Reviewed: December 6, 2004
Released: November 2, 2004
While not quite as iconic as Mario or Crash, Spyro the Dragon has been a bastion in gaming since his surprisingly well-received introduction in 1998. Who would have ever thought that a cuddly-wuddly, pint-sized purple dragon would make grown men giddy with excitement? Well Spyro did exactly that over the course of three consecutive Playstation titles. Spaced just one year apart, each of the three Spyro titles garnered successively higher levels of acclaim as a result of a progression of amazing innovations that the developer, Insomniac Games, made to the 3D platforming genre.
The Spyro series reached its height of popularity in 2000, and Spryo himself was neck-and-neck with Naughty Dog’s Crash Bandicoot in the race to be the Playstation’s first-party mascot, when without warning the race was suddenly called off. With the PS2 just around the corner, Sony made the announcement that after a trilogy of releases each, Insomniac and Naughty Dog would both be dropping their keystone Playstation franchises, and were already well into two mysterious new projects for Sony’s next generation console. Meanwhile, both the Spyro and Crash licenses would be sold to the highest bidder and would probably (gasp) lose their Playstation exclusivity.
And that’s exactly what happened. Those two mysterious projects eventually became the highly popular Ratchet and Clank (Insomniac) and Jak and Daxter (Naughty Dog) franchises. And as for Spyro and Crash, they were sold to Vivendi Universal (Universal Interactive) who – as expected – brought the pair to all three major platforms as well as the handhelds.
The first Vivendi Spyro game to hit the next generation of consoles was Spyro: Enter the Dragonfly, and reviews were less than stellar. As a father of a young child I was so hoping that the game would be worthwhile, as the series always had a strong family appeal – but with a number of 5/10 reviews, I couldn’t justify as much as a rental. Citing a lack of any innovation, poor graphical quality (nasty slowdown and clipping), and boring level design, the franchise looked to be all but dead.
Thankfully, Vivendi noted the complaints and enlisted the help of James Bond 007: Nightfire developer Eurocom to revive the series. The result of which is Spyro: A Hero’s Tale, a surprisingly addictive and enjoyable platformer, with a significant increase in visual polish over previous editions.
Sporting the great controls of the original series, it was a breeze to jump right into the action of Spyro: A Hero’s Tail. The series was known for its perfect 3D controls, and A Hero’s Tale is no different. Veterans to the Spyro series know that the purple dragon has a bevy of platformer moves under his wing – gallop, head-butt, jump, double jump, glide, double-jump to horn dive, etc.. None of the moves are available at the start, but are leaned quickly by meeting with dragon Elders placed throughout the first training level. Within a half hour or so, you pretty much learn the library of standard moves, with a few new additions (Prince of Persia – like wall kick, tail moves, etc.) to be learned later on in the game.
The Spyro series has always been about collecting, and you’ll get thrown into the fire right from the get-go. Collecting jewels, collecting eggs, collecting crystals, whatever…let’s just say there’s a lot of collecting in this game. And while collecting may seem so “last generation” amid today’s platform-shooter hybrids, there is a some sense of, er, “retro appeal” when playing A Hero’s Tail.
Still, retro appeal or not, the collecting in Spyro games has always been some of the most convoluted stuff ever seen in the platforming genre – get three of these to exchange to this guy for this gadget which will allow you to get up on that ledge to find an crystal to give to this guy, but on the way find so and so who needs a such and such to do this or that – and on and on and on. What this means is that there is a fair amount of backtracking aimlessly through previous levels, trying to remember who needs what, how many they need, and what tools you need to get the stuff that they need. It’s more than enough to drive a person crazy, yet thanks to the fluid controls, beautiful graphics and relative ease of the game – it’s all so strangely addictive.
Throughout the course of the game, Spyro happens upon a handful of alternate characters with unique abilities who you get to control through a series of prescribed levels – a mole with ultimate digging power and a taste for demolitions, a cheetah with a Robin Hood fetish and a quiver full of arrows, even a jet-packed penguin with a penchant for bombs – they each have their place, their own missions, and their own personal twist on the fun. These side missions are by far the most brilliant moments in the game, offering a bit of a change from the standard collecting bewilderment of the main game.
