I’ve written at length about Spyro 5, A Hero’s Tail, but it was not the final Spyro game in the original canon. Spyro: Shadow Legacy is the sixth and final Spyro game pre-reboot for A New Beginning, Skylanders, and Reignited. It was the second Spyro game made by Vivendi and, weirdly enough, only released for the DS. But there is so many other things about this game that are weird. For one, I’ve never played it. That’s not too outlandish since Shadow Legacy got basically zero marketing since Vivendi was internally preparing for A New Beginning’s release the following year, but still. I was only made aware of it from a paragraph-long review in Game Informer. From that review, I was made vaguely aware that it wasn’t a traditional Spyro game, but closer to a Zelda-like dungeon crawler. But I never got the chance to play it… until now!
I wrote that paragraph before actually playing the game. Now that I’ve played the game, I can confidently say that this is a fascinating game. It is the most average game I’ve played. But not average in the typical sense of games that don’t try anything new like Madden ’23 or whatever. Average in that this game makes a ton of ambitious choices for a 2005 DS game that results in a con for every pro it has. And I think that makes it a lot cooler of a game than just another handheld Spyro game like Season of Ice/Flame/Attack of the Rhynocs.
I have a ton of respect for the Shadow Legacy devs for trying to pack so much into a DS game one year after the DS’s release when nobody really knew what to do with it. Nintendo was releasing mobile game shovelware on that thing in the form of Yoshi Touch and Go and Pokemon Dash the same year of Shadow Legacy, and these guys are out here making an action RPG! Absolutely incredible choice by Amaze Entertainment on so many levels. Shadow Legacy is the perfect bridge from the old collect-a-thon platformers of Spyro games 1-5 (and the GBA ones) to the new beat-em-up narrative action games of the A New Beginning trilogy in gameplay and tone. There’s still the collecting fun of old games with a ton of fetch quests you have to do for NPCs and general level exploration, but there’s this new heavy emphasis on combat where you’re required to beat up groups of enemies with an insane variety of moves to unlock these quests in the first place. It’s really cool in concept, and I think it’s also pretty well-executed.
Now, I said that for every pro this game had, there is a con. As much as I like this core gameplay of Shadow Legacy where it goes back and forth between action RPG beat-em-up segments and level exploration, the gameplay has a core problem: the DS is straight-up not powerful enough for it. There is so much slowdown in the game, especially in the introduction, that the game feels like it is moving at 75% of its intended speed. It is brutal. I do not know if it is slowdown or if by design that Spyro is this slow. I am going to say it is because the DS is not powerful enough because who would make a player suffer through the awful speed Spyro walks and charges? But I do have two unfortunate reasons that they may have designed Spyro to be this slow: 1) The levels are really really small, and they wanted to hide it; 2) Spyro’s fully upgraded charge actually goes quite fast and the animation for his melee attacks is really fast and smooth even in the areas with the worst slowdown. But, again, I will just claim it is because they were too ambitious that the DS can’t handle it, and Spyro appears to be slow due to general slowdown rather than by design.
I can also nitpick specifics of the core gameplay. You can run the same strategy for every mob fight in the game by simply mashing the melee attack button and stunlocking them to death. The level design is sometimes really unclear and it can be very hard to tell where exactly you go to traverse something, such as getting up the factory in Bear Forest or trying to glide to the tall ledge in the Skelos Badlands or (my least favorite) intuiting that the weird flat stone-looking things are actually puddles of water you can freeze and stand on to get up to a higher ledge in Avalar’s Savannah. But the levels are so small and it is so easy to teleport away and back when you want a break that I don’t have much of an issue with stuff like this. There really is only so many places the game can hide something in a zone that’s like 15 Spyros high by 40 Spyros wide.
A game design decision that I have very few nitpicks on is how Shadow Legacy uses the touch screen. When no contemporary DS game developer could figure out how to use the real estate, here comes Spyro with a masterful set of tabs. There’s a tab for using your magic spells by drawing a simple shape; I can nitpick this by saying the shape-detection isn’t perfect, but it’s fine enough. There’s a tab for looking at your inventory which lets you use healing items by tapping them and also check what crystals you have equipped. There’s a tab that has the world map that also lists all your quests which is great, even if the map isn’t detailed. And there’s a tab where you can check Spyro’s stats such as max HP, how far from a level up he is, and the levels of your skills.
Which brings me to another core gameplay thing that has pros and cons. You choose what moves Spyro learns as the game goes on. There are a few that the game railroads you into learning–gliding and teleporting–but you can choose whatever else. And there are a ton of moves for a DS action RPG where, again, you can just press one button and stunlock every mob fight into oblivion. I really like that you have this freedom. There’s three small problems: 1) again, none of them are necessary combat-wise; 2) there are some moves that actually interact with the overworld in meaningful-but-optional ways that the game doesn’t highlight (the upgraded charge moves breaking large rocks, for instance); 3) the fire and ice breaths do not work in the shadow realm, which is where you do the majority of the combat, so why would you ever upgrade them.
Ooh, that reminds me. I forgot to explain the central gimmick of Shadow Legacy. See, someone has been trapping everyone in the Dragon Realms in the Shadow Realm, a horrible parallel dimension that sucks the life and magic away from anyone that steps foot in it. Spyro is tasked with being the one to go into the Shadow Realm and rescuing all the NPCs banished there since he is the only one with strong enough magic as well as the only one with a special stone to survive in there. You travel to the shadow realm by phasing in and out of it via portals on the ground. So the first time you go through a level, you’ll go through it in shadow mode as you walk around finding the cages guarded by the nefarious shadow dwellers such as the Long Legs seen below.
