Wednesday, March 16, 2022

Spyro: Year of the Dragon

Just one year after Spyro 2: Ripto’s Rage, Insomniac released the third and final game in the original Spyro trilogy, Spyro: Year of the Dragon, in the actual Year of the Dragon before they shifted their focus to the still-ongoing Ratchet & Clank series. This entry also had a more ambitious scope, with more playable characters and gameplay variety. Though admirable, I feel from playing it now that it really did more harm than good.

Though the game itself doesn’t explain some of the background of the story very well, I did figure it out from other sources, including the back of the jewel case. Every twelve years, the Dragon Kingdom celebrates the “Year of the Dragon” festival, where new eggs are brought to the realm. During the festival, a spellcaster named Bianca invades the Dragon Kingdom with an army of Rhynocs and brings them back to her master, the Sorceress, who spreads them throughout the worlds. Now it’s up to Spyro, Sparx and Hunter to go out and retrieve the eggs before the Sorceress can fully enact her evil plan.

Where Ripto’s Rage had plenty of short cutscenes for each of the many mini-stories within each level, Year of the Dragon instead saves the cutscenes for its main story. This means an increase in story content and more fleshed-out story and character arcs, especially Bianca, who slowly realizes she’s on the wrong side of the conflict. Hunter also gets fleshed out somewhat, as he develops feelings for Bianca right from the start. Not everyone feels developed, however, since the four new playable characters have only the minimum amount of characterization necessary for their role in the story.

Bianca (left) gradually questions the motives of the Sorceress (right).

In a rather interesting bit of continuity, Spyro’s abilities from the end of Ripto’s Rage carried over to this one as a sign of his growth, a detail I wished more sequels nowadays would attempt. However, he doesn’t really gain new abilities and the ones he does have receive some minor tweaks at best, like increasing the height of his jump while ramming. Instead, his friend Sparx gradually receives new abilities throughout the game, including picking up gems from further away or gaining a fifth hit point (represented by staying yellow after the first hit).

Year of the Dragon also feels more ambitious than Ripto’s Rage in how it expands the amount of content. Missions are downplayed in favor of minigames and the implementation of six additional playable characters (Hunter, Sparx, Sheila the Kangaroo, Sgt. James Byrd, Bentley the Yeti and Agent 9), each with their own unique playstyles and abilities. Side areas where you play as these characters also dabble in other genres, including a top-down shooter for Sparx, the occasional FPS/Rail Shooter segment for Agent 9 and a Sheila level that turns into a linear 2.5D platformer. There are even three skateboarding minigames that were obviously inspired by the success of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, which released one year prior (I even listened to some Tony Hawk music during score challenges that included THPS1’s two-minute time limit).

One of the new playable characters, Sheila the Kangaroo.

Though the player doesn’t have to worry about as many types of collectables this time, the ones they do collect are of a higher quantity. These include 150 Dragon Eggs and 15,000 Gems, not all of which are necessary to complete the game. Of course, if you want to achieve the true ending, you’ll need to collect all of them for 100% completion, which opens up a new secret area. Here, you can collect an additional 5,000 Gems and face the true final boss, which lets you end the game with a whopping 117% completion. I went for this since it wasn’t that difficult, but I didn’t get all 20 hidden Skill Points, since some challenges required for the last few felt beyond my abilities at the time.

Unlike the transition between Spyro the Dragon and Ripto’s Rage, there isn’t any noticeable graphical improvement, but the game still looks good and I like the small touch that Sparx turns into the Pause Menu cursor in real time (provided you aren’t playing as him and have more than one hit point). The voice acting is also still great, with a good variety of personalities and an appropriate emotional range.

While I admire the ambition in the game design, however, it didn’t fully click with me. For one thing, the Pause Menu now feels slower and clunkier compared to the much more responsive one in Ripto’s Rage. Pressing Start now brings up a menu for various options including viewing the Atlas, which you can also access by pressing Select. Either way, it felt like the cursor moved a little slower and it took longer to load between the Atlas and the regular game.

The kitchen sink approach to game design feels tedious at times and not just from the rather slow movement speed of the playable characters that aren’t Spyro or Sparx. Incorporating several genres at once instead of perfecting what’s already there means that some ideas come out undercooked, such as skateboarding controls that feel more barebones than even the original Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater. Design of the main Spyro sections also suffers from this heavy experimentation, with smaller and more linear levels that rely more on backtracking. Even from the outset you can see the linearity, as the first main world, Sunrise Spring, comes off as one extended tutorial, complete with bottlenecking the player’s progress and giving the impression they’d no longer be able to go to any level in any order they wanted.

The skateboarding feels barebones compared to its inspiration.

With so many playable characters, I eventually noticed that you maybe spend half of the game actually playing as Spyro and found myself wanting to get a side level over with so I could get back to playing as him. While he doesn’t feel insignificant, the idea of deemphasizing Spyro would eventually get taken to its logical extreme with Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure, where he really is a bit character in his own game despite getting top billing. I liked one concept in Enchanted Towers where Spyro and Sgt. Byrd are both playable in the same section for different purposes, but no other level attempts it.

At times, the difficulty felt inconsistent. Some eggs are naturally hidden behind relatively difficult tasks, but the bosses are either too easy or kind of frustrating. Unfortunately, this also applies to the true final boss, where the only semblance of difficulty comes from the difficulty in effectively aiming the vehicle you pilot.

Before I end this review, I have to bring up something that’s otherwise too funny not to. Like previous games, you can access a demo for a Crash Bandicoot game on the disc, in this case Crash Bash, by inputting a code (L1 + R2 + Square) at the Title Screen. Unlike the previous demos, however, if you input a secret code with the D-pad at the demo’s Title Screen (LR, LRR, LRRR, LRRRR, LRRRRR), this activates a hidden Cheat Menu that lets you access almost every single level and three of the bosses from the full game. Essentially, nearly the entirety of Crash Bash, albeit a prototype, is accessible on Spyro: Year of the Dragon. From my understanding, this wasn’t fixed on the PlayStation Store download version, so you don’t even need the physical disc to try this. One can only imagine how much this would have negatively affected sales of Crash Bash at the time if anyone had made this discovery when Year of the Dragon first released.

Spyro: Year of the Dragon has a lot of interesting ideas and some good storytelling, but throwing everything into the same game creates a bloated and tedious experience that could have used more focus. It’s not a bad game, but your enjoyment will really depend on whether or not you enjoy several quick gameplay changes.

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