Fallout 4 Review: Nuclear Fission in the Soul

Genre: Action RPG

Developer: Bethesda Game Studios

Publisher: Bethesda Softworks

Systems: PC, XOne, PS4

The newest addition to Bethesda’s open world cataclysm is perhaps its most thoughtful yet. It’s been five years since the rockabilly charms of Fallout: New Vegas went for our hearts (and guts), and with current-gen capabilities now in full swing,  it’s surprising how much the wasteland has changed.

Indeed, there are prominent narrative and mechanical changes that depart from the conventions set in motion by prior installments, but after a  fortnight staggering about in the twisted ruins of post-nuclear Boston, Fallout 4 has well and truly  become my vault.

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For the first time in the Fallout series, we’re given a brief glimpse at the sort of life that preceded the void of the mushroom cloud, and it’s a quaintly Utopic one. A cheery projection of the 1950’s ‘Home of the Future’, you begin as an amiable family man or woman of Boston, who, after news of the impending atomic tirade, is suspended in cryogenic stasis in the underground vault of 111. Upon waking, however, 200 years later, you’re soon released to seek answers and familiarity in the tortured echo of the society you once knew.

The opening is more walking simulator than fully-fledged action content, but however restricted, it attributes a greater sense of mourning to the many wastelandic skulkings to come. In Fallout 4, you’re still the detached Vault Dweller you were in previous games; you’re still the lost lamb in a world of faction, distrust and insanity, but having a visual conception of what it is you’ve lost this time round makes for thoroughly more heart-wrenching gameplay.

fallout preston

The Wasteland itself has been revamped in its five year haitus, and I’ve never been happier. The Glowing Sea is a noxious No Man’s Land, barbed with pre-war detritus; Diamond City a metropolis adorned with tatty iron patchwork. Everywhere you turn in Fallout 4, there is a distinct will to survive; a sense that the best has been done with what has been salvaged, and you’ll often stumble across waterlogged dug-outs and lone, makeshift shacks to assure that you’re not the only survivor here.

Indeed, the game certainly doesn’t wait around to acquaint you with your irradiated neighbours. Cyincal, anxious, quite often insane, the Commonwealth populus lives in the shadow of an elusive organisation known as The Institute. A wry reference to the famous Massachussetts Institute of Technology, Fallout 4‘s Institute is behind the creation of synths; cybernetic beings who have developed to resemble humans.

Whilst a refreshing break from the beligerent antagonists of the previous two games, the narrative circling the omnipotent Institute takes a notably more philosophical standpoint. The main storyline raises ethical questions surrounding compassion and free will, often taking really quite dark and existential turns, especially as those you come to care about are inevitably caught in the innumerable crossfires of The Wasteland.

fallout glowing sea
The fate of everyone you meet across the course of Fallout 4 are subject to the nuclear politics of The Commonwealth, and although the storyline observed my epic transition from lone Vault-Dweller to fierce freedom fighter, the decisions I was forced to make along the way were profound enough to convince me that it’s never just a simple case of good and evil, and the web of allegiance only deepens as the plot progresses.

Allegiances aren’t just general affairs now, either, with a heavier focus on the personal relationship between yourself and your companion. Whilst early whimperings of German Shepherd, Dogmeat balances amusement with your induction to the inhumanity of the new world, the friends you make later possess a deeper substance; their own likes, dislikes and backstories; and how much all of this is divulged depends heavily on your relationship with them. One chum might delight in watching you hack terminals, whilst stealing is decidedly off-the-cards when it comes to winning over others.

Several carry the potential to become super friendly, too. Romance can be comically flirtacious or innocently poignant, and no one will mind if you’ve eyes for another simultaneously. It is the apocalypse, after all, and even Super Mutants need some loving now and again.

The gargantuan Deathclaws and adamantium-plated Mirelurks of previous entries make a gorgeous 1080p reprise, there are other beasties to contend with. Bloodbugs and bloatflies are particularly repugnant, as they slurp your blood only to spew it back at you; now more than ever, the various cosms and crannies of Fallout teem with stuff that wants you dead, and each deadly encounter thrills in its own, poisonous way.

fallout yao guai
And when you’re not being charged by feral ghouls or taking on a clan of radscorpions, there’s always the RADS to contend with. The threat of radiation is more significant in Fallout 4, and will gradually eat away at your maximum health if not kept properly under wraps; potentially rendering endurance a more attractive route to take when it comes to character levelling. Once the quests really start rolling in, however, you’ll soon find salvation in popping as much Radaway and Rad-X as you can find.

