Like his counterpart Crash Bandicoot, Spyro the Dragon kind of lost his way in his transition to the Playstation 2. Their respective founders casting them aside certainly didn't help matters, but the new developers assigned to each franchise didn't exactly elevate the series to creative heights. If that wasn't bad enough, the PS2 Jak/Ratchet/Sly triumvirate cleaned house and enveloped every trace of genre innovation. They had all the bases covered, and it seemed like, technologically speaking, you couldn't go anywhere those three hadn’t already visited.
But Spyro kept on trying anyway. After a A Hero's Tail Krome Studios was handed the reins and opted for a full scale reboot of the franchise last year with A New Beginning. The Eternal Night, the second game in a proposed Legend of Spyro trilogy, picks up right where the last title left off. Cynder has been defeated and all is well with the land of dragons. Or is it? Seemingly without any reprieve, Spyro is once again thrust into the clutches of evil.
Eternal Night offers a surprising amount of production value. While Elijah Wood and Gary Oldman(!) return to reprise their roles, Krome traded down and exchanged David Spade for Billy West. West, a long, long way from Philip J. Fry, voices the dragonfly, Sparx, who sort of acts like a slightly more annoying version of Issun from Okami (or Navi from OOT, if you want to get technical). I assume he's supposed to offer occasional bits of snarky comic relief whilst providing gameplay advice to Spyro, but Sparx has appeal of someone like Andrew Dice Clay; after a brief dosage you just wish he would never ever speak again. Wood lays down a surprising amount of lines and, while not award worthy, gets the job done. Gary Oldman happens to be Gary Oldman, which, even in his sleep, is nothing less than stellar.
I'll be honest, for a late generation PS2 title, I expected Eternal Darkness to look a bit more polished. Spyro looks fine, for sure, but Sparx animation reminds me of a polygonal Southpark. While the character models are hit or miss (or repeated over and over), the environments are adept at creating atmosphere, even if the artists relied too heavily on the oversaturation button. It's weird because the game shows a wide range of color, but only through a monochromatic lens. I'm not expecting a rainbow parade, but spreading it out would have been a nice distraction from an onslaught of different shades of the same hue. Squabbles aside, the game does have a couple cool tricks up its sleeve (the water trails looks fantastic) and the soundtrack, while not up to Stewart Copeland’s PS1 masterpieces, fully supports the brooding narrative.
Great. How's it Play?
The platforming, generally the heart of platformers, is one area where the Spyro generates significant issues. As one would expect, he has his standard jump as well as a double jump that can be held and parleyed into a glide. Problems arise on the initiation of the second jump; while it does take you up another a little higher, it also inexplicably gives you a small boost forward. This would probably be appreciated for some of the longer jumps, but trying to lane with pin point precision on successive floating platforms is an incredible chore. Couple that with a mid-air turn that is fantastically unresponsive and you're left with a jumping system in severe need of a do-over. Inaccurate jumping mechanics don't break the game, but they certainly add a unnecessary degree of difficulty to a normally conventional process.
Of course you're going to beat the crap out of a seemingly infinite legion of bad guys all the way through. Spyro has a smooth melee attack that can be chained together for successive hits, some of which will launch the enemy in the air. From there Spyro can jump in the air and further combo the body into oblivion. Physical attacks are complimented by his breath (magic) attacks, which are spread out over four traditional elements and can be leveled up God of War-style. You're not given this all at once, mind you, as each breath is unlocked over the course of the narrative. "Wait," you say, "I had those in the last game!" Yeah, you did - but Spyro was subjected to some pretty traumatic events last time out. That obviously took a lot out of the little guy, he has to relearn those skills (see what they did there?). Spyro’s move set is topped off by his rage attacks, which can be unleashed with great fervor after accumulating a significant amount of crystals.
I can't exactly pinpoint when platformers started to substantially up the ante in the combat department, but Spyro is now a proud member of that questionable club. While a fair amount of rudimentary puzzle solving and traditional (and lively) boss battles are peppered throughout the affair, the heart of Eternal Night seems to lie in fighting and endless army of hilariously named (Edonilat Doomcomet, anyone?) bad guys. The fighting mechanics aren't too bad, as you have an adequate arsenal, but the sheer number of fight sequences and a tremendously unfair engagement system are a significant let down. For example, I'll bash an enemy enough times to knock him over before unleashing a continued assault on his knocked-over body. Unfortunately, most enemies are weirdly invulnerable during this state; you simply won't be able to attack for a few seconds. It's almost feels like the game is taunting you, begging to be challenged again and again through tired strings of assaults. Sorry guys, you can't fool me.
Sameness and combat quips aside, there is one major new element broadcast throughout Eternal Night's gameplay. Stealing a page from a handful of other games and genre, Spyro now has the option to slow down space and time with his new bullet dragon time ability. Though painfully brief in duration, executing dragon time is universal bailout for nearly any scenario. Conventional uses, such as stopping doors from closing or slowing down fast platforms are in full effect, but the bulk of your dragon time will be spent in, yes, you guessed it; combat. Admittedly, it eases a great deal of tension from some of the more tense conflicts, but a morphine drip isn't enough to dull the pain of cheap death. Anyway, while it isn't the most original idea around, dragon time is a seamless and welcomed addition to Spyro's repertoire.
The audience definitely factors into the way I view Eternal Night. The welcoming presence of Spyro on the front of the box will surely invite parents of younger gamers to purchase this game for their children, and this should be taken into consideration. Do younger kids care that bullet time is a tired device ripped off of countless other games? Does coherent sense in a narrative full of dragons really matter? Will children bitch endlessly about second rate polygon builds or animation hiccups? The answer to all of these questions is a resounding "no." Children will enjoy running around as a juvenile purple dragon who breathes fire and bashes the crap out of goofy looking bad guys. It's that simple.
Or is it? You're going to die a lot in Eternal Night. Whether it be from accidental descents through a chasm or the inordinate number of fights, Spryo's death wail is going to be forever burned into your psyche. While kids will have no trouble swallowing all of the usual critical complaints, the frustration induced through a purely unfair difficulty level may turn them away from the game. Some kids may prefer a repetitious challenge (hell, how long did we all play Battletoads?), but most will lose favor with the endless deaths and monotonously repeating (and unskippable) cut scenes. I guess it depends on the kid, really, but Spyro's inherent charm might not be enough to push them through the potentially endless waves of frustration.