IGN Review of Spyro: The Eternal Night
It's hard to know where to start with Eternal Night's review. As I sit here, blood pressure finally dropping back to normal levels -- after nearly tearing the game out of the system to snap it in half -- and getting ready to walk away without ever putting fingers to keys, it strikes me that there's no more perfect example of how a truly good developer makes a franchise, not the other way around.
When Insomniac opted to part ways with the mascot that was as much a figurehead of the developer as it was the original PlayStation, it was a gutsy move. Of course, we know now that Spyro's success wasn't a fluke, as Ratchet & Clank was a bona-fide killer app for the PlayStation 2, but the little purple dragon was left with Universal as the IP holder and no clear developer to continue a series that had sold millions of copies.
A few different developers stepped up to carry on the franchise, but it wasn't until Krome Studios came on board to give the series something of a reboot that the franchise got a proper identity. Conceived as a slightly darker trilogy, The Legend of Spyro is trying to inject a little more in the way of mythos and lore into the pint-sized fire-breather's world. The first game, A New Beginning, surprised plenty of folks with its higher production values and Hollywood voice cast, and while those elements remain to some degree, the second game has taken a major step backward in terms of how the game actually plays.
Specifically, it's ridiculously difficult in areas, suffers from sloppy controls, tons of cheap deaths and lacks some of the polish that Krome is more than capable of. The Eternal Night eventually ends up being too difficult for a young audience, yet too pedantic for older gamers -- and satisfies neither. Clearly there was some effort at crafting a story (even if almost all of it is revealed in an expository sequence near the end), but the production values in the cinematics were squandered on a game that just doesn't click in any one area and outright offends in others.
It doesn't help that Spyro starts the second chapter of his new adventure effectively powerless. Prone to blackout sessions that gradually unlock the fire, ice, earth and lightning powers from the last game, much of The Eternal Night is spent playing catch up while slogging through wave after wave of enemies using a battle system that boils down to button mashing (or, if you're like me, you'll discover early on that using Spyro's new time dilation powers to slow things down lets you just roast enemies because it hardly consumes any of your special attack meter). For a game that has its roots in platforming, it feels odd to spend more time mindlessly tail-whipping the same few enemies for hours at a time.
When the game does venture into platforming territory, it's almost always filled with more than a few cheap deaths. There's no penalty for dying (beyond having to replay through some sections, which can also mean killing the same enemies over and over again), but thanks to a tight double-jump window that sometimes won't register the second button press, I became intimately familiar with what it sounds like to hear a dragon plummet to his death. When a platforming game -- even one with far less of a focus on jumping and gliding -- can't even get the jumping parts down, you know there's a problem. It may just have been placebo, but it felt like the double-jump window on the Wii version was just a little more forgiving, but there were plenty of cheap deaths nonetheless.
So the game has moved toward combat, and that in and of itself isn't enough to ruin the title (this is supposed to be a retelling of the Spyro storyline, apparently), but the combat is fundamentally flawed. It's possible to get hung up on bigger enemies, and their attacks often come during the down arc of a double-jump -- a jump needed to dodge the initial attack in the first place. Worse, still, it's not only possible, but common to be hit by one enemy with an attack that dazes Spyro only to have another enemy or two sneak in hits. Spyro can only take about four or five hits from even common enemies before he dies, so again, this can lead to infuriating, unavoidable deaths. I don't mind a challenge, but I absolutely detest games that hit you when you're down -- especially since most of the enemies in the game suffer from reduced damage when they're down -- if not outright invulnerability.
Using Dragon Time (yes, that's just Bullet Time with a word swapped out, I'm sure you can guess what it does) is sort of the crux of most of the game's "puzzles" which really aren't terribly difficult -- save for one little section with crab-like enemies that you have to double-jump and stomp -- but even that was only a head-scratcher because the game gives you zero indication of what to do, and these enemies just show up randomly a good portion into the game. All the other puzzles revolve around clumsily navigating floating platforms, flicking switches and pushing cannonballs/orbs around, and nearly all of them are recycled multiple times with the location swapped out.
Krome's in-house Merkury Engine does a decent job, but none of the environments or characters are pulled off with the kind of visual aplomb as the Naughty Dog or Insomniac platformers on the PS2. Granted, the budget and team sizes aren't the same, but the relatively low-poly characters and overabundance of colored lighting (seriously, the game is rife with reds, blues and greens eeeverywhere) give the game a slightly cheap feel.
Some of the game's special effects look quite nice (in particular the game's Rage attacks, which hit everything in a wide radius and are kicked off with Matrix-style variable speed and 360 rotation -- cheesy and a little late, sure, but some of them do look fairly neat). No part of the engine will seriously surprise. The Wii version runs with almost none of the hitches seen in the PS2 counterpart, with a better overall framerate and nary an instance of hardcore chug to be found. Aside from the obvious control differences, like mapping special attacks to gestures with the nunchuk and remote, moving camera control to the d-pad and waggle-based attacks (though you can still use the B button to mash away), the two versions play identically.
The new storyline brings with it a darker, more choir-heavy soundtrack, and though it can come off as a little heavy-handed, it fits the visuals. Gary Oldman, Elijah Wood and Billy West all donated their pipes to the bigger roles in the game, but the performances feel largely phoned in and lack earnestness. Billy West especially laid down some weak lines, though that could be as much the fact that the dialogue in the game can come off as trite and lame. Sparx as a character just comes off as a worthless, whiny jerk and even the voice of Philip J. Fry can't save some wince-inducing dialogue.
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