Sprinting has also been incorporated, and after the many hours I spent traversing the Wasteland at a speed akin to an 80-year-old jogger (which, I suppose, is technically rather well-suited to Fallout‘s toxic atmospheres), it’s a welcome addition.

When it comes to levelling, Fallout 4‘s character system is one of the more discernible differences to previous games. Stats, skills and perks are no longer separate, but exist along a singular perk tree. When you level up, you gain only one skill point this time, that can either be used to improve your core traits such as strength, endurance or intelligence, or to acquire perks associated with those traits once your skill level is high enough.

If you’re keen on obliterating your opponents into bloody sacks of gore, for example, you need to buff your Luck stats. This takes a lot of the confusion that existed in previous games away from levelling; instead encouraging you to advance your stats in concordance with the routes you’d like your character to take.

fallout raider hit
Your character will also be fully voiced; a bold decision that stands out amongst Bethesda’s other titles. Despite there only being one male or one female voice for your character, both actors give strong, versatile performances, offering a variety of tones from tearse and forelorn to flippant and sarcastic, according to the dialogue options you choose.

Dialogue options themselves appear minimalist; streamlined to a general gist to be elaborated upon by the protagonist. However, this renders decisions in the game more ambiguous. Often, the implications of your choices only become apparent once they’ve been made, occasionally making for unwelcome consequences.

fallout fat man

Combat is smoother and less clunky than in previous games, and with a larger arsenal of heavy duty weaponry, taking down the titans of the wasteland has never felt more rewarding. You can even give your beloved missile launcher a name at any nearby workbench.

Many combat elements, especially firing aim, have also been greatly improved, leaving more room for open fire, without having to single out body-parts each time in V.A.T.S. V.A.T.S isn’t as integral to your survival this time round, but it’s still available to bring some much-appreciated clarity in the midst of what can quickly become chaotic and explosive brawls. Although now, rather than pausing the action completely, you can expect a graceful time-slow whenever you peek into V.A.T.S.

So if you’re caught with a Fat Man up your nostril, it’s unlikely even Vault-Tec will save you there.

fallout super mutant
But bar none, the largest difference Fallout 4 carries for me is its crafting system. The idea of crafting in a game that is largely about exploration first seems offbeat; almost pandering to the convulsive fad Minecraft has become. But Fallout at least makes it relevant, requiring you to build tumultous generators to add basic light to your ramshackle bedsit.

Settlements also provide some much-needed storage space, as crafting means that every item you encounter on your travels can be dissected and scrapped for materials. I found a companion particularly helpful here – as I could pack them up with all the junk I could salvage. Like a kleptomaniacal Womble.

Whilst Fallout 4′s societies and environments are there to remind you of their tenacious survival amidst the smog, you can finally return the sentiment, and there’s something comforting – something quintessentially primal – about forging a colony, to whom you can always return if the raiders ever get you down.

It’s also a place where I get to fulfill my 10-year-old dreams of building a treehouse city. I’m embracing my inner Ewok, and I’m deeply, deeply excited.

fallout 4 crafting

Over the years, the glitch and the bug have come to be recognised almost as inhabitors of Bethesda’s Fallout, alongside its innumerable feinds. And as much as any Super Mutant Behemouth, technical hitches are back with a vengeance. Controls can be janky; often causing you to veer uncontrollably sideways, and getting stuck on scenery is becoming a little too routine not to find irritating. It’s frustrating enough when using analog sticks; I can only imagine how it handles on the PC.

Character conversations frequently halt without player input, when they aren’t all garbling over each other in some sort of verbal free-for-all, and occasionally, dialogue options fail to activate. Larger glitches have been found since Fallout’s release a fortnight ago, which is unfortunate considering the great number of things the game does well.

