Reviewed: December 1, 2004
Released: November 2, 2004
The Spyro games began on the original PlayStation with a cool concept and some clever twists on the standard 3D platform game formula – after all, who wouldn't want to control a dragon? Since those days, the series has continued to thrive, expanding onto other systems and finding its niche: the 8-to-12-year-old set.
But it hasn't been successful just because it sells to kids. Along with the charming settings, bright colors and fairytale characters, the Spyro team has always added in interesting abilities, enjoyable puzzles and a very solid overall gameplay experience. This is a series that is loved by many adults (including reviewers) just as much as it is by children, because it has substance to go along with its pretty face.
The latest foray into the world of the little purple dragon and his friends is Spyro: A Hero's Tail. Plenty of familiar faces are back again, like Hunter the cheetah and Sparx the dragonfly, along with all of the hero's signature moves, plenty of ridiculous-looking enemies and the greedy merchant, Moneybags. A new story, a new villain, a new sidekick and a new side quest round out the game. The series looks better than ever, and its weird fantasy world really comes to life, thanks to some convincing settings and clever details.
However, it's not anything revolutionary. This game feels and plays a lot like the last few Spyro games. Has the series become stagnant, or does its charm and playability outweigh the "familiar face" factor?
Spyro: A Hero's Tail is set in the same make-believe world as all of its predecessors, and this time around it feels more complete than ever. In grand children's fantasy tradition, it makes no excuses as to why things are a certain way. They just are, and they are presented to players with liveliness and color that force us to accept the game on its own terms.
In this, the series has scored a success. What, exactly, do the dragons eat? Why does Red, the bad guy, want to poison the world with darkness so badly? Where do all of those dim-witted enemies come from, and why are they working for the villain, anyway? Well, the game asks back, who cares? This is how it is. Get used to it. By taking this approach, A Hero's Tail manages to create a game world that is truly an escape from the drudgery of our day-to-day lives. It is the kind of place everyone sometimes wishes they could be: The good guys are good, the bad guys are bad, and politics and pollution are nowhere to be seen. It makes for a charming diversion from the real world, and not just for kids, either.
A Hero's Tail, like all of the Spyro games, doesn't sacrifice common sense for cuteness. In other words, an adult gamer will not feel like the game is treating them like an idiot. It's obviously geared towards children, but it's still engaging and, at times, clever enough that it never resorts to being sappy and cooing all over itself. This mass appeal has made past Spyro titles hits, and A Hero's Tail is no exception.
Controls are almost exactly the same as they have been for quite a long time, which is both a good thing and a bad thing. On one hand, the controls have never been bad. Spyro can head-butt enemies, breathe fire (and other various breaths later in the game), perform a double jump by flapping his wings (which is one of the few viable excuses for being able to double jump I've seen in any game) and glide short distances by spreading them. In general, everything feels tight and responsive, and most of the time, switching moves instantaneously in the heat of battle is no problem. It's obvious why Spyro has continually managed to save the Dragon Realms, when the game's fine-tuned control scheme is taken into account!
On the other hand, some more innovation would be nice to see. The last Spyro game I really got into was Spyro 3: Year of the Dragon for the PS1, and this game felt almost exactly the same. It's just not as much of a delight to learn new moves in the early tutorial missions when you already know how to do all of them.
Lack of new elements aside, my only real complaint with A Hero's Tail is that it is very hard to perform the aforementioned double jump move with much consistency until it is completely mastered. The rest of the controls are great, but this is not. Unlike most games, which let players perform the second mid-air leap at any time before the character hits the ground, A Hero's Tail expects them to hit the jump button a second time at the very apex of the jump. Waiting even a split-second too long will cause the input to be ignored, as Spyro glides lazily to his doom, the victim of a shoddily implemented move.
The developers, Eurocom, have been kind enough to forgo limited continues this time around, but I can't help suspecting that the decision might have been based solely on the fact that they knew how many times Spyro would die before most players got a handle on the double jump.