I will talk more about the art soon enough. Anyway, once you save everyone in there, you use the same portal to get back to the “normal” version of the level where you talk to NPCs and get quests from them. You get experience points as well as the items that unlock bosses by doing these quests, so they are mandatory, even if the game does not do a good job of making that clear. I do all the quests anyway because it’s the right thing to do.
Quick note on the bosses. As fun as it is to fight mobs (and I do mean that; mobs get very fun as you unlock more moves; I loved the endgame groups that I easily wiped by using a Roar followed by spin attacking until they all died), the bosses are unfun in the other direction. The Fire Minion and Ice Minion are extremely boring and unsatisfying “puzzle fights” where the puzzle is avoiding one set of their moves and then figuring out where the weakpoint is… once. And the final boss is a snoozer where you use a spell to reflect his attack six times and are never in any danger otherwise. Awful bosses.
Now, back to the NPCs. I said at the start that Shadow Legacy is the 6th and final game in the original Spyro canon. It uses a ton of its history to make up the game. For instance, you start in the Dragon Realms (Spyro 1’s home), travel to Avalar (Spyro 2’s home), and end in the Forgotten Realms (Spyro 3’s home). You are under the impression most of the game that Red (Spyro 5’s antagonist) is the one behind everything here. You see and rescue Hunter, Bianca, Blink, Zoe, Moneybags, and a bunch of Spyro 1 Dragon Elders. There are a TON of callbacks in this game. Which makes the characters that aren’t strict callbacks stick out like weird sore thumbs.
For instance, you rescue longtime staple of Spyro games Moneybags in the Bear Forest. But in this game, Moneybags is now somehow married with children, so you have to rescue his wife and kids as well. He is also written as a racist businessman who doesn’t want to sell to Armadillos rather than the shrewd businessman who played both sides of the conflict in Spyro 2 and 3 in order to maximize profits, which is odd. Then, in Avalar’s Savannah, you rescue Hunter. But now Hunter is the son of the leader of a tribe of cheetahs and the rest of the tribe throw him and Spyro in jail because they think he is the cause of the issues. My main problem here is that you have to get Hunter out of jail, when he should be locked up forever. Bianca is again an adept and intelligent spellcaster, but you rescue her as well as her cousins… who are all hicks who work on a farm??? Very odd. Finally, Blink from A Hero’s Tail is shown living with The Professor, who is his uncle and was part of his backstory the first time he was introduced, but now it comes out that The Professor has a super-intelligent sister named Sis who adopted an albino mole? So freaking weird. But honestly I’m glad that the game went for the weirdness with this sort of character writing. Like everything else in the game, the developers are very clearly trying to do something interesting, it just has mixed results in practice. I didn’t even mention how they changed Ember’s character from being creepily into Spyro into loving an Armadillo named Bandit who sent her one love letter AND THEY HAVE NEVER MET AND NEVER MEET IN THE GAME.
I’ve got to wrap this up soon, but I cannot finish talking about this game without talking about the art. It is really bad. Well, that’s unfair. The 3D models actually look somewhat decent. Like look at this action shot of the Ice Minion fight.
That’s pretty good looking for 2005 DS! No, it’s really the 2D portraits where the quality hits the absolute nadir. Look at this amazing still from the final cutscene in the game when you find out who has been pulling all the strings (it is the Sorcerer, not the Sorceress as you might expect from a game filled with callbacks, but instead some new villain that you beat and then the ending drops a sequel hook claiming he’ll be back stronger than ever but of course they never made a direct sequel to this game, they just went to A New Beginning and the reboot)!
Incredibly haunting. Bianca is forced to look up slightly while getting zapped with a lightning bolt. But, hey, it’s kind of cool. You can kind of get behind the quality of this one. No, it’s really the character portraits where the true direness of the game’s artstyle lies. I’ll give you the entire sheet of character portraits, then pick out my two favorites.
Find yours? Well, here’s mine.
WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOUR ARMS AND LEGS CHILD? This is supposed to be an armadillo. I am 1000% sure that the artist heard the name “armadillo” and thought that they were named that way because they were mostly arm.
This is one of Moneybags’ children. They all look like this. The poor sick man neglects his family for profit so badly that they all ended up malnourished and cross-eyed. The funniest part about the whole Moneybags saga is that you rescue him and his family… and then never see Moneybags again. He just walks off for a pack of smokes. His children set up the shops that you use! What a jerk. I am glad that they never made a direct Shadow Legacy sequel so that we never had to see Moneybags again.
All in all, I am glad that I played Shadow Legacy. It is such a weird game on its own merits, let alone as the sixth and final game of the original Spyro canon. I really like what the game did as a bridge between the old lighthearted level exploration of past Spyro and the “dark” combat-intense gameplay of New Beginning and Skylanders Spyro. It deserved to be made for the GameCube or PS2 or any system that could handle its intense artistic style because the general slowness of Spyro at the start of the game drags this game so far down. I think Spyro 4 could absolutely be a direct sequel in terms of mechanics to Shadow Legacy, but it’s too different from the Reignited Trilogy that I don’t think there’s any chance Spyro 4 will crib anything off it. Which is fine. It’s a decidedly average game. But a cool average game, not a boring one, and I am truly glad that I gave this overlooked piece of Spyro history a try finally.