More often than not, these are but minor inconveniences. But finding you can’t complete a quest because Preston Garvey won’t talk to you can place a palpable tamper on immersion, especially in a game that so easily opens itself up to role-play. Most trivial bugs can thankfully be rectified with multiple save slots, and a quicksaving function has been added to ensure backtracking is kept to a minimum.

fallout diamond city
Hitches are certainly no surprise in a Fallout game, and have come to be considered blots on the escutcheon of Bethesda. But the major changes and striking overhauls Fallout 4 carries is ultimately worth those things. Of course, you’re still borne into a big, bad, broken world teeming with mad locals and volatile beasts, but the sheer mass of added systems, treasures and trinkets make it impressive just how much the old Fallout shines through.

As the main narrative kicks into full drive, the paths you take and the company you keep become genuinely moving, as the stakes inevitably soar the further into the wasteland you proceed. There’s rarely confirmation that you made the right choice, which translates into a gripping sense of uncertainty to match your hostile new surroundings. It’s something that haunts, that beckons, that intoxicates – and partnered with the wasteland’s gorgeously living, breathing vastness, Fallout 4 is a ruthless testament to Bethesda’s open-world capabilities.

Overall Score

85/100

Retrokick – Rayman 2: The Great Escape

Like it’s 1999. A time of trying to pronounce ‘millenium’ with all the verbal dexterity of a slug. A time of Toy Story 2 and tamagotchis, accompanied by the creeping sense of dread that we’d better get out of our torn jeans and sideways caps before Justin Bieber came along in his double-drop-crotch whateveryoucallits. But more importantly, a time when Ubisoft was two isolate words.

ubi soft

As has been well-observed, a platformer without some array of cartoon chums and dastardly foes – in the NINETIES, no less – was a rare and seldom-visited notion. Rayman 2‘s robo-pirates are certainly no exception, and lend to a creativity that stands out as a hallmark of the series in general. These cybernetic buffoons have broken the heart of the world, would you believe it, enslaving all of fairykind in the process. Darkened prisons line the halls, penetrated by the immanent whimperings of the captured fae; an assurance that this Rayman sequel can be grim, as well as chucklesome. This havoc is overseen by the inimical Admiral Razorbeard, whom I’m only really mentioning because of his resemblance to Count Duckula. And because he’s the main antagonist. But mostly…
count duckularayman admiral razorbeard

                         …I love Count Duckula.

Rayman himself was introduced to the world four years prior to The Great Escape as a laid back, almost lazy protagonist, whose first venture beyond the comfy confines of his hammock was bespoken by a blasé thumbs-up. It was all cool. He’d get to it. But a nautical cell is far from home, and the ambivalent fate of the fairy kingdom seems to have perked the limbless sprite up a bit.

Good thing too, as Rayman 2: The Great Escape proffers a fast-paced jaunt through woodsy glades, molten sanctuaries and underwater caverns, collecting magical essences known as lums, in search of the four archaic masks of Polokus, in order to awaken the spirit of the world and end the tyranny of Razorbeard. The game was originally released for PC, Dreamcast, N64 and PlayStation, but I’ll be drawing almost exclusively from the N64 and PS1 versions.

rayman prototyperayman graphics

Given that Rayman 2: The Great Escape was a sequel, the game was originally intended to follow in the footsteps of the sidescrolling original. Despite 2D concept art being released, the idea was later scrapped for a fully fledged 3D platformer. Ubi Soft even made a brief nod to this occurrence by including a prototype of the Rayman 2 sidescroller in the PS1 version of the game, unlockable upon collection of 90% or more of the 800 yellow lums. The 3D layout suited the protagonist’s frisky disposition, and really allowed the discernible concepts and quirks of its quietly received predecessor to shine.

The abandonment of the original layout proved to be a widely acclaimed choice, too. Rayman 2 on the N64 was a graphical marvel, trumping those of most other available N64 titles. Visuals were smooth, attaining a depth that knocked Banjo Kazooie and Donkey Kong out of the park; a feat that really embellished the game’s zany cast, and with very few hitches. The PS1 port is  noticeably feebler in comparison; an expected infirmity given the PlayStation’s visual constraints, with no ‘Expansion Pak’ to boost the resolution. Despite its slightly dimned visuals, however, Rayman 2 still holds up on the PlayStation; offering a distinctively rustic, celtic-inspired environment that appeals as much to me now as it did my miniature self.

rayman fairy glade

The controls are simple and certainly intuitive. Whilst jumping and attacking were typical of the genre, The Great Escape took a leaf out of Ocarina of Time’s book by allowing Rayman to lock-on to nearby enemies, making both combat and manoeuvre easier. Movement feels smoother with the PS1’s Dualshock, but goes sadly underappreciated in terms of control scheme. The PlayStation port is riddled with faulty camera angles that frequently obstruct the player’s view, rendering navigation of some of the more agile levels frustrating. Whilst the Dualshock’s right stick was mapped to offer a more cumbersome alternative to the already existent attack button, using it to integrate a more dextrous camera control would’ve been the wiser choice.

