The Legend of Spyro: A New Beginning Review
A couple days ago, we brought you the review on one kids game, SpongeBob SquarePants: Creature from the Krusty Krab, which didn't really fit the bill. It was fun for a while, but even Spongebob fans might not find it worthwhile, and any avid gamer would pass it up immediately. Therefore, we certainly hoped our second venture this week into a game designed for a younger demographic would be more fruitful. The game is The Legend of Spyro: A New Beginning, which is a resurrection attempt of sorts, as most gamers have heard of the little purple dragon who first hit store shelves way back in 1998 for the original PlayStation. But while the multiple Spyros on the PS1 were fantastic, the two for the PS2 (Enter the Dragonfly and A Hero's Tale) were very mediocre, so we had our reservations going into this one.
Graphically, the game is a step forward from the last two installments, with more refined visuals and slightly better detail throughout. We have a lot of nice color (that does tend to blur a bit here and there) and some deep shading in the picturesque jungles and other vibrant areas. Unfortunately, there isn't a great deal of clarity so oftentimes, it tends to look more like a first or second-year PS2 title than a game that was only recently released. There isn't much in the way of flaws or significant errors, though, and the visual presentation should satisfy its target audience. There is some repetitiveness going on in the environments, though, as you may start to wonder how many times the developers could copy and paste a single tree, mushroom, or rock. Still, it's as pretty as Spyro has ever looked, so that can't really be a bad thing.
The sound is a bizarre mix of a somewhat boring and generic soundtrack, decent gameplay effects, and superb voice acting. Krome Studios and Sierra went all out in that last department, hiring the very talented trio of Elijah Wood, David Spade, and Gary Oldman, all of whom deliver fine performances. Wood voices Spyro, Spade lends his patented wit to Spyro's faithful, wisecracking sidekick, Sparx, and Oldman is responsible for the wise Ignitus. It's just too bad they couldn't have had a better script, because you can tell they're occasionally forced to stumble through some bad lines. And while the individual performances are great, they don't blend together very well, leading us to believe none of the actors were in the same room at the same time. But they still lend a great deal of appeal to this title, and while neither the soundtrack or effects are impressive in the least, this cut-scene-heavy game benefits from the famous trio's skill.
The gameplay in Spyro has always been relatively straightforward, but with plenty of action and even a few puzzles to solve. The format hasn't changed much at all over the years, and while some would condemn the series for that reason, we won't criticize a game for using a tried-and-true formula. If we were to do that, any and all sequels would be terrible and that's clearly not the case. However, we do look for at least some advancement and expansion on the original gameplay structure; more abilities, maneuvers, challenges, a different system for increasing skill, etc. This is one area where recent Spyro installments failed to deliver, so the first thing on our list for A New Beginning was an examination of what's new regarding the gameplay.
As it turns out, there's both good and bad, here. But we at PSXE are optimists, so let's start with the good- Spyro has more moves than ever, complete with a variety of breath and leaping attacks, all of which are easily learned and executed. Some, like the ground smash, helps a great deal when surrounded by troublesome enemies, and others, like the fire breath (and you get ice and lightning breath later), work well for temporarily halting an advancing charge of multiple baddies in their tracks. The basic tail strike has returned as well, and you can string this together for a simple three-hit combo that works best for single, less-bothersome enemies. The control scheme is solid and nicely implemented, ultimately creating a highly accessible and effective gameplay foundation.
But unfortunately, we must now continue on to the bad- despite all his nifty new abilities, like knocking an enemy into the air and then leaping to deliver a series of strikes (like Devil May Cry for the youngsters), most seem somewhat arbitrary. For example, when Ignitus trains you after receiving new breath attacks, you basically perform the same moves as before. The only difference is in how the breath looks. Furthermore, despite having a relatively hefty arsenal at your disposal, much of it will go unused as they're frequently unnecessary for success. In other words, this is in violation of one major rule: simply giving the player the means isn't what's important; the second step - providing the player with a reason to use those means - is crucial to a complete game experience.
But now that that's out of the way, we can return to some of the more positive aspects of A New Beginning. As mentioned before, the wonderful trio of Wood, Spade, and Oldman enhance the presentation with their professional and charming deliveries, despite the lack of a good script. It's curious that there seems to be more cut-scenes than ever before, but they're only bolstered by that great voiceover crew...on the other hand, one has to wonder which came first, the chicken or the egg? In other words, did they design the game with a lot of cut-scenes, and therefore went out to look for top-notch talent? Or, did they get that talent first, and then add the lengthy cut-scenes to take advantage of the prestigious hiring? Based on the length, frequency, and even redundancy of some of those cut-scenes, we get the sneaking suspicion it may have been the latter...
The camera works well, but every once in a while, you lose control at the worst possible time. For whatever reason, the camera likes to zoom in at strange times, and you have to fight to pull it back. This poses a problem, especially in cramped areas with lots of enemies, but it's not enough of an issue that it will permanently hinder your progress. And speaking of progress, the challenge in this one is actually pretty stiff for a game geared towards children, and the story mode is quite long. You'll move through all kinds of diverse environments, too, from the brutal winter wonderland in the first real mission to the hot, formidable challenge of the volcano level later on. You're even treated to a few flying missions, which are a nice addition although they're not fleshed out enough. The fly-on-rails thing worked okay, but there just wasn't much to it.
Spyro advances differently than before, learning new abilities and enhancing them by gathering crystals (spoils from battle and from Spirit Gems). You can "power up" each skill three times, but you won't have to pick and choose which abilities are your favorite, as you'll likely gather more than enough crystal shards to max them all well before the end of your adventure. This brings us back to the whole, "don't present the challenge of using something unless you provide a reason to use it," and in this case, we're talking about the potential for strategy. Once you see how quickly you accumulate crystals for leveling up your skills, you won't bother to think too hard about which abilities you enhance first. And when you add in the fact that many of those skills aren't always crucial to your success, this new system loses a lot of its panache.
The story is merely average, but it might be more of a draw for the younger fans of the series. The facial expressions on the characters, especially Spyro, are humorous and engaging, and along with the voices and immersive backdrops, lend the game the appropriate charm. For what the designers were shooting for, they don't miss the mark by much, but there are several marked issues that drag the game down. It's too bad, because this could've easily been one of the best platformers of the generation, but with the repetitive combat, an introductory phase that moves too slowly, and a few technical issues, A New Beginning isn't everything it could've been. We won't get too detailed on those aforementioned technical issues, but one example is having the sound effects disappear entirely for long stretches, only to return after entering a new area.
In the end, The Legend of Spyro: A New Beginning can't reclaim the glory days the franchise enjoyed on the PS1, but it's a definite step forward from previous PS2 installments. A lot of the game's potential falls flat in the face of occasional mediocrity and blandness, which is in turn offset by bright spots that sometimes pop up during the course of your adventure. The game has its high points and low points, like all games, but it's a pretty consistent experience, and we always appreciate consistency. We just hoped to see a bit more in the way of polish, refinement, and overall quality, but then again, we have to admit it should be good for the target audience. And in comparison to some of the other kids games out there, this one is actually a fine choice. We just can't recommend it for purchase for older, more avid gamers, unless they're very big fans of the Spyro series.
2/23/2007 Ben Dutka