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The Legend of Spyro: Dawn of the Dragon

by Greg Leahy - November 20, 2008, 7:48 am PST
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5

The voices of Frodo Baggins and Wednesday Addams team up with Commissioner Gordon to defeat the Joker, but it's not nearly as good as it sounds.

The Legend of Spyro: Dawn of the Dragon brings the purple dragon back to side-scrolling fare for its DS incarnation in a mix of platforming and brawling action, with the occasional on-rails shooting sequence to boot. Solid controls and attractive 3D graphics offer some promise early on, but Dawn of the Dragon proves to be too sparse and too short to make for a satisfying gameplay experience. Its weak storytelling fails to capitalise on the accomplished voice cast, rendering its narrative impotent and leaving little to distinguish Spyro's latest handheld outing.

The final chapter in the Legend of Spyro trilogy, this year's entry sees the eponymous young dragon partnering with his former foe Cynder the dragoness in an effort to stop the evil Malefor from destroying the world. This DS incarnation boasts the same high-profile voice cast as the console versions, including such famous names as Elijah Wood, Christina Ricci, Gary Oldman, and Mark Hamill.

All of the script's dialogue is delivered well enough, but the cast members never feel like they’re playing off each other and the storytelling falls flat overall. The thin and derivative plot plays out in cut scenes consisting of a handful of poorly drawn stills with no accompanying sound effects or musical score, leaving it to the somewhat scratchy-sounding vocal track to convey the drama by itself. The outcome is rather like viewing a simple storyboard set to a recording of an initial script read-through, and ultimately ranks as nothing special for narrative in a handheld video game.

Gameplay-wise, Dawn of the Dragon is primarily a side-scrolling platform game with some brawler-style combat elements, letting players switch between Spyro and Cynder at almost any time using the L trigger. Fighting enemies typically involves rapidly hitting buttons while shifting directions on the D-pad in order to string together combos, the recognition of which is somewhat inconsistent. The only nuance associated with this combat is that enemies have variable vulnerabilities to the different elemental attacks possessed by the dragon duo, but apart from remembering to switch to a different attack type (and if necessary the correct dragon first), this doesn't do much to meaningfully alter the gameplay. Spyro and Cynder play almost identically, so switching between the two is more an exercise in managing health meters (if one dragon runs out of life, it's back to the last save point) than anything else.

Developer Tantalus has made some wise decisions in order to avoid the most obvious pitfall of a brawler-style design, in that you are actively encouraged to fight enemies (as opposed to taking the quicker option of bypassing them) due to the fact that they drop experience gems that can be accumulated to level up different attack types. Finishing off foes with combos leads to a bigger haul of these gems, so learning how best to fight is also engendered by the design. However, this does not make the actual process of fighting enemies any more fun, and later in the game - when battles become more frequent and many attributes will have already been maxed out - the temptation to flee rather than fight strengthens sharply.

Occasionally, the side-scrolling action is relieved by on-rails shooting action sequences. Here, Spyro and Cynder take flight: the D-pad handles their positioning, while the stylus is used to target enemies. Actively manoeuvring the dragons with one hand while tapping the screen to fire with the other is a little unwieldy, but the scheme remains adequate for the relatively low-intensity action involved in these sequences. The two dragons can once again be switched out, and here it is actually more vital to do so since Spyro and Cynder quickly run out of the "breath" that powers their attacks, and can recharge this more rapidly (along with regaining health) when resting as the other does battle. Making good use of this facility renders these sequences mostly harmless, and there really isn't enough going on to make them particularly entertaining either. There are too few enemies and hazards to get the adrenalin flowing during the main parts of levels, and while the bosses may look imposing (and score a few cheap hits due to questionable collision detection), they lack the necessary creativity in attack pattern design to feel like anything more than going through the motions.