In contrast to the collect-a-thon trend that appeared to have surfaced in other popular 3D platformers, Rayman 2‘s gameplay was almost explicitly linear. Levels existed upon a visible timeline, to be completed in chronological order, but remained accessible  to return to, should you wish to complete the game 100%. This approach contributed heavily to the pacing of the game, allowing action to build towards the occasional boss fight as the difficulty raised steadily.

It’s a shame that bosses themselves are rather weedy, in this way. The levels themselves are easily the most challenging part of the game (excluding dealing with erratic camera angles), and to end them with a behemouth that can be annihilated in three short rotations feels a little unfulfilling. Nevertheless, The Great Escape’s ingenuity permeates each boss battle, with its own folkish design and amusing introduction. And despite the flimsiness of some foes, there is still much fun to be had.

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The PS1’s memory issues prove to extend beyond mere polygonal truncation, however. Players of the N64 port may be struck by just how much of the game is missing on the PlayStation, with some more memorable moments scrapped. There is an instance – on the N64 – in which the player gains control of a pirate’s ship; a brief, yet notable eccentricity that is missed in the PS1 version, and something that slightly interrupts the otherwise tremendously paced story.

But that isn’t to say the PS1 version is devoid of its own additions. In fact, one of the most noticeable differences between N64 and PS1 versions is character dialogue. Rayman 2′s blithe assortment of kooky characters was fully voiced in European languages on the PS1, whilst the N64 comprised exchanges in amusing gobbledygook. Whilst there’s something noble about giving a character a more relateable voice, the PS1’s voice acting feels a little forced, and the garbled voices are better suited to the world’s caricatured atmosphere and amusing character animations.

rayman teensies

The Great Escape on the N64 offers an eclectic soundtrack, ranging from casual, rocky riffs to the tribal bongoings of a mystic jungle. Again, the soundtrack has been pruned considerably for the PS1 port, resulting in a less varied, but still fairly ambient collection of melodies. In both ports, though, the game suffers from a painfully narrow selection of character sound effects. The odd grunt, groan or exclamatory yelp can’t often go amiss in a 3D platformer, and those in Rayman 2 feel like they’ve merely been slapped on for convenience. Rayman’s asthmatic breathiness whilst running isn’t all that imperative, and becomes a source of mild irritation beyond the first few levels.

This being said, some sound effects do lend useful indicators within the gameplay. For example, one level oversees the rescue and escortment of Globox – a lovable, frog-like goof – from the clutches of the tyrannical robot-pirates. Without the caricatured teeth-chattering of Globox, I’d have probably had to backtrack through the level to find him. Nevertheless, considering the game’s reliance upon wacky humour, a greater scope of vocalisations could have benefitted Rayman 2‘s inviting sense of character.

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Yes, Rayman. I know you’re out of breath. Yes, Rayman. I know cardio’s not your thing.

Rayman 2: The Great Escape is a well-paced platformer that displays amusing, yet mysterious magical flair. The game’s creativity is undeniable, with an exaggerated cast that swings between the comically contemptible and the lovably doltish; all reinforced by an impressive visual depth that enriched the concepts of the original Rayman. Rayman 2‘s legacy suffers from the dissention porting can often create, but aside from comparitive disagreements, both PS1 and N64 releases offer an unmistakeable whimsical edge that can be both dark and entertaining.  Rayman’s chronicles betwixt the, still quite active, fairy realm might have sprung from timorous beginnings, but The Great Escape was where the limbless Ubisoft mascot began to really revel in all his audacious pluck.

