stared off in the spring with Super Mario 64 (via the DS), which led us to knock off Crash Bandicoot 3: Warped during a swelteringly hot week over the summer.
Well it just so happens that the very day that The Legend of Spyro: A New Beginning made its way to the GCM mailbox, my kids and I are wrapping up Spyro: Year of the Dragon – the third title in the series and widely regarded as the best Spyro title in the entire seven year run.
The really cool thing about this timing irony is that just as I happen to be refreshing my memory on the very best (and last) title to come from the old Insomniac days – I suddenly get to bear witness to a complete reinvention of the series via the new publisher, Sierra, and new developer, Krome Studios.
We all know who Sierra is, but few will realize that Krome is the very same Australian studio behind the criminally overlooked Ty the Tasmanian Tiger series of budget-priced platformers. While the three Ty games never received much critical acclaim outside of the land down under, few can argue with their high level of production quality and unique gameplay elements.
We knew the moment we popped the disc in our Xbox that we were in for something big – and man, were we right. The direction that Krome decided to take with the Spyro franchise is darker, grittier, and tougher than we ever would have guessed for our little purple dragon.
The game mixes in new combat-heavy gameplay, fantastic visuals and presentation, and a big-budget cast including the likes of Elijah Wood, David Spade and Gary Oldman. The result is about the closest thing to an epic adventure that we have ever seen in the series – and a game that has almost as much “wow” factor as a Soul Reaver title.
This “New Beginning” that the title refers to is the complete retelling of the story, as Spyro (Wood) and his dragonfly stepbrother Sparx (Spade) go on a trek to find the land from whence he came and hopefully find out something about his own past.
During their journey, they meet up with an elder dragon, Ignitus (Oldman), who tells them about Spyro’s origins; how his purpleness is a sign that he was to be a leader, how the peaceful land of the dragons was overtaken by the Cynder the dragon and her dark force army, and of the three Dragon Guardians who she has imprisoned.
Spyro asks Ignitus to teach him in the ways of the dragon, allowing him the chance to battle against Cynder and her evil forces and hopefully bring peace back to the land.
A New Beginning is heavy on the combat – and by heavy, I mean extremely heavy. In fact, between all of the tail whips, horn attacks, breath attacks, and all the time slowing multi-combos therein, the overall combat is more along the lines of what we find in a Prince of Persia or the Otogi series than any of the old hop-n-bop combat of days gone by.
Each and every enemy that Spyro encounters comes with his or her own a unique name (which is a rather cool aspect), and a sizeable life meter that needs to be depleted. Unlike the early Spyro games, where a simple horn dash or breath of fire would fell a foe, every single one of these enemies – even the least impressive minions – takes multiple blows to defeat. In fact, I believe that the least difficult enemy I faced took a total four solid blows to go down – the rest easily take a half dozen or more. Considering that enemies tend to appear in packs of three or four – generally three smaller enemies and one larger version – and then have the gall to respawn two or three times, even the simplest of battles can take a few minutes.
As I mentioned earlier, the new mode of combat is very similar to that of Prince of Persia or Otogi. In A New Beginning, Spyro can flip enemies into the air using his horns, which both renders the enemy helpless and momentarily slows down time, allowing the gamer a brief period of time to key in a three or four button combo to drive it home.
The controls are deceivingly simple in their complexity – with certain buttons receiving double-duty depending on the length of time they are held, or the particular situation in which they are being used.
The game does a fairly good job teaching these moves to the player through a series of training missions held throughout the game – although using these moves against actually enemies always proves a bit more difficult than it is against the training dummies.
While most of the gameplay stays to solid ground, our fearless dragon does take to the sky every now and then for a series of air battles which are extremely reminiscent of the classic Xbox shooter Panzer Dragoon Orta.
These flying missions are beautifully rendered and follow the Panzer Dragoon on-rails gameplay style as creatures and projectiles are fired in patterns from all angles of the screen, and it’s Spyros turn to dodge and roll, returning fire whenever he can. Really, the only thing missing from the Panzer Dragoon game is Orta’s hardcore level of difficulty…which really is not necessarily a bad thing.
At least a third or more of the game’s 8 hour of story is spent watching the many lengthy cinematics that pop up every few minutes between battle. While the overall flow from gameplay to cinematic and back is fairly seamless, there are times where you wish there were a few less longwinded dramatic moments and you could get back to kicking some tail (literally).
