Spyro: Year of the Dragon Lost Its Way

Spyro Reignited is a graphical upgrade to the first three Spyro games, the ones made by Insomniac. I appreciate the Rule of Three love and making the cutoff for the remake be the games made by the original developer and no more is a pretty sensible decision, but having played through all three games, the series was already entering into steep decline by the third installment.

The first two games were about a dragon in a fantasy world fighting fantasy villains. The second game already had a bit of dilution of this concept with some levels towards the end that were pretty blatantly sci-fi, which is also a problem that crops up in MediEvil: Towards the end, there’s a level about the evil wizard using a strange kind of magic called “technology,” a concept which isn’t foreshadowed before that level or revisited afterwards. I think Spyro in particular might’ve been aping Crash Bandicoot, which was in turn aping Sonic the Hedgehog, by having an otherwise low-tech character and setting face high-tech enemies near the end. But that’s because Sonic and Crash have a sci-fi villain attacking a lower-tech, more mystical/nature-y setting as their premise. Sonic’s enemies are robots from the word go, and Crash breaks out of Dr. Cortex’s mad genetics lab in the opening cutscene. It’s not like Lethal Lava Land, which is named for Mario but which refers to a general terrain type that can plausibly show up in basically any genre. Spyro is cartoon medieval fantasy where anything vaguely old-timey can work so long as it doesn’t overwhelm the medieval aesthetic, so you can have trains and even biplanes in moderation, but entire levels dedicated to space sheep and laser cows means that the game no longer has a consistent aesthetic.

The problem gets worse with the third game. The space sheep from the end of the second game return, but are now foes who pop up periodically in the game as the nemesis to a specific side character Hunter. Spyro 3 has a lot of side characters like Hunter, who have different movesets to Spyro in various ways. Sheila the Kangaroo lacks Spyro’s horn-charge (and technically his fire breath, but her kangaroo kick works almost exactly the same) but can jump much higher, Sgt. Byrd the penguin can fly around and shoot missiles (yes, penguins are well known for being flightless and no, Sgt. Byrd doesn’t have, like, a jetpack or something, he clearly flaps his wings to fly while the engines on his rocket harness activate only when firing a rocket), Bentley the yeti is big and slow and honestly is pretty much just Spyro but worse but you can’t bring Spyro to his levels so you have to put up with it, and Agent 9 is a space monkey with a laser gun. You can tell that Insomniac really wants to be making Ratchet and Clank games at this point.

And these characters’ own slightly different movesets then get used as the vehicle for minigames that homage other games entirely. Sheila gets a 2D sidescroller level that I guess is supposed to reference Crash Bandicoot (the level is called “Crash Kangaroo”), a 3D game, but I guess it does have some 2D levels peppered in. Agent 9 is a third person shooter in his original level, but then his other levels are a first person shooter, a rail shooter, and one that keeps repositioning the camera to a top-down perspective every time you enter a new room of the level, but lets you reposition the camera to over-the-shoulder if you want. There’s also a Tomb Raider reference at one point, but she’s not playable.

Spyro 2 expanded Spyro’s moveset with powerups that gave temporary flight (instead of gliding) and long-range fireballs (instead of short-range gouts), and then combined them towards the end with challenges where you had to fly around breathing fire at things. Then in the last phase of the last boss, the arena falls away completely and you get an unlimited superflight/superfire powerup, so the final battle is between Spyro in full dragon mode having an aerial battle with an evil wizard riding a pterodactyl. I don’t know how intentional it was, but I loved how this really felt like Spyro the Dragon has fully arrived just in time for the final battle with an enemy who considered himself unstoppable once he found a world without dragons.

And I guess Spyro 3 didn’t know where to go from there, because its only new gameplay were all these side characters, half of whom feel like they’re visitors from another video game. Spyro is a cartoon setting without any, like, deep lore or continuity or whatever, but what it did have in the first two games (well, most of the second game, at least) was a vibe, and in Spyro 3, that vibe falls apart, at the same time as it runs out of ideas for its core gameplay and falls back on a bunch of minigames and side characters to try and pick up the slack. A mediocre finale to a trilogy that’s 2/3s fantastic.

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