Back during the PS2 era, the 3D action platforming genre was quite well populated, many developers all trying to make their mark to kick off the next big franchise. Series like Jak and Daxter, Sly Cooper, and Ratchet and Clank all managed to find success with the formula, but there were far more instances of these kinds of games being passed over for failing to truly stand out. Brave: The Search for Spirit Dancer is one of these games, but it can at least serve as a pretty good representative of your typical PS2 action platformer despite having a few unique traits that tried to set it apart.
Brave: The Search for Spirit Dancer pulls from various Native American legends and folklore for its game world, although it isn’t afraid to just do it’s own thing when it feels like it. The hero of the story is a boy named Brave who finds that an ancient evil called the Wendigo has reappeared and seeks to wipe his tribe out completely, although anyone familiar with Wendigo myth will be a bit surprised to see the giant skeletal Satan analogue that goes by that name in this game. Brave is much too young and inexperienced to take the Wendigo down on his own, but the Wendigo had once been defeated by a powerful warrior named Spirit Dancer, so he sets off on a quest to find him and request his aid. Brave travels through the spirit plane to take him to all kinds of different locations with unusual characters and animal spirits, but the story itself pretty much follows your typical hero’s journey. Brave begins brash and cocky, develops some humility as he learns his limits, and eventually discovers the confidence to back up his newly developed skill, and outside of that standard arc, he’s not really much of a character. He is a bit ugly though, as is most the game world due to an art style choice that does the game no favors and instead means many character models have odd proportions, chunky limbs, and swollen faces.
While Brave’s plot is a standard hero’s journey, you could say the gameplay is a standard platforming hero’s journey. Brave does have quite a variety of abilities however, but the game tends to introduce them just as quickly as it tosses them out. Most areas rely heavily on Brave’s core capabilities, that being jumping between platforms, doing some mindless tomahawk swinging, and climbing walls. He does have a power-up that makes his attacks in combat more powerful and effective, but it’s not too useful during regular play and doesn’t change how you fight your enemies, just how well you do at it. Brave also has a few tracking tricks, such as being able to uncover animal trails or mimic the calls of certain creatures, but these mostly just end up being used to uncover the game’s hidden totems which only matter if you want to see the game’s concept art. The game does do a pretty good job of constantly providing new techniques, almost every new location you find adding one technique it will explore and then forget about, but it definitely keeps things from getting stale. Many of them involve calling upon certain living or spiritual animals, either taking full control of them or using their help to gain you the edge in terrain Brave can’t traverse himself or battles he couldn’t win on his own strength. Brave also gets a few special shamanistic skills that boil down to using fire or lightning on very specific enemies, and that again plays into the discarding of interesting skills so you never get to explore them outside their prescribed context. You do get a bow that sticks around for a while, but compared to something like the tomahawk you can briefly throw, it’s not very useful and feels a bit forgettable. The game tries to ensure you never could possibly get stuck with the use of a very generous hint system, a flashing icon popping up on the screen to indicate you can receive a pointer on where to go next or what you should be doing. It won’t force itself on you and you can turn down its presence in the options menu as well, which is good because otherwise you’d be endlessly pestered by this overly helpful addition.
Although the skills come and go quickly, it does mean Brave manages to keep a good pace and never settles into a repetitious rut. One moment you’re scaling massive ice walls with some ice picks, the next you’re flying with the help of an eagle to take down buffalo rustlers, or maybe you’re canoeing down the rapids, or you might just end up helping Bigfoot cook some fish. Nothing really stands out as poorly done, but nothing really excels either in this potpourri of constantly shifting play styles, the game only really feeling bland when its settled down to focus on its simplest and most consistent mechanics. There are few too many long walks where you aren’t given much to do besides incredibly easy jumps or mindlessly slashing at enemies that get a little too close. Combat doesn’t have to be too deep in a platformer, but having a few more bosses or some foes that required a second of thought to kill would have made the moments of standard fighting the smallest bit more interesting. Despite having a lot of things you can do, there aren’t a lot of things to do with the new skills and gameplay shifts, meaning things do eventually snap back to feeling like a generic 3D action platformer.
THE VERDICT: Brave: The Search of Spirit Dancer is a bit like a toy box filled with a lot of intriguing toys, but you’re only allowed to take out one of these toys at a time. Besides a camera that struggles to keep up and often clips through the walls, Brave is a pretty solid game, with none of its parts really harming the experience, but none of them getting the attention needed to make it more than just typical. There aren’t a whole lot of games based on Native American culture and myth, but despite having a wellspring of potentially new and interesting content due to the subject matter, most parts of it are introduced and shoved aside as the game can’t keep its focus on any one aspect too long. Ultimately, you get a game that does a fine job of filling time, but fails to really develop an identity for itself.
And so, I give Brave: The Search for Spirit Dancer for Playstation 2…
An AVERAGE rating. Despite bringing many types of gameplay to the table, Brave only brings it in small portions, deciding to make its main course the least interesting part of it. Platforming and combat are an understandable core for a 3D action game, but Brave falls back on them too often, leading to an experience that is more like visiting rides at a carnival rather than gradually training up a fledgling warrior into a genuine hero. By the time the end is reached, he’s abandoned most every skill that got him so far, some of them only appearing for incredibly brief moments. I wouldn’t say the gameplay shifts count as variety for variety’s sake as they do fit the game world well and often have solid enough mechanics to sustain their bite-sized portions, but it does at least show that having a lot of things going on in your game won’t necessarily make it better if you never take things far enough. Being built off the back of unexceptional platforming and fighting certainly doesn’t help there either.
If you’re searching for an example of what a typical 3D action platformer was like at the start of the 2000s, Brave: The Search for Spirit Dancer, despite trying its best to be something more, instead ends up as an average member of the genre.