The Spyro series has always been know for delivering kick-ass graphics, but A New Beginning takes the visuals to an all new level – this game is absolutely striking on the Xbox, and it is by far one of the most beautiful platformers to ever hit our beloved black box.
The levels are visually amazing, and everything has a very polished look. Whereas the previous releases of Spyro always seemed to have that PS2-port look about them, A New Beginning is the first title to look like it was made with the Xbox in mind. The evidence of such being the number of trademark Xbox features – the realistic glow of Sparx’ tail-light against the walls and trees, and the highly detailed texture mapping of Spyro’s bumpily-purple skin when viewed close-up.
Obviously, he characters are a bit less cartoony than they were in the good old days – and while the enemies have always been a menagerie of silly looking creatures, the enemies in A New Beginning are borderline demented. If demonic looking baboons are not enough to scare you off, maybe the floating skeleton torsos will. It all looks sweet to an adult, but kids might not fare so well.
The first thing that will strike you about the sound, is the absolutely astounding orchestral soundtrack that accompanies the game. I am serious when I say this is one of the most amazing works of music that I have ever heard in any game, and it really gives the game the feeling of enormity reserved for cinematic epics like The Lord of the Rings.
Speaking of Lord of the Rings (like how I did that?), the game features the voice talents of our favorite Hobbit, Elijah Wood as Spyro. Wood does a stand-up job breathing new life into our little hero, and he sounds like he was actually interested in playing the part.
David Spade, however…he pretty much ruins the whole gothic mystique with his wise cracking take on Spyro’s entomologic half-brother Sparx. While I am a huge Spade fan on film and TV, his voice talent just does not sound right at all in this game. He may have been perfect as the arrogant llama in The Emperor’s New Groove (if you haven’t seen this movie, you owe it to yourself to rent it right now), but as a pipsqueak sidekick he’s downright bothersome. And unlike Wood’s performance, Spade sounds like he recorded his script in his living room while fawning over himself on The Biz.
Gary Oldman does an excellent job bringing a very old gothic English feel to the game – although it’s hard as hell to understand him most of the time. I sounds authentic and all, but with all of the softening they have put on his voice, it makes understanding his longwinded diatribes all the worse.
In fact, while I understand the reasoning behind the decision to carry such big-name talent (i.e. to bring attention to the new series), I have to wonder if the quality of the game would not have ultimately been better with less well known and recognizable voice actors. I had a hard time not constantly comparing A New Beginning to Lord of the Rings, simply because all I could hear was Frodo. And when Oldman spoke, I tried hard to not miss a thing, which would only make me more lost.
The storyline is a bit darker than we have come to expect from our usually family friendly franchise, and as a result A New Beginning opens the doors to an older sect of gamers. The only problem is that it also shuts the doors to the throngs of children who still love the little purple champion.
In fact, although I have a high regard for the A New Beginning – I have to wonder if this experiment is going to pay off for the good or the bad. I’m not so sure that the older will be willing to even try the “new” Spyro, and I’m not so sure that parents will want their kids playing such a dark game.
I myself spent a good hour in the doghouse, when my wife walked in on my son and I during a particularly dark boss battle – she’s no prude, but the game is now officially off limits in the Hart household. And you know what? My son does not really mind that his mom squelched A New Beginning. He never could understand the controls, and he truly liked the hop-n-bop action of the old Playstation game better.
But the bottom line is that game really is a work of art, and it is most likely going to go the way of all the other Spyro, and Ty the Tasmanian Devil games because people just are not willing to give it a try.
In the process of this review for A New Beginning, I have listed a number of very unique games that have elements closely resembling what is given here – and all are exceptional. If Krome did use those games as influence for this reinvention, they are looking in the right places. Prince of Persia, Otogi, Panzer Dragoon Orta – they are all here. Heck, there’s even a bit of the PS2’s God of War thrown in for good measure.
The result is that The Legend of Spyro: A New Beginning is a pretty sweet game. I just hope that Krome and Sierra will succeed in their experiment to bring a new age of gamer to the once-cutesy character. If not, this might be the last Spyro we ever see – and that would be a shame.
In the meantime, the kids and I will continue kicking it with Spyro: Year of the Dragon and then move onto Jak and Daxter. That is, if my wife does not find out…