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Spyro: Year of the Dragon
Score: 98%
ESRB: Everyone
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment America
Developer: Insomniac Games
Media: CD/1
Players: 1
Genre: Action/ Adventure/ Platformer

Graphics & Sound:
Once again, Insomniac proves that the little gray box that could, really can. Spyro: Year of the Dragon is more vibrant, more colorful, and more gorgeous than either of the previous titles -- and that's saying a whole lot. Although a few characters reprise their roles -- you'll see Cheetah and Moneybags in the first level, for example -- most of the designs are brand new, and they're all very, very cool. Sheila the Kangaroo is perhaps my favorite, for reasons I won't even try to explain because I don't quite understand them myself. The various denizens of the worlds are very cool too, ranging from fireflies to hummingbirds and everywhere in between. The worlds are lush, from the crisp daylight of the first world through the deepening darkness of the later stages. The entire dreary setting of the firefly stage strikes me as deliciously atmospheric, and it only gets better.

The sound, as is standard in the Spyro series, is superb. The music is usually bright and cheerful, but it also hits the right undertones in the levels that are slightly more on the dark side. And the voice acting is, as always, over the top and highly enjoyable. Spyro still sounds like Spyro, Moneybags still makes you want to punch him, and the various denizens of the different worlds all speak with different accents that are cute without being overdone. And some of the Muppet Show style humor will appeal to the adults, like the haiku-speaking fireflies. Well done, to say the least.


Gameplay:
And the same goes for the gameplay. While Year of the Dragon is definitely more evolution than revolution, it provides more than enough gameplay to satisfy all of the fans of the series, not to mention draw those few not yet addicted to the adventures of the little purple one in. If you haven't played either of the other Spyro titles, you have no idea what you're missing, and you may as well start with the pinnacle of the series -- Year of the Dragon.

As in the first two games, you start off controlling Spyro. In a wonderful departure from most games of this type, Spyro actually remembers all the moves he learned in the last game (don't you hate when Samus Aran loses all her energy tanks between games?), which means you can swim and climb ladders from the get-go. But a whole lot more gameplay has been added by the addition of some new characters, each with a unique playing style that adds variety to the game. The first 'hero' that you rescue is a kangaroo, who can do all sorts of strong kicks and high jumps. Then comes the flying penguin, the beefy yeti, and the monkey. Ook ook! Each one has their own control scheme, the details of which you can pull up at any time you're controlling a character. Most stages have a portal that lets you play as one of the new characters, but you have to rescue them first.

Along with the new characters, there are the requisite mini-games that we've come to know and love from Spyro 2. From the gratuitous and enjoyable skateboarding to the rail-shooter levels, they're all quite a blast. They're not trivially difficult, either, so be prepared to have to try some of them a few times over.

The game itself is what you've come to expect. You collect lots of gems, and some gimmick item or another -- in this iteration, it's Dragon Eggs. Each level has a certain number of eggs stashed away, and it's up to you to find them all. You often have to pay Moneybags off to open up new areas or release your new friends, so the gems are critical to completing the game. And finishing off an entire set of levels seems to be the key to... something special.

Let's just say you Gauntlet freaks will have your socks rocked off. =)

The game plays wonderfully, with each level having its own unique look and feel, and it offers more than enough game-time. After playing for the first two days, I was still less than a quarter of the way through the game, and considering how much I played... well, suffice it to say that Year of the Dragon won't just fly by. And it's got replay value to spare.


Difficulty:
In an extremely cool twist (mentioned in the Interview), the game actually adjusts its difficulty according to your play style. While I didn't really notice it in the main levels, I definitely saw it when I got stuck on one of the minigames -- escorting the bomb-carrying brothers to the caged eggs. I kept getting my timing off on the second brother, never quite hitting the right mushrooms and rocks, and finally at one point the game stopped regenerating the rocks. My job was made considerably easier, and I beat it before the major frustration sank in. The bosses were tough, on the other hand, although that could definitely be a result of me playing the levels themselves quite well. While not by any means an impossible game, Year of the Dragon has enough challenges to keep you busy. And sometimes finding all the eggs and gems is another challenge in itself.

Game Mechanics:
Use the Analog Sticks, Luke. They control Spyro to a tee, giving you precise movements. For the time that you need -really- precise movements, though (which are considerably less often than in the first title), you can feel free to use the digital pad.

The camera is well-behaved, although I put it in active mode right when I started the game. Only rarely does it do stupid things, and usually a slight movement in Spyro's position will fix that.

The menus are clear and understandable, and the options are well laid out. The Atlas is a little unwieldy, but it's mainly for freaks like me who try to do everything perfectly, so it shouldn't bother the other 95% of the population who don't really care how perfectly they play the game.

PS2: The game runs fine on the PS2, although I couldn't get it to work with the Fast load settings. I tried the Graphics Smoothing options, but as Spyro's never been too terribly texture heavy, it doesn't really make much of a difference. You don't get any real benefits with playing it on a PS2, but the black Monolith certainly fits the game. Er... maybe not.

While it's not really anything new, Spyro: Year of the Dragon is hands down the most fun I've had with a platformer this year. Only a few tiny issues like the rarely-wonky camera and occasional weird stick-spots (between the gondola and the ground, for example) will crop up for you, and they don't mar this near-perfect game. If you're at all a fan of the series, the genre, or games in general, you owe it to yourself to pick up Spyro: Year of the Dragon. It's a flamin' good time. Ook ook!


-Sunfall to-Ennien, GameVortex Communications
AKA Phil Bordelon

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