"If you think I'm going to say burning enemies with fire gets old, you don't know me. At all."
In a lot of ways, Spyro: Year of the Dragon is an interesting game. While the Spyro series kept going, the title marked the end of Insomniac's run as the developer behind the diminutive dragon.
Insomniac got a lot out of Spyro, creating three fun PlayStation games that featured him, but ultimately the team seems to have felt limited by the franchise and moved onto other projects. After all, his abilities revolved around breathing fire and charging at foes. This led to simple strategies. Blast most of the game's enemies with fire, or if they're wearing armor or can nullify flame in some other way, sprint directly at them to bowl them over. Other than that? Well, occasionally, you could jump onto a cannon and fire that. And every great once in a while, a fairy might give Spyro a stronger fire attack capable of demolishing enemies immune to regular assaults. Which isn't actually a deviation from the formula.
And so, the company moved on to the Ratchet & Clank series, where it was able to craft all sorts of weapons and gadgets to create a more diverse and varied experience. What makes Year of the Dragon so interesting is that while it is a Spyro game, some of the creativity that went into Ratchet & Clank is on display. The result is a game that's fun, but could be criticized for having a bunch of under-implemented ideas, with many of those falling a bit flat.
In some ways, this both is and isn't a Spyro game. While the overall format is the same, with you controlling the dragon as he collects gems while flaming or charging all manner of monsters over a couple dozen levels, he is only one of six characters you'll use throughout the adventure. In each of the game's four worlds, you'll have the opportunity to purchase freedom for another animal, who will then join Spyro's quest to prevent an evil sorceress from using a hoard of stolen dragon eggs as ingredients in a particular magic spell. Each of these characters will then have their own level in the world in which you acquire them. After completing those, they'll be available for use in a handful of side areas located throughout the game's campaign. After finishing a world, you then have the opportunity to control trusty companion Sparx the Dragonfly through a short shooting level in order to obtain rewards that enhance its abilities.
The positive to all of this: the gameplay is a lot more varied than in previous PS Spyro entries. Sheila the Kangaroo has enhanced jumping capabilities, while the avian Sgt. Byrd can fly (as opposed to Spyro, who can only glide without collecting a certain, temporary, power-up) and shoot rockets. Bentley the Yeti is a slow-moving powerhouse wielding a giant club, and the motor-mouthed simian Agent 9 gleefully blasts foes with his laser gun. The Sparx levels, meanwhile, shift the perspective to a top-down view as he shoots enemies through a series of rooms while collecting power-ups and keys until reaching the stage's boss.
The negative? Well, you control Sparx in four stages and each of the other four get one full-sized stage and three short segments in others. If you find yourself enjoying using any of those alternate characters, you have to cherish the moments you're in control of them because there aren't many to go around. Furthermore, those moments are of uneven quality. I loved a particular Agent 9 challenge derived from the Doom series, for instance, but gained virtually no enjoyment from Bentley's boxing match.
If you've played the second Spyro game, Ripto's Rage, you'll likely have guessed that whether those or other "optional" challenges strewn throughout the game's levels are enjoyable or not, you'll be forced to give them the ol' college try. Since your main goal is to reclaim the stolen dragon eggs, the game requires you to collect the majority of them by forcing you to gather so many in order to access various stages -- up to the point where you need 100 of the 150 available overall in order to confront the Sorceress. Fortunately, that requirement seems easier to reach than the one to access levels in Ripto's, as I didn't find myself forced to revisit old levels in a desperate bid to collect enough stuff to finish the game. Some eggs are handed out as rewards for finishing a stage, others are hidden in levels and essentially serve as rewards for exploring every nook and cranny, and the rest are only given for completing those side levels with Spyro's allies or succeeding in the game's many mini-games. Since a decent number of the eggs are fairly easy to obtain and I had no real desire to grab everything in order to tackle Year of the Dragon's bonus level, I didn't have to bother with the more frustrating mini-games.
That is most definitely a positive, as the reason several of those optional areas are frustrating is technology's fault. The PlayStation's camera work wasn't as polished as what came on later systems, getting caught on scenery regularly and often being slow to react. This doesn't usually cause major problems when navigating stages, as most of the game's enemies aren't overly threatening, allowing one to progress at a leisurely pace. However, since a lot of the mini-games do require you to move quickly and with precision, any little handicap bestowed upon you by older technology can be quite crippling to your chances of success.
In other words: third verse, same as the second. While there are several new characters to control, this is (more or less) the same Spyro the Dragon at heart as Ripto's Rage. You start in a hub world that's devoid of enemies and enter each of that's world's levels to solve a problem communicated to you by one of that stage's friendly inhabitants. By clearing each level, you'll get access to that world's boss and beating it allows you to advance to the next world. What makes the formula work is a combination of the fun, simple action and the overall variety on display, as you'll explore towns, castles, swamps and other diverse locales in your hunt for eggs. Having a nice soundtrack composed by The Police drummer Stuart Copeland also doesn't hurt.
That's one of the neatest things about the more successful mascot platformer series: the developers were able to hit upon a successful formula and then release games that don't try to reinvent anything, but instead tinker with something here and add something there. It's worked wonderfully for Mario for an eternity, and for series such as Sonic for extended periods of time and also works here. Take Ripto's Rage, add a bit more content and a few more characters and let players loose. Works for me! Maybe a few challenges weren't that fun and maybe those additional characters were a bit under-implemented, but overall, this is an enjoyable game that proved to be a suitable sendoff for Insomniac as the developer moved on to new projects.
Staff review by Rob Hamilton (May 12, 2019)
Rob Hamilton is the official drunken master of review writing for Honestgamers.
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