Wait! Slow down a second. If you can believe it, this Spyro game isn't half bad.
Anyone can glance at the average review score of a recent Spyro game and see that Spyro brand usually means mediocre or worse. In fact, the game just prior to this one seems to have been particularly bad in its GBA incarnation. And yet the Spyro name still holds water and so the franchise passed to a new developer once again, Amaze Entertainment. Amaze stuck with the theme and core gameplay of the prior entry in the series, continuing the retelling of Spyro's story and making another side scrolling brawler. Only this time they added a healthy dose of adventure elements and got a lot more right than wrong.
While this Spyro outing makes for a good game, it does lack that fine coat of polish that the greats have. This is clear upon starting, where the ending of the previous game is recapped while the beginning is left a mystery. As a result, when the introduction ends, you'll find yourself reading a dialogue between Spyro and a dragonfly creature whose origin ought to be known to you. But never mind, it's clear that the dragonfly, Sparx, is an ally, and though the dialogue isn't half bad, the game quickly gets to what it's really about—action.
The first level serves as a training ground. By the end of this very short level, Spyro acquires a number of Dragon Relics, each of which adds a technique of some kind to his arsenal. The initial list includes double jumping, gliding, an uppercut attack, wall jumping, dashing (good for mobility and combat) and air diving (likewise). This provides a good foundation for the game to build upon. Throughout the rest of the game, Spyro acquires four elemental attacks, and if you explore the environment and back-track, you'll gain a number of optional techniques and stat boosts as well.
Despite the complex array of moves, Spyro controls well. On the ground, Spyro has a sense of weight that goes well with the melee nature of his essential attacks, yet in the air, he's agile and responsive. The slightly weighty feel on the ground seems like a drawback at first (particularly if you play a lot of Castlevania games), but the control is actually one of the best things about the game. Once you get used to it, it feels just right.
Speaking of attacks, the majority of Spyro's foes take quite a few hits such that success absolutely requires learning how to string together combos (unless you play easy mode). Simple combos are a matter of mashing the attack button, but extravagant combos require mixing up ground, air and elemental attacks. The game diverts you periodically to a training ground to keep you up to speed.
Other than its brevity, the game's main weakness is a lack of diversity among its basic enemies and the way that they are distributed. This problem isn't incredibly pronounced, but it is noticeable. For example, the four elemental temples, being magical training grounds, frequently feature enemies from the most recent normal levels (in addition to a few elemental temple exclusives, which differ from one another only in color and stats). Since the challenge is primarily in fighting, this repetition stands out a bit more than it might have otherwise. Enemies frequently come in groups that can be pummeled collectively, though if you miss one it will get some hits on you as you try to take out its brethren. At times you may find yourself avoiding enemies rather than killing them. On a good note, most of the boss fights are well designed and challenging. You can even redo the fights any time you pay a visit to the elemental temple.
Aside from fighting, the game's main draws are character development, exploration, and a small touch of platforming, although combat remains the focus. Spyro can develop his four elemental attacks by collecting blue gems (of which you obtain more if you dispatch foes using extended combos). Exploration is encouraged by the plethora of Dragon Relics lying around. Back tracking is required to obtain some of them, and there are definitely a few well worth finding (my favorite being the air dash). The platforming elements are sparse, but it's probably just as well since Spyro isn't quite agile enough for anything complex.
Unfortunately, the level design could really use some work. Each level consists of a few large areas that are strung together. An area consists of an admirable collection of twisting passages and hidden goodies, but once you exit one area for the next, you can't go back unless you reenter the beginning of the level from the world map. Speaking of maps, a proper action-adventure needs a map screen for each level. Action-adventure gamers are used to using a built in map to explore every cranny of a level. Here you'll have to use your noggin, or paper and a drawing instrument.
Spyro's graphical presentation is a bit inconsistent. While most of the game is hand drawn, a few significant elements have a dated pre-rendered look to them that is just out of place. This includes menus, one major character, and a recurring cut-scene showing a swirling portal. On the other hand, the animation of Spyro and his foes is particularly good. The level art isn't bad either, although it suffers from a lot of dithering, which is supposed to trick the eye into thinking the color depth is greater, but in this case it just makes things look grainy. Some levels look much better than others (the pirate ship, for example).
Musically, there is a lot of diversity, but stronger melodies are usually a better fit for a side-scrolling action-adventure. As it stands, the somber, atmospheric tunes set an interesting mood, but the mood doesn't seem to fit the relatively light-hearted dialogue and sprite artwork. However, it does usually fit the background art.
In the end, Spyro: The Eternal Night is a bit short, and the GBA platform is showing its age, but the game is available at a budget price. Spyro fans (I know you're out there) shouldn't hesitate to pick the game up. Additionally, the game would be good for younger action-gamers, as the easy mode is well thought out; enemies have less endurance and punch, and even fewer techniques. Adult fans and students of the action-adventure should take a look, but they won't find the game interesting for very long.