Dawn of the Dragon employs 3D graphics in both its on-rails and side-scrolling sequences, and the results are quite effective. Most of the characters and environments look crisp thanks to some good texture work, and the dragons themselves manage to convey an appropriate level of personality through their animations. However, there seems to have been a rather significant price to pay for the enjoyment of this aesthetic sheen: there's never very much going on. Spyro seldom finds himself in combat with more than two foes at a time, and when this does occur, it spells doom for the game's framerate. The result is a brawler without a whole lot of brawling, giving the proceedings a pedestrian feel throughout.

Of course, there is also platforming to deal with during the side-scrolling stages, but here again we see that the visual presentation seems to have trumped gameplay in Tanatlus' development priorities. The view is simply too zoomed-in to allow for the levels to feasibly contain sophisticated platform layouts, and in fact proves less than adequate for the relatively simple designs that have been put in place. Using the D-pad to (slowly) shift the view up or down slightly is not a satisfactory solution to the problem, and leaps of faith and/or memorisation are occasionally required to traverse certain sections. These problems beg for a dynamic camera to solve them, but no such measure is implemented. The outcome is that, aside from a few nifty little wall-jumping challenges, there really isn't much in the way of platforming to engage and challenge the player, and what little is on offer is more likely to frustrate than satisfy.

The decision to focus on the superficialities of visuals and voice work rather than gameplay defines Dawn of the Dragon as a work of style over substance. Though the core concepts, controls, and incentive structures are all sound, well-presented, and quite fun to play around with, the game design fails to do anything particularly interesting with them. Furthermore, the sheer brevity of the game (completion should take no more than five hours—and significantly less than that for most players) cements this as an insubstantial experience that could have been much more successful given the time and inclination to flesh out the gameplay, but instead seems to have been chiefly concerned with simply putting something out on time that passes the eyeball test.

Score

Graphics Sound Control Gameplay Lastability Final
8 5 7 5 3 5
Graphics
8

Dawn of the Dragon uses 3D graphics to maintain a consistent look between the different gameplay styles, and does so effectively. The visuals are clean, crisp, and nicely detailed, but do run into some trouble when the action (very occasionally) gets a little more congested.

Sound
5

Suitable sound effects along with the quantity of commendable voice work are nice plus points, but the music is absolutely pitiful due to substandard instrumentation, and conspicuous in its absence from the dramatic cut scenes that would have benefited a great deal from some appropriate musical scoring.

Control
7

The control schemes for both the on-rails and side-scrolling sequences work well for the most part, thanks to reliable recognition of more nuanced inputs such as double tapping the D-pad to execute dashing and dodging.

Gameplay
5

Dawn of the Dragon's gameplay is fundamentally sound thanks to the effective controls and shrewd encouragement of combat, but the focus on the game's visual presentation means that this potential is largely squandered. Fighting enemies one and two at a time is simply not intense enough to make combat an entertaining or rewarding experience, and the close-up perspective severely limits the fun to be had from platforming.

Lastability
3

Completion will only take a few hours, and there are absolutely no inclusions to encourage players to replay the game.

Final
5

With a nice look, a high profile voice cast, and decent controls, The Legend of Spyro: Dawn of the Dragon leaves a slick first impression, but ultimately fails to back it up due to a dearth of action and content. The brevity of the game is matched by its lack of depth, so what fun there is to be had is both subdued and short-lived. While fans of the Spyro universe may therefore be the only group with any hope of getting much out of playing Dawn of the Dragon, it must be said that the weak storytelling on show may mean they would be better served by following Spyro's adventures on another platform.

Summary

Pros
  • Crisp, attractive 3D visuals
  • Effective control schemes
  • Good use of incentives for combat
Cons
  • Too little action in both gameplay styles
  • Weak narrative elements
  • Zoomed-in view not conducive to good platforming
Review Page 2: Conclusion

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Genre Action
Developer Tantalus

Worldwide Releases

na: The Legend of Spyro: Dawn of the Dragon
Release Oct 21, 2008
PublisherSierra Entertainment
RatingEveryone 10+
aus: The Legend of Spyro: Dawn of the Dragon
Release Nov 06, 2008
PublisherActivision
RatingParental Guidance
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