Par for the course, there are a handful of boss levels, but thanks to the relative ease of the game and a liberal mid-battle autosave system, none are too taxing. Still, as easy as the game is, there will be times that Spyro’s special breath attacks – fire, ice, lightning and water – and or combos of charging/hopping and breath attacks come into play for particular enemies. For instance, early on you meet a set of armored guards that require a combo charge attack (to shatter the armor) followed by a breath attack to put them down. Similarly, certain enemies will only respond to certain breath attacks; crabs require lightning, and if someone’s burning, well…use water. It’s not too much of a chore to figure out the best plan of attack – many times the game will tell you what attack works best on what enemies, but having the ability to change up and combo your attacks adds some depth to the game.
Oh, and the story? I dunno…something about a Red Dragon having unleashed his evil minions and a ton of dark crystals to take over Spyro’s world. Cookie cutter stuff, for sure – but a decent attempt at a plot nevertheless.
Since the first Playstation days, the Spyro series has been lauded for it’s groundbreaking 3D graphics engine which moved with a fluidity few had seen before on the old console. It was a surprise then that Spyro’s foray into the next generation of consoles was marred by inexcusable graphical hitches. Enter the Dragonfly was so poor in fact, that there were more than a few reviewers stating that you got better graphical quality by popping one of the original Playstation games into the backwards-compatible PS2 than you did with the actual PS2 release.
Thankfully, Spyro: A Hero’s Tale looks absolutely phenomenal on the big green box. With a minimum of slowdown, fogging and pop-up, the worlds sparkle with excellence. Vibrant colors, superb animations, lush textures, brilliant shading and a fair amount of real-time shadowing all make for a very pleasing experience. Compared to Dragonfly, A Hero’s Tale is definitely the visual pinnacle in the Spyro series, and brings back a sense of quality needed to revive the series.
Spyro: A Hero’s Tale features the same great voice acting and effects found in the previous titles. While sporting a tongue-in-cheek sense of dark humor that only a parent will catch, Spyro is still a very safe and solid family title. In a day and age where cursing and profanity is the norm in gaming, it’s nice to have some clean humor that can be enjoyed by kids and parents alike.
The sound effects are very befitting of the title, with nice whooshes and zaps from the breath attacks, and great galloping and collision effects during charge attacks. Otherwise, the title is fairly unremarkable – which again is par for the course with platformers.
For a family title, one that you can sit down and play five minutes – even five hours – with your kids you can’t go wrong with Spyro: A Hero’s Tale. But please take note that the whole collecting gimmick easily gets way out of hand and begins to eat away at your soul.
The Xbox is strangely devoid of any standout first party character platformers – Blinx, well…no matter how much I wanted to like that game, I just couldn’t get into it. Voodoo Vince had a chance, but lacked the mass acceptance.
That leaves us with the third party titles; Ty, Tak, I-Ninja, Vexx, Crash and Spyro. And of these third party games, save for I-Ninja, Spyro: A Hero’s Tale represents some of the best overall quality. But at the current retail price of $50, you’ll probably get a much better bang for you buck from the previously mentioned titles which all are at $20 or less.
Still, Spyro: A Hero’s tale deserves at least a look, because I – and my children (ages 4 and 2 ˝) had an absolute blast hopping and bopping with the little purple dragon and his talented friends.
While not as revolutionary as some of the platformers out there, it’s great to see Spyro in all of his glory on the Xbox. Eurocom did a great job reviving the failing franchise by successfully recreating the wonderful aspects of the original Insomniac titles and properly bringing them into the current generation of consoles.
Still, I would have liked the collecting to be a bit less convoluted, as tedium does eventually set in with all of the backtracking and sidetracking going on. And heaven knows, if by some chance you need to turn the machine off for the night, plan on spending about a half hour just getting your bearings – what you need to get, who you need to give it to, where you need to go, were you’ve been, etc. – when you return the next day. This anxiety inducing spaghetti-chart collecting knocked two points off my gameplay score alone. Otherwise, Spyro is a top-notch title well worthy of inclusion in the Insomniac lineage.
Finally, while I would like to have scored Spyro higher overall, it still isn’t quite the total experience we come to expect from platformers these days. It’s a great second-introduction to the 128bit era for Eurocom and Vivendi; they have built a solid foundation with A Hero’s Tale. Now they need to either make some significant progress or put the series to rest for good.