If you've never played a Spyro game before, prepare to be confused as you jump headfirst into the third and final act in the Legend of Spyro trilogy, Dawn of the Dragon. This series reboot began in 2006 on the last generation of consoles and has continued every year with an ambitious update that advances the storyline and adds in a handful of new play mechanics. While the previous two titles were developed by Krome Studios, this year's version is instead handled very competently by relative unknown Etranges Libellules, which has stayed the bafflingly high production values of the series (it's clear a lot of time and money has gone into a trilogy that hasn't yielded epic returns) and enhanced some of the hero's functionality respectively. If you fancy yourself a fan of the platformer genre, I think you'll be able to appreciate the old-school controls and challenges that Dawn of the Dragon resurrects. But unless you've been with the franchise through its rebirth, you probably won't have any idea what's going on as you start the young dragon's newest quest.
Dawn of the Dragon ships for Wii, PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 and, as you might expect, the PS3 and 360 builds sport the most visual polish, featuring more detailed graphics by way of crisper textures, more robust particle effects and through it all a better framerate. Yet even with a sloppier fluidity and blurrier model and environmental skinning, the Wii game still looks superior to at least half of the software on the system. Whether or not you are a fan of the Spyro character or not, it's hard to dismiss the smooth animation, excellent choreography and added stylistic bells and whistles, such as depth of field and bloom whenever possible. Third-party Wii developers seldom bother with the presentational niceties, like facial animation systems for example, so these and more are welcomed inclusions in Dawn of the Dragon. The fact that publisher Activision has put forth the cash to secure big-name voice talent for the game's characters -- Elijah Wood, Gary Oldman, Wayne Brady, Christina Ricci, Blair Underwood and Mark Hamill -- is equally admirable, the result a story well-acted and in turn more immersive.
If you've played the previous two iterations, you aren't likely to have any issues jumping back into the thread. But if the opposite is true, you're sure to find yourself a little disoriented from the beginning on, as lead characters Spyro and companion Cynder find themselves tethered to one-another after awakening a three-year slumber while imprisoned in crystal. To its credit, the developer has offered some expositional hints at what previously transpired. However, for the most part you're left in the dark, knowing that Cynder has a dark side, but oblivious to the fact that she was the dark antagonist of the first game. You're expected to know on some level who Malefor is, why Hunter has come for you, and so on, and I think this is a shortcoming of the story presentation. You can proceed through the adventure without fully understanding the backstory, but having a firm grasp of the history results in an more entertaining experience in which you share more in common with the fledgling dragons I think Etranges Libellules missed an opportunity to more adequately insert newcomers into the world.
As Spyro and Cynder embark on a quest to stop the Dark Master from spreading his evil across the land, you will immediately notice the massive scope of the environments and the semi-open-ended setup of the world, an improvement over previous outings. While levels do remain linear in that you must advance to one exit sooner or later, the route you take to the point is yours for the choosing and Spyro and Cynder can move freely into any direction. The shape of the experience reminds me of classics like Zelda, but Nintendo's series shines brighter where geometrical-based puzzles, balance and progression are concerned.
You will notice several changes right off the bat. Spyro and and Cynder are tethered to each other and work as a team. Spyro is a little more powerful, Cynder a little faster. You can switch between them at the press of a button or you can invite a second player in at any time for a unique cooperative mode that considers dual-combos and lets you manage power resources between each other. It's a fun system that nurtures enjoyable team play opportunities, the biggest drawback being that the action takes place exclusively on a single screen. Therefore, it's not as though you can explore in one direction and your buddy in another, a slight disappointment. Of course, when you don't have two human players, the second character is controlled by AI and is unfortunately not nearly as smart, regularly lagging behind, catching on objects and failing to do his/her part in battles. Thankfully, the tethering system will inevitably drag the AI character up to your level, which means that you will never have to circle back for them. On top of everything else, the dragons can now take flight and glide in any direction, an excellent addition that I feel is long overdue -- you control dragons, after all; why wouldn't they e able to fly? The flying controls feel very fluid and you can seamlessly jump and take to the air when necessary.
Otherwise, though, this third installment plays a lot like its predecessors. The dragons control well, responding quickly to your actions. However, the endless battles with enemies become repetitious too quickly, even with the duo's combined magical abilities -- to breathe fire, ice, wind, lightning and more. The selection of puzzles, passable, will probably leave you wanting more, particularly if you've become accustomed to the comparatively complex platforming and adventuring challenges in better games, whether your cup of tea is Super Mario Galaxy, Zelda, or Okami. And there are the occasional camera issues in which you'll have to take a leap of faith into one direction or another as you wait for the viewpoint to catch up. But for the most part, Dawn of the Dragon's controls and puzzles suffice well enough to keep you going.
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