Are you sitting comfortably? Then we'll begin.
Once upon a time in the far away land of the Dragon Realms, there was a young purple dragon who spent his days charging into sheep, Gnorcs and Rynocs until they went poof and turned into butterflies and sparkly oh-so-collectable gems. Eight years have passed since those carefree days of gorgeous PSone worlds, enemies who were more comic than scary and gameplay which included more movie parodies than you could shake a dragon at. (On second thoughts, I suppose the two numbers probably coincided.) Anyway, Spyro soon became the unofficial icon - the poster-dragon, if you will - of the PSone, but a series of terrible PS2 titles changed all this. Now the good folks at Vivendi have unleashed yet another Spyro title for the PS2 and this one goes right back to the beginning.
In a shocking turn, The Legend of Spyro: A New Beginning is set before the previous games and rewrites his story, introducing a few famous voices, some new friends and enemies and some really, really cool moves. When the game begins, the Dragon Realms are being attacked and wise elder Ignitus is charged with saving the precious dragon eggs. Rather than being sensible and putting them all in a large basket, he grabs one lone egg (guess whose?) and flies from the nursery chamber, heading as far from the encroaching forces of darkness as possible. Landing by a river, all he can do is let the egg float downstream and hope for the best. (What a hero.)
Spyro is then found by a family of dragonflies and grows up in a swamp. As far as he knows, he's just a rather large, purple member of the family, until he starts breathing fire at his brother Sparx. Of course, what is a big revelation without a big quest? Yes, it's time for the plucky young fire-breather to leave his little swamp, explore the big wide world and find his real home, the Dragon Realms.
Begin at the beginning
The first hour or so of the game acts as a tutorial as Spyro makes his way through an unforgiving swamp, every area introducing new aspects to the gameplay which will help solve puzzles or keep him alive. This culminates in the Dragon Dojo where Spyro's saviour Ignitus teaches him some of the more complex combo moves. In some ways, the Dojo is the hardest section of the game, as Ignitus tries to teach Spyro the moves he will need to survive the various lands he must pass through on his quest to find the other Dragon Elders and defeat the forces of the dragon Cynder.
While square and triangle control Spyro's flames, square and X along with the shoulder buttons can be used to perform a variety of different combos. You can charge enemies until they fall over, or carefully aim so a lone soldier of the forces of evil is sent spinning into an entire horde. You even can toss enemies into the air and the game will slow down bullet-time style to allow you to pummel to your hearts content.
But the combo moves and flame abilities aren't the only thing to have had a makeover. As well as being able to pick up gems which restore health and Spyro's flame-breathing abilities, there are also gems which can be used to power up his various abilities a la God of War. In fact, the screen used is identical to the one used in that game. This is not the end of the similarities; just as Kratos was able to cycle through his various magical abilities using the d-pad, so Spyro can change his flame abilities in a similar manner. This obvious nod to last year's mythological gore fest makes the game much more satisfying but the sooner the abilities are upgraded the better. Personally, being a purist, I prefer the various fire abilities which include being able to spit out mini nuclear bombs which instantly knock out all enemies on screen.
Of course it wouldn't be a Spyro game without collecting gems and most are collected from the fallen bodies of the slain. Gems can also be found trapped in gem clusters which can be cracked with a little lateral thinking. This is where old time fans will get a much needed whiff of nostalgia; the accompanying sound effects have been reused from the original games. Sadly there's no sheep-butting in this game as gems are used to restore life rather than butterflies. Fortunately it doesn't take many gems to refill the red life and green flame bars.
This kind of makes Sparx' presence surplus to requirement. The sarcastic dragonfly (voiced by David Spade) occasionally supplies hints, but these are obviously scripted and sound rather wooden. He glows too, but this doesn't seem to bear any relation to Spyro's life bar and this is such a shame. In previous games, Spyro and Sparx were the perfect twosome, with the little dragonfly acting as Spyro's life meter, but now even that is lost. Giving Sparx a voice is not an improvement either, previously silent but for buzzing 'insert your own answers here' replies, he has become a jaded extrovert.
Our dragon hero, however, gets an A List voice in the form of Elijah 'Frodo the Hobbit' Wood, while his mentor is played by Gary Oldman. This trinity of acting talent will certainly raise the profile of the game but there's little emotion put into the characters. Even Wood, who tries so hard to capture Spyro's impetuous youth, often sounds bored and uninterested and too much like Frodo. Around half of the game is spent watching cut-scenes, all rendered using the game's engine and they don't look too bad and are skippable, but you'll be able to see them coming. Spyro will stop dead and only the camera controls will work. The game lags for around three seconds before the scene kicks in.
There seems to be an obscene number of bosses and Krome have gone to some lengths to make them stand out, with no two alike. On the bad side, some of these enemies are incredibly hard to beat and come at you in waves, ambushing our hero in a corner and pummelling him until he staggers and dies. Fortunately the autosave feature notes how many enemies you knocked out, and when you respawn you don't have to start the entire section from the beginning. On the other hand, while there are checkpoints, if you quit the game mid-level you will have to restart from the beginning the next time you load the game.
While each land and corresponding enemies are vastly different, the battles are not. In fact it quickly becomes repetitive. Each time Spyro enters a new area, a cut-scene kicks in and hordes begin making a beeline for our hero. Once they are defeated, it's time to move on. Fight, move on. Fight, move on. Interspersed between these is the odd puzzle which must usually be completed while having projectiles thrown at you and there's no point dealing with the enemies as they keep respawning until the puzzle is completed. This just makes the game too hard and will put off many of the younger gamers it's aimed at quite quickly. The larger denizens are even harder to defeat but the only consolation is that Spyro has infinite lives; sadly not all gamers will have the patience to match.
The Legend of Spyro: A New Beginning tries hard to reinvent the beloved franchise; a gorgeous soundtrack and classic sound effects will send fans into full-on nostalgia. The plot is solid and it links in perfectly with the later games, but at the end of the day, the gameplay is repetitive and the enemies too many and too hard to defeat. The new power-up system and gorgeous combos do make this experience a little more enjoyable but it's really too little too late. Now if only someone would remake the original trilogy for the PS3 and update the graphics, so many fans would be happy. If you loved the original games then that might carry you through to completion but for those who are new, prepare for a long slog.