Spyro The Dragon’s Dream Weavers Is A Lesson In Open World Design
Spyro the Dragon is one of my all-time favourite franchises in gaming, but it has always seemed a little hard to define. It’s a platformer, obviously, but it’s often compared to Crash Bandicoot, though the two are nothing alike. They share a character designer in Charles Zembillas, both released in the same era, and both have a bit of a bouncy walk, but honestly – that’s it. I’ve played every game with these two mascots (almost: I skipped Spyro Orange and Skylanders, sue me), so I think I have a pretty good idea of their similarities and differences, and my biggest takeaway is this: more open-world games need to pay attention to what Spyro did with Dream Weavers.
Dream Weavers is a realm in the very first Spyro game, and was basically an open space to roam around in while you decided which level you wanted to pick. In terms of raw functionality, it’s like a warp room in Crash Bandicoot – a little waiting room before the levels actually start. Because Crash has always been best as a linear game, in the way the original trilogy is, these warp rooms are just empty rooms. You pick a level and get from the beginning to the end without losing all of your lives, and you win. When you think of linear platformers from the PS1 era onwards, you think of Crash Bandicoot. It’s definitive.
Spyro is more open, and the realms function as mini levels to match that. But since then, most platformers have adopted the pseudo open-world stylings of Spyro (yes, I know Mario 64 was first), with Jak & Daxter, Ratchet & Clank, and a load more less memorable ones opting for the ‘collect and complete’ level design rather than the ‘get to the end’ attitude of Crash.
For that reason, Dream Weavers seems to have just been folded into the mix. Playing it as a kid, it was always my favourite, but for reasons I couldn’t put my finger on. Then in my two replays since it released in the Reignited Trilogy, I was too enamoured by nostalgia to take it in. Dream Weavers comes quite late, so I think my brain had regressed to a childlike state of wonder by the time I reached it.
Recently though I was clearing up space in my PS hard drive – an all too common task these days. I noticed Reignited was still installed, but before deleting it, I decided to dive back in. I didn’t have time to play through the whole thing, so instead I loaded up my 120 percent file and returned to Dream Weavers. Seeing it fresh for the first real time, I realised how much it felt like a big open-world crumpled down.
I won’t lie and say it’s the most detailed or action packed space I’ve ever played through – the game did originally release in 1998, after all. But everything links so well, it makes great use of elevation and negative space, and the collectibles are there to lead you through the world, not just randomly scattered to stretch out your playtime. I’m not saying 17 versions of Dream Weavers stitched together would make a good open world map – although it probably would – but that the ideas behind Dream Weavers would make for more fun and less arduous open worlds.
There’s a cannon in the middle of this world that fires at the different enemies, either shrinking them or making them grow much larger – being bigger makes them harder (and in some cases, impossible) to kill. Spyro can move this cannon around to target the different enemies, although it will hit some of them on its own. Because Dream Weavers is small and you can clear the whole realm in around five minutes, the enemies are changing all the time. In an open-world game though, it would be great to see this happen more methodically; sometimes the enemies are tiny and weak, other times they’re large and invincible, and you have to uncover when it’s safe to attack. You’d need to plan your expeditions carefully, try to find the source of the magic, and manipulate it to your benefit – just as Spyro does here on a micro scale.
It also uses disconnected islands that feel part of the same cohesive whole, and mixes mechanical features with magical powers. Much like how Dragon Age 4’s Minrathous will likely use cyberpunk-dungeonpunk blood magic architecture, Dream Weavers blends basic puzzle solving and cogwork activation with mystical cyclones to transport you wherever you need to go. The results are pretty tame, since it’s one part of a single realm from a platformer released in 1998, but on a bigger scale with a bigger budget, the combination of ideas could help rejuvenate the open world formula.
Dream Weavers has always stood out to me as Spyro’s best hub, both in terms of its aesthetic whimsy and the underlying design ideas. But it took replaying it recently, out of step with my usual Spyro rhythm, to realise how much the increasingly stale open-world genre could benefit from its ideas.
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Stacey Henley is an editor for TheGamer, and can often be found journeying to the edge of the Earth, but only in video games. Find her on Twitter @FiveTacey
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