Version tested: Xbox 360
So then. Spyro. If you've got even this far, chances are your mind recalls the golden days of Spyro's reign on the original PlayStation. Days spent in a colourful platform world of gliding dragons, cutesy combat and endless collection. Well, shame on you for living in the past, you Luddite. Spyro has moved on. All that childish fun, charm and enjoyment have been replaced by A-list voice talent, a set of brawling moves and a shiny new suit.
But at least he has indeed moved on. This is the first Spyro title to let you to fly around freely, so you can forget the hamstrung flapping of previous titles. And it's enjoyable, it really is. When you first emerge from the caverns of the early game into an open valley hub-world, you'll find it hard to resist wheeling through the SEGA-blue sky and diving amongst the insects, spores and seeds floating about. There's a real sense of freedom, especially as you've just escaped the confines of fiery catacombs; in fact, it's a genuine 'ooh' moment akin to taking in the first vista of Cyrodil or Washington in Oblivion and Fallout. There's not quite the same sense of epic scale - after all, the valley is only the size of your average settlement or catacomb. But for a moment, it feels as though what you might have been expecting to be a medicocre title could turn out to be something truly beautiful. For a moment.
Up to this point - which occurs about 30 minutes in - we'd been pleasantly surprised by elements such as the depth of the combat system. It's a sort of low-fat Devil May Cry affair with an unnecessary amount of moves and combos, and you can grapple, juggle and spin your foes to death in a pleasing variety of ways. Of particular note are the grabs, pulled off with a quick stab of the B button, where Spyro or nemesis-turned-ally Cynder grab a nasty in their jaws and shake it to death like a kitten in a tumble-drier. These moves are accompanied by a sudden drop in game-speed which we're still not certain is 100 per cent intentional. The frame-rate fluctuates so wildly at times that it could simply be a product of overcrowding.
The slowdown gripe is compounded by the sheer complexity of many of the battles. Often you'll be facing seven or eight brightly coloured enemies who all have attacks accompanied by some form of flashy effect. Throw in your own slickly animated rolls, slashes and bursts of flame, plus contact flashes and death animations, and the battlefield quickly becomes an uninterpretable mess.
When you're up against a particularly fancy gang of foes the whole thing becomes a juddering free-for-all; it's like Jackson Pollock has just eaten the soft toy section at Hamleys and is vomiting into your eyes. This is a real shame, because otherwise combat is tremendously satisfying. Combos are instinctive and solid, blows really seem to carry weight and the elemental fury attacks are excellent. Combat is something you'll be doing a lot of, so it's nice to see that the effort's been put in, but technical difficulties make it much more of a grind than it ought to have been.
On the subject of technical issues, it's important to mention the screen-tearing, texture pop-up and incredibly frustrating camera. This is a cross-platform title which shows its greying last-gen roots, despite a liberal application of bloom-coloured Just For Men. The camera in particular is a real pain; it appears to be possessed by gremlins at points where you'd quite like it to behave and show you where you're bloody well going thank you very much. When the camera is free - as it is for some of the larger open areas - it works very well, making the regular frustrations all the more apparent.
What's clear with Spyro is where the priorities did lie: the flattery to deceive. Mark Hamill, Gary Oldman and Christina Ricci all provide voiceovers, but Spyro remains a dull, vaguely annoying character. Sparx, the dragonfly who has accompanied Spyro for so long, is royally smug, with just enough flatness in delivery to render him utterly forgetable. The story suffers from the same problem; it's generic fantasy fare which will keep you entertained long enough to remind you what you're supposed to be doing, but for no longer.
Co-op is handled well, with a few tasks which require joint actions. However, these simple jobs are occasionally turned into repetetive nightmares buy astonishingly beligerent and annoying AI decisions. One reccurring puzzle requires you to carry small 'titanium lanterns' across levels to weigh down pressure plates and open doors. So far, so 1994. However, these lanterns are so heavy that they restrict your ability to fly, keeping you within a few feet of the ground and forcing you to clamber up vines attached to walls instead of swooping up to your objective.
To begin with it seems like a reasonable set-up, encouraging resourcefulness and stopping you from feeling over-powered. However, the 20th time your computer-controlled compatriot decides your needs are best served by jumping off the cliff-face you just scaled, dragging you down by the mystical chain which binds you, will be considerably less entertaining than the first. Your partner offers little help in combat either, although you'll die so rarely in the normal course of things this may be a good thing.
Spyro isn't an easy game, however, and boss battles can be particularly tough. There's one boss, a shameless filch from God of War, who evoked expletives we are neither proud of nor prepared to repeat. In fact, talking of 'inspiration', there is a whole section of the game which so closely resembles a scene from Lord of the Rings in sight and subject you could almost imagine Tolkien himself was on the development team.
Stealing the best parts of your game from other sources will never win you the big prizes, and the clichd nature of much of the game makes it forgettable and repetitive. When you're tip-toeing along the tightrope of mediocrity above the gaping chasm of the bargain bins, tiny frustrations like having to mash X to open chests and trip switches can be the breeze which topples you. If you're the lucky parent of patient children or you're happy enough to relive faded old glories, then you might just find enough here to justify the price. Everyone else should probably steer clear of what could have been a solid platformer, but quickly becomes an all-too-familiar grind.
5 / 10