During the height of the PlayStation era, two games stood out for being some of the system's best platformers: Crash Bandicoot and Spyro the Dragon. Both games were excellent 3-D platformers and both games sold mountains of copies and helped sell plenty of systems. Their sequels were also good and turned the games into very viable franchises. Once the PS2 arrived, however, things changed. Both franchises went multi-platform, but the game quality started to wane. While Crash Bandicoot tried to refine its formula as time passed, the Spyro series reinvented itself. The Legend of Spyro: A New Beginning premiered two years ago and breathed some fresh air into the series by redoing the characters and backstory. The sequel, The Legend of Spyro: The Eternal Night didn't fare quite as well, so fans began to wonder if the Spyro franchise would slide back into mediocrity. The Legend of Spyro: Dawn of the Dragon is the series' first appearance on the current-gen Xbox 360 and Sony PlayStation 3 consoles, and while the game isn't as abysmal as The Eternal Night, it isn't the best game in the new series either.
Dawn of the Dragon starts out with Spyro, his companion Sparx and his former nemesis Cynder being freed from their frozen prison by their enemies. From there, the two dragons are tethered together by a magical leash and bound to the dungeon floor before being forced to fight for their lives. After escaping the dungeon with a little help from the mysterious cheetah, Hunter, the group tries to reach the elder dragons and stop the evil dragon, Malefor, from causing world destruction.
Xbox 360 owners should note that they are missing the middle portion of the trilogy. While A New Beginning was released on the original Xbox, it is backward-compatible and has been released as an Xbox Original, The Eternal Night skipped the Xbox platform entirely. Unless you've played it on another console, you might get confused about why Dawn of the Dragon starts off the way it does. Aside from that, though, the story is quite good and easy to get into. It's nothing epic, but for a game that's primarily intended for kids, the story could have been much worse.
The gameplay is a very mixed bag. The combat system retains the same style as in previous games, where Spyro is capable of basic melee combat in addition to his elemental attacks. This adds some variety to his fighting. But most players will probably stick with the fire attacks, as it seems to be more powerful and useful than any of his other elemental attacks (melee not included). Cynder, on the other hand, has poor elemental attacks, but they're useful when trying to uncover all of the game's hidden secrets. Players will end up controlling Spyro more often than Cynder and will consequently end up upgrading Spyro's abilities more often than Cynder's. Most of the game is pretty easy, but there are some enemies that will prove to be difficult because of some new additions and issues.
Dawn of the Dragon sports two new additions to the gameplay that seem welcome at first but present a few problems that make them more annoying than helpful. The first addition is the tethering system that the player must endure. The gimmick ensures that both Spyro and Cynder cannot wander too far from each other, since they are bound together by the magical devices on their necks. It allows for some pretty good puzzles that require teamwork and makes sure that both players work together in a co-op game.
However, the tether doesn't seem to be active all of the time, which makes it bothersome. For example, there may be times when you'd carry an object, preventing any of the dragons from flying very high, so you obviously want to seek low ground and climb to where you want to go. While you can direct one dragon to go in one direction, the other dragon won't pay attention and will try to go somewhere else instead of joining your character. Here, the tether will kick in, dragging you away from the ground and forcing you to constantly switch between the two dragons in order to get anywhere. On the other hand, there will be times in combat when the tether is obviously not in play and you can travel as far as you want and your partner will be nowhere in sight. It becomes annoying since there is an inconsistency as to when the tether exists, leading to some frustrating situations.
The second addition to Dawn of the Dragon is free flight. Unlike past versions, where Spyro was only allowed to fly in certain stages, both dragons can take flight whenever they want. This all sounds good on paper, but it's a mess in practice. While users can fly practically wherever they want, there are times when the game stops you from going any higher or automatically drops your altitude for no apparent reason at all. This makes for frustrating situations where you have to find alternate means of getting to a platform, instead of just flying straight to it. Once you manage to fly somewhere, you're never given an explanation about how to land. Experimenting with the controls reveals that hitting the left bumper causes a dive bomb landing, but even that doesn't work all of the time, forcing you to somehow glide down to the ground instead. These little annoyances make flight less fun than it should be.