As usual, certain parts of the game (mostly optional) put the player in control of another character. There's no Sheila the Kangaroo this time around, but Hunter, Sergeant Byrd (a bird, natch) and Sparx, Spyro's loyal living health bar, all make return appearances. A fifth character, Blink the Mole, can be controlled for underground digging missions. NPC’s Moneybags and the Professor also play important roles in the game, selling important items and providing Spyro with various gadgets, respectively.
All of the sidekick characters have enjoyable levels and controls. They all specialize in something that Spyro does not, giving gamers a much wider variety of play than if Spyro were the sole playable character. Hunter's levels, for example, often rely heavily on expert timing and marksmanship with his bow and arrows, while Blink's adventures have a more hardcore platform feel to them than the rest of the game, with plenty of deathtrap caverns that require expert timing to defeat. Sparx's sections play like an old-school space shooter game in 3D. The variety is a welcome addition and helps alleviate any encroaching sense of boredom for veteran players.
The main quest this time around is to destroy Dark Crystals (not the kind the Gelflings were after, but in the same ballpark) which have been planted into the ground all over the various realms, poisoning the surrounding areas and covering everything near them with an inert, yet highly unpleasant-looking, black goo. The crystals are destroyed easily enough - it's getting to their locations that often provides the puzzle. Various enemies (mostly old, a few new) and plenty of platform action stand between Spyro and most of the crystals. Once all the crystals in an area have been destroyed, the gate blocking the way to that area's boss is unlocked.
The bosses are fine. They are all quite easy to figure out, usually only requiring thirty seconds of messing around to unearth their weaknesses. From that point, defeating them is a matter of getting a steady rhythm going and hammering away until they grumpily admit defeat and collapse. The real saving grace for the bosses is not in their challenge or depth, but their design and implementation. They are fun to watch and fun to fight, with loads of character and attitude that comes through during the course of the fight.
Aside from the main stuff, Spyro can again head out in search of Dragon Eggs, which have been stolen and (for some reason) hidden all over the world. Similarly, he can now search for Light Gems as well, which are required to unlock the Professor's various gadgets and some secret bonus levels, too. Neither of these side quests are necessary, except for gathering enough Light Gems near the beginning of the game to unlock the Professor's very first gadget (which takes Spyro to a Dark Crystal location). After that point, it's all up to the player whether or not to go after them, although there are some good rewards for collecting as many as possible.
These items are generally more difficult to obtain than anything in the main quest, making them a suitable diversion for older gamers who find that they are breezing through the main game without much trouble at all. This is also where the game's best puzzles can be found.
Overall, A Hero's Tail is a fun platformer that's smart enough and has enough extra stuff to do that it should appeal to young and old gamers alike. It's not particularly innovative or challenging, though, and at times it feels tired to those of us who have played older Spyro titles. It is very charming and has a more fully realized world and finer controls than ever before, and despite not being the most exciting title this year it is a fun family gaming experience, suitable for kids and parents alike.
Spyro: A Hero's Tail is hardly a graphical juggernaut like Final Fantasy X-2 or Jak 3. From a technical standpoint, the game looks just a bit above average for a current PS2 release.
However, if anything can be said of the Spyro games, it's that there's more to them than technical specifications. Simpler graphics actually help this game feel more like a flight of fancy, although it's hard to say it couldn't have looked better.
The most redeeming aspect of this game's graphics, though, is simply their design. Everything has been crafted into a unified look and feel. It's bright, but neither neon nor pastel. Facial features are cartoony and exaggerated, but it's a good kind of exaggeration. The game looks like a children's picture fantasy book.
Special effects are generally pretty nice (Spyro's fire breath looks great, for once). Jaggies and draw-in are rare, though not completely absent. The trade-off is a low polygon count on most of the enemies and somewhat less of a dreamy feel than if a smoother look had been used. It is interesting to note that the game does not look as polished in reality as it does in the game trailer included on the disc. False advertising? Hmmm.
