Brave: The Search for Spirit Dancer Review
Every once in a while, we get a nice little platforming gem that nobody ever expected. We point you in the direction of the likes of Beyond Good & Evil, Kya: Dark Lineage, and Klonoa 2: Lunatea's Veil. In fact, there have been several very solid platformers for the PS2 over the past six years or so, and we were hoping Brave: The Search for Spirit Dancer would be the next little-heard-of title to become a truly worthwhile addition to any gamer's library. Unfortunately, while it's fun for a while, there simply isn't enough refinement and polish to push this one over the top, and in fact, suffers from far too many significant flaws to even be considered "solid." But we won't give it all away in the intro, we promise. Er...or maybe we already did. Anyways, onwards.
The graphical presentation is mostly consistent throughout, with plenty of vibrant color and an acceptable level of detail. Brave's world is loaded with plenty to see and do, even if the environment pales in comparison to other similar titles on the PS2, and most fans of the genre won't be disappointed. Actually, the animations of Brave and the other characters are the strongest part of the game. The expressive facial expressions, nicely orchestrated jumping and physical attack animations, and overall movement package is a definite bonus. There isn't quite the level of production quality one might've wanted, and there's a bit too much repetition in the color scheme and design, but the graphics are better than average.
The sound is bolstered by some decent voice acting and an okay soundtrack, but there's even more generic stuff in this category than in the visual category. There's the nice addition of relatively unique battle and general gameplay effects - certain enemies and a few of Brave's abilities are accompanied by great sound effects - but it all blends together quite often. There are frequent and somewhat strange lulls in the soundtrack as well, as much of the first two or three hours is oddly quiet. But then again, that's not necessarily a bad thing, primarily because the tracks aren't that great to begin with, and the atmosphere doesn't lend itself to continuous rock songs. The technical quality of the sound, on the whole, is fine, but it's hardly impressive. This is one of those games where the sound simply sits in the background and has a lesser role in the experience.
Like most games of this type, you begin by learning the ropes and acquiring the necessary skills that will assist you throughout your quest. But right from the start, you'll notice a few glaring issues: first of all, the jumping mechanic is a little quirky, and while the control is solid, it takes a little too long to get used to. Secondly, the camera is atrocious at times. We say, "at times" because the erratic, supposedly "free-roaming" camera can work fine in some instances and not work at all in other situations. You're supposed to be able to spin the camera a full 360 degrees, but apparently, there are certain spots in the game where you can't move it at all. Therefore, it bounces back and forth between free and fixed, which can get immensely annoying.
But at least at the start, neither the clumsy jumping or camera idiosyncrasies make you say, "damn, I'm not playing this." Like we said, the control is pretty solid, and nothing stops you from at least getting through the introductory sequences. You'll learn how to attack, fish, dive under water, start fires, and even control a variety of forest animals by using Brave's "Mimic" ability. There's a wide enough array of skills here, but it takes too long for the developers to take advantage of all these abilities, and the first few hours consist of little more than mashing the attack button and struggling with the confusing camera. But eventually, once you embark on the brunt of your adventure, things start to come together. It's not seamless, and too much of it is predictable, but it's a decent effort, nonetheless.
There are two primary features that will help you through the game: a magical stone that allows you to speak to an Indian elder for assistance, and a map that marks your next goal with a blue dot. Both are very helpful, but the map is poorly constructed. The blue dot is a nice guide, yes, but due to the constantly changing height of your environment, it's impossible to tell which "height" is the correct one. Furthermore, many sections are inexplicably mapped, as you can see by the map cursor that you're running around in an entirely blank area. That doesn't help matters, either, obviously. But thankfully, the level design isn't convoluted enough to make this a critical flaw, and with enough experience and running around, you'll eventually make your way. There's just too much backtracking no matter where you are, though, and that can grow tiresome.
The whole point of your quest is illustrated in the title: The Search for Spirit Dancer. A massive, intimidating fire skeleton is threatening Brave's village, and he must find the legendary Spirit Dancer to stop it. Brave is a very young Native American - he couldn't be more than 13 years of age - but he's willing to learn, and fully capable. In addition to the skills outlined earlier, some of the more elaborate and intriguing abilities include the tracking, bow-and-arrow, and possession options. Brave can track foes or other targets by locating tracks on the ground, which is based on his heartbeat. He can also fire arrows from afar and even gain possession of other animals; one of the first examples of this is when you use a skunk to "stink out" a Queen Beetle. So if you're looking for a nice assortment of cool character abilities, Brave's got Ďem.
But you just don't use them enough. There aren't enough clever ways to string the skills together in order to pass certain challenges. Everything simply comes down to jumping around, mashing on the attack button, and occasionally charging yourself up for heavier damage. There are a few shining areas of the game, but they're glossed over by the repetitive doldrums of the combat and the screwy camera that just never settles down. You'll often have difficulty getting to the next goal due to the frustrating map, and only rarely will you find yourself smiling at a particularly ingenious example of level design. It's all the more disappointing when you start off with such a promising foundation, but for whatever reason, the developers never really build on that foundation. It's like they dug the hole, poured the concrete, erected the skeleton, but never bothered to enclose it. ...yes, it's a weird analogy, I know.
Overall, Brave: The Search for Spirit Dancer is an amusing game that loses its appeal all too quickly. The adventure is mostly fluid, as is the combat and platforming elements, and the storyline isn't too bad, but the rest is just generic, cut-and-paste design. And if you toss in the poor camera, somewhat iffy jumping control, and a lack of depth in both the battles and puzzle solving, you've got one very unimpressive and underwhelming game. It's not all bad, and fans of the genre might enjoy themselves enough to finish the quest and actually find Spirit Dancer, but it's not likely. There are just too many flaws for us to recommend this to any gamer, be they avid, casual, or giant platforming fans. It might be worth the money as a budget title later on down the road, but that's about it.
4/10/2007 Ben Dutka