Undertale Review: Wittily Whimsical

Undertale is more than your average storybook romp. Sure enough, the crayon-hued, fairytale atmosphere does little to convince, but this sugar-coated realm is rarely all it seems, and developer Toby Fox seems adamant to assure that monstrosity isn’t always easily spotted. Bearing reference to the infantile anxieties of sub-bed lurkings, Undertale is an impressive game as much as it is a surprising one. Indeed, as is consistently proved in the gameplay, the two often go hand-in-paw.

undertale humans monsters

The story Undertale assumes isn’t unheard of. Monsters and humans war; monsters are banished to underground dwellings, never to be seen again. Of course, until little old you takes a tumble and finds themselves in their subterranean gaff. The setup of Undertale is all remarkably simple; something, that, incidentally, intensifies its narrative exuberance and deeper concerns.

Visually, Undertale is a game that wears its roots on its patently striped sleeves. With a waggish 8-bit art style, it’s difficult to disregard Toby Fox’s retro inspirations. The simplistic palette assumes a comforting, nostalgic vibe, whilst giving way to stark contrast during more suspenseful sequences; both a validating graphical choice and one of the many indicators that Undertale is not all that it seems.

undertale papyrus

Many of the game’s story elements, too, owe themselves, at least in part, to retro titles like the Mother series. Undertale’s plot writhes with a cast of pantomime characters, a la Earthbound, with an emphasis on daft humour and corny in-jokes. Pun-riddled skeleton, Sans. Papyrus, so obsessed with popularity that his attacks fall short. Aaron, an avid emoticon user with a propensity for buffing up. The florid cast of Undertale is utterly beguiling, offering light-hearted slants at niches such as internet humour and conventional RPG gaming. But still, there are moments that are genuinely moving because of these things, and whether Undertale had my heart sinking, thudding or joculating, it never really ceased hold.

Core mechanics and systems are of the RPG ilk, incorporating random encounters and turn-based combat. However, to refer to the game as a clone of…well…anything would be both negligent and insulting. Amongst its many luminant features, Undertale is an RPG in which you needn’t hurt a fly. Of course, an unrefined quicktime bar is there to accomodate a more murdery approach, but it is apparent early on that truer larks lie within more pacifistic routes. As such, Undertale encourages you to find fluffier ways of evading death by way of the game’s ‘act’ menu.

undertale mold bygg

‘Acting’ in Undertale opens up a variety of options that include ignoring, complimenting, consoling and flirting, and choosing correctly will eliminate your opponent’s desire to fight. Observing your opponent is wise, as each monster differs in disposition. Flirting, for example, might satisfy one creature, but decidedly rub another  up the wrong way; a consideration played up both for comic effect and to demonstrate Undertale‘s uniquely empathic outlook.

Battle decisions are intermittently livened by a succession of bullet-hell-style mini games, in which the player must dodge monster attacks by controlling a heart in a box; a refreshing deviation from the RPG norm. Success in Undertale is assuredly more reliant on player skill as opposed to character stats, and it’s thoroughly more rewarding because of that.

undertale aaron

Award and advantage certainly don’t outstay their welcome, however. In fact, Undertale seems fervent to assert its own power over the player, whilst maintaining that each and every move you make is ultimately, and irrevocably, down to you. Undertale is a game about trust, and its awareness of player expectation lends to its ability to consistently surprise.

Aside from merely deciding to spare an opposing monster or bash its head, there is a subtler nuance to the choices you make in Undertale. Ones that you won’t see coming, and honestly, it’s better that way. Seemingly trivial choices made early on later resurface with weighty consequences, and depending on the routes you take and the friends you keep, the substance of your adventure will be dramatically altered.

It’s not simply a case of good and bad endings. Whilst there are several destinations to be arrived at, Undertale opens up entire narrative strains exclusive to pacifist, neutral and (aptly dubbed) genocidal runs. Whether your intent is helpful or homicidal, however, Undertale‘s multidirectional narrative ensures that, after the initial 6 hour playthrough, there’s still much left behind undiscovered. The game remembers your previous adventure, too; a clever touch that alludes to the disquieting atmosphere underlying the game’s honeyed foreground. There’s a discernibly wry wit about Undertale; an insinuated venom, coupled with a finality that delights in keeping you anxious to test its sardonically elusive waters.

