I was corresponding with another writer here at Gaming Nexus -- Sean Nack -- when the topic and usage of the word “frustration” in videogame reviews came up. As I’m wont to do when I know little of what I’m talking about, I turned the discussion into something of a monologue. “It’s worn out its welcome!” I said. “There are a dozen different ways to say it!” I said. “Besides, frustration can easily be chalked up to ‘laziness’ on the reviewer’s part!”
Then The Legend of Spyro: Dawn of the Dragon scampered into my mailbox and, after thoughtful consideration
, I’ve only got one worn-out-its-welcome word to describe my feelings regarding Spyro.
You guessed it.
Yes, there are a dozen different ways to say it and, yes, there are a dozen different ways to show it. But in the end, poring over synonyms in a thesaurus won’t spell it out any clearer.
One of the ways in which Spyro spells out frustration is in level design. Without hinting one way or the other (the tutorial setting is helpful only in specific “use this breath weapon here” ways, and that’s infrequently) the levels trip around from linear, to circular, to spoked: Go from point A to point B and return to point A; go from point A to point C and return to point A, etc. Some levels hint at a greater freedom -- before summarily denying it; others hint at moving along fast-paced railways -- and running it off track and against walls. And some levels (defending the Dragon City swoops to mind) exhaust you back and forth across a besieged rampart, juggling multiple strategic objectives in a game that does not rack up strong strategic points in its design.
But not all is lost for Spyro. One early level gives you a breathtaking Oblivion moment as you glide out of molten caverns fringed with cutscene-interrupted escapes. That Oblivion moment shows stalagmites and stalactites giving way to a waterfall spilling out over Twilight Falls, the dim but opulent view yawning towards a Jupiter-sized moon, and a swelling orchestra laying out a supple landing pad in a firefly-lit clearing. It’s perfect. Absolutely perfect.
But the rest of Twilight Falls zig-zags you through landmark-starved woodlands, frequented by unlit enemies lurking in almost total darkness, with attacks (and your own combo timing) obscured by fanciful glittering jewels splashing across the screen. And don’t get me started on the impervious-except-for-one-specific-type-of-attack elite enemy. I had to pluck a lot of gray hairs out of my head from that cute little encounter.
Further, and this is a constantly revisited problem throughout Dawn of the Dragon, your number one enemy is the camera. One moment -- though it’s indeed rare -- it grants you the beautiful freedom to look all around you, and the next: It’s leashed to a wall, a point of interest, a puzzle piece or, more often than not, it’s tethered to nothing in particular except an inconvenient angle for inconvenience’s sake. With a camera that supposedly knows better than you as to what to look at, you’ll frequently fall off unseen cliffs, be attacked by unseen enemies, or have to run around to a non-sequitur location just to get a better angle on the terrain.
Dawn of the Dragon is the final entry in a trilogy headlined as The Legend of Spyro series. Spyro, a young, male, purple dragon, is this time accompanied by Cynder, a young, female, purple dragon, making them easily confusable onscreen with single- or two-player co-op. Spyro’s platforming single- and double-jump antics are now embellished with a flight mechanic that takes some getting used to. Since the camera angles are not player-dictated (but developer-dictated) it requires some constantly-shifting contextual examination to figure out where your flight will take you. And without the ability to lock onto an enemy, hitting something within a three-dimensional airspace simply confuses Spyro’s orientation in combat by having added that Y-axis.
Elijah Wood (The Lord of the Rings trilogy), Christina Ricci (Black Snake Moan), Wayne Brady (Who’s Line Is It Anyway?), Blair Underwood (Dirty Sexy Money) and Mark Hammill (Tom and Jerry in Shiver Me Whiskers? Who knew?) all lend star-power to the roster. Elijah Wood’s bug-eyed, boyish flair is a dutiful match to the bug-eyed, boyish Spyro; Christina Ricci is Spyro’s cohort, Cynder; Wayne Brady plays Sparx, a role that Brady could’ve improvised better than he read off the page; Blair Underwood is the smoky-voiced, Tony the Tiger-ish Hunter; and the illustrious Mark Hammill plays Malefor -- and any character in any medium with “Mal-” as a leading syllable is of course bad news for the good guys. Despite the paychecks shelled out to this cast, you’ll be hard pressed to recall any stand-out lines or draw upon any spirited witticisms: Nothing memorable or poignant here to be had.
There’s a distinct lack of transition and cooperation between gameplay and cutscenes that even the Xbox Achievements couldn’t interpret. Don’t be surprised if you defeat a level’s end boss and receive a good chunk of Achievement points -- only to watch a cutscene immediately afterwards and be rewarded some more points for, I can only assume, having completed watching that selfsame cutscene. Kudos appear to be in order for surviving the seemingly endless and always interrupting cutscenes.
Which is puzzling -- but in a different way -- from the puzzle-centric levels themselves. There will be moments that will stump even point-and-click PC adventure game veterans, which makes Dawn of the Dragon difficult to hand over to anyone in a younger generation. The puzzles often require vast experimentation to overcome, and with no hint system in place, resorting to a walkthrough will be your safest sanity-saving device for you to refer to. At least the soundtrack and artwork occasionally shines through to make the flying in circles vaguely tolerable.