The controls are done fairly well. Anyone familiar with just about any recent platformers will instantly be familiar with the control scheme here. The A button handles jumping, B grabs enemies and items, and the X and Y buttons handle attacks of varying strength. The d-pad switches elements, the right trigger unleashes the elemental attacks, the right bumper performs other elemental-related abilities, and the left trigger switches control between Spyro and Cynder. The layout is easy for just about anyone to use.
The only real problem here lies with the camera. Unlike most platformers, the camera in Dawn of the Dragon doesn't give you a full 360-degree view all of the time. While some wide-open areas let you completely rotate the camera, other areas restrict movement enough that you don't feel the camera moving at all. It becomes problematic when you're trying to glide or fly over to a patch of vines but can't pinpoint where you're supposed to be going because you can't move the camera and see that you've hit a blank wall. The camera was an issue in the prior titles, and it's a shame to see that it hasn't been fixed in the latest game.
Graphics, like the gameplay, represent a blending of the good with the bad. The environments in the game are gorgeous: The open valleys are rich with color, with small details such as falling petals and bugs buzzing about. The middle of the game features a castle under siege that brims with chaos, thanks to the various explosions all over the place and the constant view of thousands of sprite-based minions in the background. When Spyro is standing still, the game looks great, but once you make a move, things start to fall apart. The frame rate fluctuates wildly between 15 to 60 frames per second. For a good idea of how bad things can get, stand in an open field and rotate the camera. You can't get a smooth rotation, which is a sign that there are flaws in the game engine. This is also apparent in the combat, where the game will often pause when the characters make contact. If it occurred all of the time, it could be seen as an artistic decision, but since it doesn't, it feels out of place. The character models are good and detailed, and this is especially true of the armor that gets placed on both dragons. However, Cynder and Spyro look so shiny that they seem plastic when viewed up close. Finally, there were times when a loading screen appeared in the middle of gameplay. The levels don't seem that large, so it's a bit disturbing to see a loading screen when you're doing something as simple as climbing a wall.
The sound is probably the biggest highlight of Dawn of the Dragon. The sound effects of just about anything, from the elemental attacks to the enemy grunts, all have a clarity and richness you expect from triple-A games. The explosions in the castle siege level, for example, will give your sound system a workout. The music is well suited for an epic movie score. Every situation comes through with the appropriate music, whether it's a peaceful stroll through valleys or exploring underground caverns. Voices, however, are going to be the strongest point of the sound package. The game is loaded with some tremendous voice talent, both known and unknown to the general gaming public, and almost every voice actor comes through in a believable manner. Both Gary Oldman and Elijah Wood are no strangers to epic movies and games, especially since they did voice work in the two previous Spyro games. As a result, they're comfortable in their roles and deliver their lines with no trouble at all. Wayne Brady takes over the role of Sparx and has a performance that, while not as memorable as David Spade, still sounds hilarious without overdoing it. About the only blemish on the sound package would be Christina Ricci. She doesn't do too badly as Cynder, the former nemesis in the game series, but she isn't particularly impressive either. While she can pull off the sad scenes, every other emotion sounds like she phoned in the performance.
The title sports two-player offline co-op play, which is nice for those who like to play platforming games with a friend. This comes in handy if you want to beat the game together, as it is a decent length for current games, and it adds some replay value.
The Legend of Spyro: Dawn of the Dragon is a very average title. Good-looking graphics are plagued with frame rate problems and questionable camera angles. Gameplay isn't as polished as one would like, and the level of difficulty constantly fluctuates. The sound is polished, even though there are a few minor problems here and there. If you're a big Spyro fan, give Dawn of the Dragon a rental before committing to a purchase.
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