And every once in a while, the ominous subtext comes roaring out into the open, with such unannounced fury that it’s a truly surreal experience.

undertale mushrooms

My only gripe with Undertale is that its humour can wear thin. Whilst there is evident intent behind faulty or redundant puzzles, it felt distracting after the initial few gags and sometimes left me wishing I’d been challenged more. The unrelenting purpose Toby Fox gives each line of dialogue in this game, however, is truly admirable, and despite occasional repetitious tendencies, there was never a moment I could justify as dull.

The game certainly isn’t lacking in auditory quirk, either. A confident appraisal of its retro predecessors in this way, Undertale’s eccentric soundtrack includes moments of vivacious jazz and wistful glockenspiel numbers, whilst making more than enough room for jaunty little ditties accompanying the game’s sillier moments. With a broad range of specialised themes to signify prominent encounters, the music of Undertale serves to amplify the pendulous tonal swings of its gameplay.

undertale library

Undertale is something of a hidden gem this autumn. Like its many narrative twists, turns and spontaneous nosedives, this RPG represents a spark of unexpected originality amongst the deluge of highly anticipated ‘AAA’ sequels. It’s a remarkable achievement for an indie title, and a clever spin on the RPG formula, with a thought-provoking complexity that never surrenders meaning. If you’ve yet to delve into this subterranean oddity, it’s well worth its modest £6.99 on Steam, and it’s got the potential to soar even amongst the RPG bigwigs of Final Fantasy and The Witcher. It’s got the determination, after all.

 

Retrokick – Spyro the Dragon

The review starts in the second paragraph. I like a bit of a waffle, don’tcha know.

My return to Oddworld seems to have rekindled my appreciation for the unknown in gaming. Before the striking pervasivity of the Internet, progression in games was all down to you. And your delightful cousin, if he felt impelled to watch. I remember a time of button-pressing for no other reason than curiosity; searching every corner exhaustively because there just had to be one alcove that concealed a reward. It wasn’t even so much what lay in wait for me to discover, but the mere fact that I (or we, as the case often was back in the shared-console era), had sussed it out. Hidden gems are something of a rarity with contemporary games; perhaps, in part, a reaction to the wide popularity of Let’s Plays and video walkthroughs. I’m not knocking them; they can be entertaining, interesting. But I can’t stopper the feeling when watching footage of a game I have yet to play, that I’m somewhat killing the thrill.
In light of this rumination, I’ve turned the focus of this Retrokick to a game that exercised this curiosity; nurtured it in those early Saturday hours between the cessation of The Hoobs and my parents’ bleary-eyed confusion as to why on God’s green Earth I was up at such a time.

hoobs hubba hubba

I knew Mr. House from New Vegas reminded me of someone…

Spyro the Dragon was Insomniac Games’ first platformer, but it wasn’t its first game; a title that belonged to first-person-shooter, Disruptor. Offering simple first-person-shooter mechanics and psychokinetic powers, Disruptor wasn’t condemned, but reviews seemed reluctant to yield anything more than that it was ‘alright for a DOOM clone’. Poor sales and even near bankruptcy had evidently left a sour taste in Insomniac’s mouth, as its second project proved a far cry from zapping cyborgs in militarised barracks.

Spyro the Dragon overlooks five dreamlike lands, all having existed harmoniusly since time in memoriam. But, as we’re all likely aware by now, harmony makes for incalculably drab storytelling. So when the Artisan realm gives a less-than-stellar description of Gnasty Gnorc, a hulk-like brute who lives in a separate dimension (with apparent access to a live feed), and on a prime TV News Report no less, dragons far and wide are magically encased in crystal as Gnasty rains hell down upon the dragons’ domain. Subsequently, our sprightly soon to be PlayStation mascot, Spyro, takes it upon himself to save dragonkind and defeat Gnasty and his gnorc army, whilst casually pencilling in time to recover all the lost treasure in the process.