Either way, the graphics are a large part of this game and they are well done, taking a so-so level of technical refinement and augmenting it with memorable and vibrant designs. It probably could have looked a bit better, but A Hero's Tail looks pretty nice either way.
I can't say that the music in A Hero's Tail was particularly captivating or memorable. Perhaps this is because, from an emotional standpoint, the game is a lightweight. There are no poignant scenes with accompanying music to impress upon the player's mind, nor does the music ever really take center stage. From a stylistic perspective, Spyro games are all about graphics, not sound.
This isn't to say that the music in the game was bad. It's all matched up well to various areas. During one particularly bizarre sequence that has Spyro mowing down enemies at terminal velocity from inside a giant hamster ball, the music was suitably zany and added to the experience. Other times, the music just helped to set the atmosphere of a particular place. It's just that none of it stood out as being particularly great or catchy. The same could basically be said of sound effects, though a few were particularly well done.
More than any past Spyro game, A Hero's Tail has lots of voice acting in between play sequences. Most of it is solid, but only a couple of voices stand out. Occasional awkward delivery is easy to ignore, since most of the time the voices are consistent. Far beyond just 'consistent,' though, are the voices of Red, the bad guy, and Spyro's pink-scaled would-be lady friend, Ember. She is voiced by the amazing Tara Strong, better known for her work as the voices of Bubbles, from the Powerpuff Girls and Rikku, from Final Fantasy X and X-2. Her uncannily cute voice is in full swing here, lending some top quality to an otherwise so-so cast. Unfortunately, Ember is only a minor character.
Lastly, it's worth noting that despite not quite great sound overall, A Hero's Tail puts the various elements of its sound package together nicely. Everything sounds like it should and nothing seems out of place. In that regard, at least, the game helps itself out by adding another dimension to its vibrant world.
There's a surprising amount of stuff to do in Spyro: A Hero's Tail. This is because the levels are huge, and because between gathering eggs and Light Gems, those huge levels have a lot of interesting puzzles, extra challenges and mini-missions hidden inside of them. It maintains that classic platformer feeling of being on a treasure hunt in a land laden with secrets around every corner. You'll want to keep going, keep searching, keep gathering items for as long as you are able. Although it's not quite as expansive as some games in this department, there's still plenty of meat on the bone, as the saying goes.
For those of you who aren't completionists, A Hero's Tail is still a very user-friendly game. You certainly don't have to complete any of the side quests or even dabble in them very much if you just want to get through to the end of the game and see the end of the story. The game does not throw impossible challenges into its later levels and then remind you that if you'd been collecting Light Gems, you wouldn't have had any trouble. This isn't to say that doing everything doesn't have its rewards, but the game goes easy on those of you who just want to beat it.
Besides, the story is enjoyable enough that playing through the game quickly has just as many merits as spending time on side quests. Whatever your tastes, A Hero's Tail offers a very good value for the money. Speed demons will have plenty of reasons to replay the game when they finish it, and completionists will have plenty to play though the first time. If you're an old hand at Spyro games, though, just keep in mind that there isn't a whole lot here you haven't seen before.
Like the Dragon Warrior series of RPG’s, the Spyro games do one thing, and they do it very well. They prefer to focus on improving the experience of previous titles, rather than gunning for a completely new feel. And to be plain, it works quite well, if you're okay with not being surprised by each new title. A Hero's Tail has fun characters, an enjoyable story and well-designed levels. It is a game that parents can feel comfortable buying for their kids, and one that they might find themselves messing around with while the little ones are away from the TV.
If it ain't broke, don't fix it. Spyro: A Hero's Tail exemplifies the philosophy behind that old saying, to generally good effect. The game is bigger, prettier and generally more fine-tuned than any of its predecessors. It just isn't really all that different from any of them.