When the latest Sonic character, the gun-toting Shadow the Hedgehog, was unveiled in the spring of last year, there seemed something of a collective tut-tutting from the gaming community and press about the crudity of parading his hefty hand cannon as a series innovation, not to mention the inappropriateness of it for what has always been a child-friendly franchise. Of course, Sony itself pulled the same trick a few years earlier with the dark, gun-loving sequel Jak II, and with both Jak and Ratchet & Clank developing into unashamedly brash, combat-heavy series, perhaps the publisher sees Brave: The Search for Spirit Dancer as its bid to reclaim the platform genre's more traditional tenets, and of course the lucrative pre-teen audience they haul in.
Initial impressions of the game itself are of an overly simplistic platformer, with pre-Jak and Daxter visuals and some groggy character and camera controls to boot. But as the tutorial section progresses with commendable pace and Brave is taught a few neat tricks (such as trail hunting, spear-fishing, animal call mimicking and animal possession), the game reveals itself to be a carefree, pared-down but fluid platform adventure, aiming, with some success, to emulate Lego Star Wars' much-praised mix of accessibility (for the kids) and guilty pleasures (for anyone over 10).
Thankfully, the extremely limited combat system is never called upon to an unreasonable degree and most encounters prove to be quite gleefully fleeting as Brave runs through small hordes of bugs, swiping his one-hit-kill axe and splatting cave walls with pretty beetle juice and subtle lighting effects. But whilst the early game flow is satisfyingly smooth, Brave foils its own plans by introducing layer upon layer of poorly implemented platform clichés. Moving platforms, vine climbs, bouncy platforms and the like are all expected of a game like this, but when they're flawed and frustrating, and serve only to hijack the flow and fun of the game rather than add to them, it becomes hard to rationalise their inclusion.
The back-to-basics platform sections become intolerably tired as the game wears on, and it doesn't help that they're as unforgiving as they are unfulfilling, with several nasty sticking points ready to alienate younger gamers. Worryingly, the large number of focus testers listed in the credits almost suggests that kids actually thrive on the instant-death and poor restart point combos that are so curiously prevalent in games of this ilk.
It is by no means a terrible game, but noticeable positives only ever range from neat touches, such as pinning a wolf to a tree with a well-timed arrow or scaling a cliff face with dual analog controlled axes, to surprisingly inoffensive activities, like a half-decent rapids ride section and a pleasantly paced snow level. And such niceties are soon undercut by their opposites, such as an infuriating assault on buffalo-riding enemies, annoying damage loops, cruel gang attacks and a game camera that is far too close and low for a game of this type.
Despite its best intentions, Brave ultimately falls short of today's platform benchmarks; always promising to get underway properly, but never willing to offer the player much more than a spare diet of dull, contrived and colorless platforming and mandatory hack'n'slash combat. By not developing their own ideas (like animal mimicry and hunting) beyond their base usage and simplest implementation, VIS have succeeded in not alienating their young target audience, but sacrificed any memorable gameplay that could well have emerged from having a bit more fun with the design brief. It's a depressingly familiar pyrrhic victory, but one that can be overcome with enough developer confidence and publisher liberalism.
However, at the end of the day, with it's intermittent 'okay bits', unconvincing game flow and EU-only release, Brave has the distinct whiff of a game that seemed like a good idea at the time, but that no one was particularly passionate about. It's well presented and Brave's misshapen but personable face and tape-like hair make him an oddly likeable hero (that one wouldn't necessarily mind seeing again), but for the most part his showcase adventure ranks as an inescapably hollow and forgettable experience.