Despite its trite storyline, Spyro furnished an otherwise typical platforming control scheme with a few dragonesque eccentricities. As Spyro you could charge enemies with your horns, breathe fire and glide elegantly between the many podiums in each world, rendering world exploration (and the subsequent recovery of the gems) smooth and enjoyable, with the ability to change the camera angle to avoid cumbersome pitfalls. The HUD was integrated into the animation, too; a zippy dragonfly named Sparx dictates your health status by ranging from bright yellow to sickly green; a lively contributor to a distinctive world.

spyro gliding

And ‘distinctive’ appears to be exactly what Insomniac was aiming for, especially in the aftermath of an unsuccessful DOOM clone. Spyro the Dragon was, at its release, a feat of graphical triumph for the PlayStation. There were games around at the time that evoked a similar style to Spyro, but, with the exception of Crash Bandicoot 2, their polygon potential up until this point were comparitively flat:

croc graphics
Inhumanly ‘pointy’:

tomb raider the polygons

Or just….purposeless:

bubsy 3d

Although, let’s face it, lack of purpose is probably the best part of Bubsy 3D.

But Spyro’s visuals enticed with a smoother, more rounded design with few (if any) polygon glitches in sight; something that suited the game’s open layout and exploration elements, and contributed significantly to the way 3D platformers for the original PlayStation were received.
The game’s vibrant palette, on the other hand, isn’t always easy on the eyes. Admittedly, I’d be lying if I said Spyro’s Saturday-morning-toon vibe wasn’t beguiling, but it’s a little too candied to bear for very long, and I would’ve appreciated some darker textures to offset the convolution of bedazzled colour.

spyro the adventure begins

As does my desire for aspirin.

As you adventure through the five mystic realms, you’ll encounter numerous gateways to others within each. Now, the game market is positively dappled with the concept of the open world, but during the era of PS1 3D platforming, most titles were explicitly linear. The world of Spyro surrounds the player from the off, and leaves them to choose their own order of play; something that lends greatly to the game’s lax pace. Whilst the gameplay can’t be deemed truly ‘open world’, the environments are certainly expansive, and exploring the nooks and crannies of each in pursuit of paintbox gems makes for one of the game’s real (and enduring) strengths.

The various quirks of each boss are inventive and amusing, but are pretty unremarkable once the level is over. Indeed, I was often disappointed by just how easy it was to galvanise these big baddies, and found myself anticipating flying levels as the only stages in the game that evoke a real sense of thrill. Even considering Spyro’s leisurely pace and priority of collection over combat, bosses could have benefitted from an increase in challenge level as the final obstacle between you, and that delicious 100% achievement.

Moreover, Spyro happens to be one of the most repetitive games I’ve ever played. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; there’s not much else to Spyro other than collecting jewels, and it’s enjoyable because of that. When the repitition transcends into overly fomulaic character design, however, the lines between integrity and tedium begin to blur.

spyro dragon1spyro dragon2

It’s more apparent today that the elder dragons are tinted reskins of the same few designs, and their voice acting is limited. It’s a shame, given the stout sense of character amassed by the game’s art style, as it lends no excitement to the prospect of liberating a new statue. Rescued dragons offer stale hints the player has likely already worked out, and the disarming cockiness that surfaces within the writing for Spyro himself simply isn’t supported by Carlos Alazraqui’s frankly diffident vocal performance. Although Spyro‘s focus is directed more towards the gameplay (and these problems were somewhat smoothed over in the sequels), looking back at the game from the narrative-heavy perch of Uncharted and Ratchet and Clank, Spyro the Dragon’s storyline and sense of character doesn’t quite hold up.

The rambunctious exploits of our young dragon hums along to a, mostly, progressive-rock theme, employed by the talents of former The Police drummer, Stewart Copeland. Music contributes to the zealous optimism of the game’s protagonist, but sadly, does little else. Indeed, after a while of recycled riffs and the same old rhythm, the soundtrack begins to grate a little, and the fact that there’s a timpani in there does little to placate.

Timpani aside, however, Spyro possesses some of the wackiest sound effects I’ve ever experienced in a video game. From the jaw harp twang of assaulted gnorcs, to the bizarre quacking of butterfly digestion (yes, Sparx is an adorable, monstrous, butterfly killer), the sounds of the Spyro jungle have me tickled every time I play.

spyro toasty

Whilst I’m a fan of games that test your limits and force you to adapt, Spyro the Dragon’s steady pace stokes an adventurous spirit that doesn’t punish you for taking your time. Although the game’s vocal performances feel outdated and out of joint with its exuberant visuals, the sense of achievement following completion remains, whilst its relaxed atmosphere and hidden recesses still make for a worthwhile nostalgia-trip.