Brave: The Search for Spirit Dancer
How to impress a girlfriend as a young native American? That is the problem Brave is wrestling with in The Search for Spirit Dancer. Deep in the rainforest, there are no juiced-up cars to cruise with, or fancy clubs to show off your moves, so you can only decide to become a warrior. Shaman Grey Bear hides some artefacts that allow Brave to learn new abilities, but during his search, things go awry. The local village is unexpectedly struck by the gigantic demon Wendigo that kills Grey Bear and turns Brave’s girlfriend Meadow Flower into a zombie. The only way to restore peace is to track the mystic Spirit Dancer, a shaman who defeated Wendigo in the past.
Brave has a cheery atmosphere and the characters’ design reminds of Lilo & Stitch. You guide the young Indian through large 3D worlds, where new parts are opened up in a linear fashion. Although there is no complete freedom, the levels stretch wide enough to allow for diversified quests, such as a wolf hunt in the forest. The main character can jump, crawl, and climb, combined with some basic fighting moves. For most of the platform sections, however, you also need to perform double jumps, which can be followed by a roll on the ground or a devastating air attack. The stress is mainly on the storyline and precise movement, rather than merely fighting. Brave has only one attack, with slight varieties that seem to occur at random. Thus, battles have little depth; it usually boils down to finding and exploiting weaknesses. Initially, you only carry a twig around, but later bow and arrow, and tomahawks are at your disposal.
It gets interesting when Brave acquires new abilities. From a first-person perspective, you can track animals and mimic their call to lure them, or use them to distract others. In the end, a great eagle will even become your companion for some heavy dogfights. Additionally, you can summon elements and control their minds. In short sequences, you then play a skunk or a squirrel in a race against time, or control a gigantic bear that can take on multiple enemies at once. The various quests are usually quite linear. You cannot use your abilities whenever you like, they are triggered by obvious plinths in the environment. The only exception is the addition of following animals by uncovering their tracks. Using a pulsating icon at the bottom left corner of the screen, you chase animals by smell or tracks. Sometimes these hunts are part of a quest, but they also often lead to hidden objects. The puzzles are pretty straightforward, but the cute style and some original ideas using Brave’s abilities really enhance the gameplay.
There are different worlds to discover, such as a forest, a volcanic area, an ice-themed level and wastelands, each with typical environments and enemies, including beetles, wolves, hedgehogs, penguins and even some celebrities such as Sasquatch. You will spend most of the time jumping or climbing, for which precise timing is required. The longer platforms sections are usually followed by enjoyable action sequences, but some parts really made me grind my teeth. In the ice level, for example, there is a huge wall that can only be climbed by hammering two buttons successively, much like those NES sports games where the one who got RSI first, won. Another nuisance is the platform sections, which connect the different worlds. They consist of different obstacle courses that are fun at full speed when you get the hang of it, but only seem to consume time, and add little to nothing to the story. Fortunately, like I mentioned before, an action sequence usually follows. One of my favourites is the rafting course, in which you guide a canoe at high speed down a wild rapid with trees and whirlpools. Gameplay at its simplest, but extremely addictive. There are also parts where you fly a giant eagle, or fight enemies on top of cursed buffaloes. You also often do small tasks when summoning different animals.
During his quest, Brave can collect up to five eagle’s feathers, which can be charged by destroying enemies and vegetation, and collecting the consequently released magical elements. This is unfortunately the only interaction with the environment; all other objects are static and cannot be deformed or damaged. With a full feather, you can activate a spirit charge, which boosts your strength. As most fights feature multiple enemies attacking at once, it usually becomes an indispensable item due to the lack of moves and different fighting strategies. It is not uncommon for the genre to have the same monsters reappear in different places, but some bosses need to be defeated up to three times with no clear justification. The first fire demon in the volcanic world, for example, is challenging until you find his weakness, but becomes a cheap excuse to extend the gameplay when you have to apply the same strategy in the two following encounters. The efforts to extend the game’s rather short duration are also reflected in the large distances to cross, and the types of quests. When retrieving an object, you can bet it has been split up in pieces, and enemies always need to be killed in large groups. After finishing the game, a level select is unlocked, and you can replay all levels to collect hidden totems, which open up concept art in the menu. These items are usually tracked by using Brave’s hunting abilities.
The difficulty level is adjusted by the amount of hints shown in-game. Whenever you are stuck for a while, Grey Bear will send you a message through a Mobile Stone (get it?). There is also a mini map in the bottom right corner that shows the current goals. The images are colourful with humorous elements, but special effects are scarce and large parts of the game look rather dark and grim. The absence of different moves is another disappointment, until you start to learn fire and thunder attacks by acquiring abilities, although those cannot be used at will. The English voices sound clear and the acting is convincing. Brave uses a double save system, with checkpoints and manual saves, but you still cannot save the game at an exact location.
Brave is an entertaining game, but shows little innovation in the platform sections, which can become tedious after a while. Especially the levels that connect the different worlds last too long, as those are only intermezzos before the story continues. As mentioned before, more depth should have been added to the fighting itself, with the inclusion of combos or at least a secondary attack. Most of the enemies require very little strategy to defeat, but the boss fights are usually exciting. The abilities, on the other hand, make the game stand out. Summoning animals and mimicking their call is a nice touch. Other memorable moments include the action scenes; I still regularly play the rafting sequences again for fun, but the buffalo stampede and the end fight are also very amusing.
The biggest highlight is the coherency of the game. The abilities, enemies, and worlds fit the picture and immerse you right into Brave’s world. If I close an eye for the elements that have been lifted from the Zelda games, I have to admit that Brave has a cute, typical style that will suck you right in. Despite the rather short gameplay time, younger gamers, seemingly the target audience despite some frustrating timing in certain platform sections, can add 5% to the final review score.