Spyro: A Hero's Tail is a platformer developed by Eurocom and published by Vivendi on the Xbox, PS2 and Gamecube in 2004. In it, the titular dragon sets out alongside his friends to stop the elder dragon Red from taking over the world with the help of Gnasty Gnorc and his goons.
The story of this game isn't particulary exciting. Par for the course for the series, but something is just missing here, making it hard for me to look forward to the next cutscene. Might just be my nostalgia goggles though, YMMW.
The first thing that stands out to me is how plain the intro is. I'm glad they made all cutscenes in-engine, but that doesn't stop the direction from being lackluster. As soon as you start, the game just cuts to the villains putting down dark gems, which corrupts Spyro's home. Then they run off.
Only, there isn't anyone around to react to the devastion, nor does any of the villains say anything. That means that you have to rely on their designs to gleam any character. Compare this to the intros of the classic trilogy, where characters (especially Spyro) react to the villains, establishing the characters of both parties.
Here, Spyro just appears afterwards (with no establishing scene), gets told by the Professor to save the world and off you go. Spyro isn't allowed to interact with the villains until their boss fights, which in the case of Red takes until endgame!
And that's a shame, because this incarnation of Spyro is pretty good. Being set after the previous games, the game has him be a bit jokey when he talks, since he is so used to saving the world. The game as a whole focuses a bit more on jokes than previous entries actually. It works most of the time, even if not every joke lands. It's almost like a parody, but doesn't go quite that far. I will say that turning Gnast Gnorc into a moronic goof undermines what little character he had in the first game though.
While the starting and middle parts of the game are pretty lacking in plot (save for the miniscule amount of info on Red you get from each dragon elder), the story does pick up slightly at the end, but it's not enough for me to give the story a complete pass. It feels a bit uneven, as if some things were cut or shuffled around when they shouldn't have been. If there was a bit more material, I think the game would be better off.
Spyro's abilities are largely familiar, but there are still a bunch of changes made to his controls. The most evident change being the swapping of the charge and flame buttons on PS2, which I can't justify and find somewhat annoying.
The new double jump is pretty spiffy though. That, combined with ledge grabbing, wall jumping and pole spinning makes this the Spyro game with the deepest platforming mechanics. Which isn't saying much, but I gotta applaud the effort.
Sadly, with the removal of jumps retaining momentum after a charge, charging becomes less useful and there can't be any Super Charge jumps either. It gives the game a slower pace, befitting the more complex platforming, but since the Super Charge power-up is in the game, not going for the full thing feels like wasted potential.
Speaking of wasted potential, the elemental breaths are back, and only provide the barest amount of variety in combat and puzzle solving. I'd totally be down for ”complex” combinations of elements to solve puzzles and beat bosses, but alas, the game does not provide.
The game does provide ranged bombs you can shoot at enemies if you want, but they only serve to crush whatever small challenge an enemy offers you, so their inclusion feels incredibly half-baked. I suppose they wanted to keep the Super Flame power-up in some fashion, but they could have just used a pad like they do with the other power-ups.
Surprisingly, I found the hamster ball segments to be pretty fun. It controls well and the camera isn't as terrible as it is in similar levels in Crash Bandicoot: Wrath of Cortex. The turret sections are pretty boring though, as one would expect.
Now here's something strange. I've come to the realization that A Hero's Tail has taken a bunch of elements from the first Jak & Daxter game.
The Dark Gems are basically Dark Eco crystals, you can swing on poles, there's a redneck NPC in a swamp (with giant wooden spike traps) that needs help defending his food in a turret section, there's an underwater city level reached via an elavator that puts the camera in the top-down position, there are pairs of platforms that rotate around eachother as you step on them, the game utilizes seamless loading between levels and the final level is very industrial.
That doesn't make A Hero's Tail a ripoff per say, since the rest of the game is so different, but it weirds me out still. If you're gonna steal, steal from the best, I suppose.
Collectibles are very important in a collect-a-thon such as this. Too bad A Hero's Tail doesn't manage to make it much fun to raid the land of shiny goodies.
The biggest change to the formula is how gems are handled. They've turned from a normal collectible into money. As such, there's an infinite amount of gems in the game thanks to the various enemies. Breaking chests and baskets is of course the best ways to find gems, as one would expect.
They're used to buy consumables like lockpicks and health and a scant few upgrades. But there really isn't much of value to buy, so about halfway through it's very simple to have bought everything worthwhile. This devalues the stuff the game is stuffed to the brim with, which is a stuffing bummer. The fact that you pick them up as combined mass instead singular gems is an even bigger stuffing bummer.
Actual progression is locked behind Light and Dark Gems. Every realm has 10 Dark Gems to destroy, which heals the enviroment and opens up the boss. Light Gems power devices and opens doors, making both vital to progress.
There are also dragon eggs scattered about, which can unlock extras if you complete a set. I'm not a fan of collectibles such as these that are only there for concept art and unlocking minigames. It's fair way of gating away content, but I always feel a bit dissapointed when I get something like that instead of something useful.
Following in the footsteps of Year of the Dragon, A Hero's Tail opts to break up the Spyro gameplay by having you play as his pals.
Sergeant Byrd has taken over the speedways, letting you fire missilies, drop bombs and boost around to clear all the objectives in the stage under the time limit. He's fun to use, but the stages are more open-ended in this game, in stark contrast to the somewhat more linear stages in the originals. This makes it really difficult to master a speedway level, since objectives are strewn about, seemingly haphazardly. It's not impossible, but certain objectives are hidden in evil places.
Sparx returns as well, and instead of having a top-down shooter, he has a behind-the-shoulder one instead. It can be aggravating due to the sheer amount of enemies you have to get through per level, but I think I prefer this to the slow levels in Year of the Dragon. Still, better balancing would be welcome.
For the first time, Hunter is fully playable. He stands out mechanically from Spyro by not being able to glide and having access to a bow. Those are often fun, but I can't say he adds much to the table. You just play as normal, and snipe stuff from time to time. None of the side characters are afforded much depth, due to their small screentime.
Lastly, we have newcomer Blink, who plays like Hunter with a different model. He moves about the same and has the ability to snipe thanks to his arm blaster. His one claim to fame is being able to lay bombs, but that hardly justifies the creation of a new character.
Lastly, I find the game to be a bit plain art-wise. The colours are rather flat, there are many enemies that make repeat appearances and the music is incredibly generic.
It really detracts from the experience, since the biggest appeal of the original trilogy is the vibrant colour scheme and the awesome music by Stweart Copeland. What's presented here just doesn't compete, fancier hardware be damned.