Spyro the Dragon (Spyro Reignited)

This isn’t particularly patient, and in buying it I’ve essentially willingly extended my backlog from “crushingly and terrifyingly insurmountable” to “that again but plus 3”. Oh well, I don’t care. I’ve been waiting for flash new remakes of the Spyro the Dragon PS1 games for years. The trilogy all but defines my earliest memories of videogames; a titan of Sony’s first console, it was and remains, in my mind, the single best set of games for the PlayStation. Of course I was going to buy the Reignited Trilogy as soon as it came out. I’ve since played through the remade first entry into the series, Spyro the Dragon. It’s still bloody great.

Spyro the Dragon (Spyro Reignited Trilogy) (PS4, Xbox One [reviewed])

Released Nov 2018 | Developed: Toys for Bob | Published: Activision

Genre: Platformer | HLTB: 6 hours

Originally released in September 1998, Spyro the Dragon was Insomniac’s first foray into the world of platformers. By the late ‘90’s the genre was well-established, making it that much more impressive that Spyro stood out so acutely. A ground-breaking use of shifting levels of detail on display in relation to the camera, coupled with extremely tight controls, a light-hearted story, and open-ended levels that stood in contrast with the tight linear tracks of Crash Bandicoot, its closest rival, allowed Spyro to shine in a genre already populated by excellent titles. It’s no wonder that the game has been remade; what surprises me is how long it took to happen.

Spyro the Dragon follows the story of our eponymous purple dragon. In a moment of rash arrogance, the denizens of the 5 Dragon Realms insult the local baddie, Gnasty Gnorc. The half-gnome, half-orc sorcerer flies into a rage and casts a mighty spell over the entire Dragon Realms, encasing all of the dragons in crystal before sending out his gnorc armies to steal their gemstone hoards. Spyro is the only dragon who comes out unscathed, because he’s short and the spell flies right over his head. With only his friend, the dragonfly Sparx, for company, Spyro sets out to free the other dragons and defeat Gnasty.

It’s a simple story, and it’s barely elaborated on during the game though in fairness, it doesn’t really need it. Free dragons, collect treasure, stop the big bad. It’s short, it’s simple, and it does the job in giving us a threat and context before letting the player get on with it, which is fine by me. As you free dragons, each bursts out from their crystalline cage with a flourish and has a quick chat to Spyro; occasionally this will either be an extremely brief tutorial or reminder on one of Spyro’s abilities, or a hint regarding an enemy. The player gets little guidance otherwise; no time is wasted on set tutorials or hand-holding, while any extra information on the world of the Dragon Realms is subtly told through the level design.

Not that you need an awful lot in the way of guidance, it should be noted. Spyro has access to only a very select set of skills; other than running and jumping, our diminutive dragon can charge around, smashing crates and knocking enemies away with his horns, and spit flames in order to dispatch larger enemies that are immune to Spyro’s charge attacks. Spyro can also glide short distances. Unlike some other platforming characters, Spyro isn’t especially quick or agile in his jumps; instead platforming challenges tend to come from correctly navigating long glides, and using Spyro’s limited flight to hunt out secret or hard-to-reach areas in levels. It might seem a simple distinction but the way in which the levels are designed are hugely influenced by this, and they all accommodate and require a mastery of his glide to fully explore.

The levels tend to be widely spaced, though not so much that you find yourself hopping from isolated platform to isolated platform. There is a real sense of coherence and unity in the design of each stage; though each of the 5 homeworlds of the Dragon Realms is distinct, they share enough features in their levels that it always feels like you’re working your way through levels that clearly exist in the same world. It’s a satisfying sense of world-building that I found tough to appreciate in my younger days but now can see it clearly.

All of this is helped by the fact that the Reignited remake of Spyro looks jaw-dropping. Attention has been lavished on recreating and re-crafting each world, and the bright use of vibrant colours and enjoyable chunky character designs leaves the final product sparkling. The animations are wonderfully smooth, and tiny effects and details like the dust clouds that puff up when you charge to the glittering flash of a fairy casting an auto-save contribute to the game’s cheery cartoon charm.

A point of contention in the remake seems to have centred around the redesigns of the dragons Spyro rescues. In the original, there were only a handful of simplistic body archetypes; the remake opts for more elaborate designs that uniquely tie each dragon into their respective homeworlds. Artisans stand proud and finely-dressed, Beast Makers drape pelts across broad shoulders, and Magic Crafters wield spells and staffs over horns that curl around glimmering baubles and hovering jewels. It’s easy at a glance to tell where each dragon is from, and it further cements the world-building by establishing the distinctive quirks of each region.

Spyro the Dragon was also notable for its phenomenal soundtrack, composed by Stewart Copeland. Despite featuring odd time-signatures and Copeland’s typical frantic percussion, it was infinitely listenable; personally I have always loved the use of empty space as a pseudo-instrument in it, with melodies bouncing around on the fringes while large frequency ranges are unpopulated, causing songs to sit in between unfocused ambience and earwormingly memorable.

Thankfully, Stephan Vankov has done a monumentally grand job of remixing it. The Reignited soundtrack swings between faithful recreation and wild orchestration and frantic re-arrangements – the title theme is a clear example of the latter, with the original melody still present but the surrounding instrumentation is entirely new, though it retains the anarchic spirit of Copeland’s original. The game allows you to switch back and forth between the original and the remixed soundtrack, which is a lovely and welcome tough; it’s a testament to the strength of the new soundtrack that I never found myself wistfully wanting Copeland’s.

Spyro isn’t without a few little issues however. It’s worth noting that it’s a short game, with total completion clocking in for me at almost bang on 6 hours. This is primarily because there’s very little in the way of progression in the game; the difficulty doesn’t ever really increase and because Spyro doesn’t ever change or upgrade his abilities throughout the game, you can always score 100% completion on a level during the first pass. The lack of difficulty extends to the boss levels, which I found all uniformly tepid and disappointingly easy. Those issues are, in fairness, products of the fact that Toys for Bob remade the game as faithfully as possible.

What is a shame is the lack of accessibility options in Spyro. I appreciate that these won’t be deal-breakers (or even concerns at all) for some, and I’m speaking from the privileged position of not needing these, but even I would have appreciated the inclusion of an option for subtitles, for example. Additionally, the levels of motion blur and bloom are overwhelming, and being able to dial down on either of them would’ve been a helpful thing to have. I suspect these will be an issue all the way through all 3 games, and it’s a shame that they are absent given they’re such small ways to open up a game for more players.

Still, Spyro the Dragon is an excellent remake. Toys for Bob have clearly approached the task with a whole lot of love and attention, and that effort has paid off. Limited only by the quirks of the original release and a couple of small issues, Spyro remains an enjoyable trip, and if nothing else serves to prove the timelessness of the original game. In an era where 3D platformers have tried to make a comeback to mixed effect, returning to an old familiar classic is a welcome treat indeed.

4/7 – GOOD. Sure, maybe something doesn’t quite work but at least it has heart, or a spark of excitement that makes it worthwhile despite the faults. Definitely worth a go if you can at least find it on sale.

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