The mid-quel in Insomniac’s stellar trilogy innovates and excites, creating a modern classic platforming experience well worth revisiting.
World-building & Story
Taking place after Spyro saved the Dragon Realms in the first game, Spyro 2 shows the titular hero wanting some rest and relaxation after his victory. While travelling through a portal to popular holiday destination Dragon Shores, he instead gets pulled to Avalar – a peaceful land invaded by diminutive bad guy Ripto who immediately claims the area his own. It’s up to Spyro to work with the local creatures to rid Ripto and return tranquillity to Avalar.
Right off the bat, Spyro 2 establishes that storytelling is much more front-and-central than it was before. Although the overall plot is simple, it’s told through a number of stylish cutscenes that do a nice job of introducing characters and moving things forward. This extends to the levels – before you enter each zone, you’ll be treated to a humorous mini-scene showing the local creatures and the struggle they’re currently facing, which is a lovely touch to help flesh out Avalar.
The biggest change from the original title is the introduction of recurring side characters who are instantly likeable and memorable. There’s Elora, a softly spoken faun who acts as the guide through Avalar; Hunter the timid cheetah who helps Spyro recover orbs through his adventure and The Professor, who always seems to be losing things. My absolute favourite among the new cast is Moneybags, a pompous bear who constantly blocks off Spyro’s progress only to charge him gems to get past. Each is a joy to talk to and – when combined with the inhabitants of each level – helps create the feeling of a living, breathing world.
This is amplified by some of the dialogue that takes place during your journey. Make no mistake – Spyro 2 is a very funny game – full of quip-y one liners and hilarious quest objectives (collecting party hats from invading enemies because “it’s just not a party without hats”). This extends to the intro and outro sequences to each level, which always show a funny (if sometimes disturbing) scene.
Yet its greatest triumph is in its world-building. You might come across one level where you help birds stockpile munitions, only to jump into another level where you help slugs defend from those same invading birds. My favourite example is a series of side quests in Collosus involving ice hockey, then in a later level you’re introduced to a set of characters who need your help because they’re going to be late for that same ice hockey match. Moneybags is a particular highlight of these, often saying he’ll use the money you pay him to set up a burger stand in one level or buy a condo in another. Everything is linked in one way or another, to the extent I’ve never really seen in this genre.
Presentation & Sound
Using the same engine as the previous game, Spyro 2 doesn’t make any major graphical leaps forward and doesn’t quite hold up to modern scrutiny – but as with its predecessor, some fantastic art design decisions mean it can still impress even today.
Spyro’s character model is still the best of the bunch, featuring a great deal of detail and animation. Thanks to the shift to Avalar there’s now a much greater range of NPC models and these are decidedly less detailed, with things like bottom-heavy mouths and blocky hands and feet. Yet, thanks to across-the-board brilliant designs ranging from cute archaeologist dogs to creepy floating wizards, everything still looks insanely compelling.
Environments remain largely similar to the first Spyro – a range of location from platforming staples like volcanoes and ice caves to much more inventive zones such as Buddhist-esque temples and mechanical fortresses. Each is littered with objects to interact with and plenty of exploration opportunities and alternate routes, making them a joy to look around.
But again, it’s the vivid use of colour that really makes the game memorable. From pastel purple skies and rolling green hills to bodies of crystal clear water surrounded by falling orange autumnal leaves, everything is so vivid and beautiful. Avalar is a fantasy world at its finest and really pops with bright shades and more mellow tones and it’s really a testament to the art design team at Insomniac that Spyro looks so good all these years later.
Yet the really killer part of the presentation – as with the previous game – is sound. First off, the voice acting is a significant step up – with Spyro sounding much less like a bratty teenager and star turns from new characters like the timid Hunter and scheming Moneybags. And once again, Stewart Copeland knocks it out of the park with the soundtrack – carefully crafted tracks that manage to be perfectly suited to the theme of each level while still being fantastically addictive to listen to. Throw in some new age experimentation for the home worlds – which works surprisingly well – and you’ve got an OST which gets close to surpassing the brilliant original yet manages to be its own beast.
Gameplay & Content
Taking the base established by its predecessor but expanding on it in new, exciting ways, Spyro 2 is everything a good sequel should be – an expansion that stays true to the core ideas yet moves the franchise forward.
Things start in a very familiar manner – you’ll find yourself in a home world with portals to other levels that acts as your hub for getting around. Spyro controls the same as previously – he can charge and breathe fire, as well as jump and glide, all of which are needed to make the most of finding every secret nook and cranny in each level. As a character, he’s very easy to get to grips with – responding instantly to inputs and feeling very smooth as he charges around areas.
From here, the game begins to innovate – by giving the game’s main collectable (gems) to Moneybags, you can unlock new abilities to progress in levels. The biggest of these is swimming, which allows zones to feel much bigger and more fluid as Spyro is no longer cut off by such artificial barriers such as a pool of water. Although the swimming controls can be a little finicky at times, they’re a hell of a lot better than some other early 3D games and I never found myself shying away from exploring underwater. Other skills include the ability to climb ladders or headbash open rocks, but these feel far more superficial and as such less fun.
Levels are designed to be as open as possible, funnelling you forwards to the goal but allowing lots of open exploration of wide plains. Enemies no longer drop gems as they did previously, instead serving to power up ‘super’ portals which grant Spyro a temporary power such as supercharge or invincibility, with the best being the return of flight which really allows you to discover every corner of each world. They’re smartly used too – for example, a supercharge powerup will often be placed in a level with lots of straights with occasional sharp turns that it can really get put to good use in.
This leads into the second new mechanic, which is orb challenges. Spyro 2‘s second collectable is orbs, which are found by exploration but more often are awarded for completing a humorous task for one of the creatures in the level you’re exploring. Challenges range from chasing off a horde of robotic wasps to riding a manta ray around an obstacle course and are always funny and challenging, which helps the game feel fresh and exciting.
A particular highlight is a quest in Mystic Marsh that tasks you with finding the Professor’s pencil and involves a long journey around the level multiple times, returning items to various characters – it felt completely unique and different in a platformer and was very well handled. Yet there’s so many other memorable things I did during my time playing – helping to find George the snow leopard; rebuilding a Shaman’s best friend from his stolen bones; dispelling evil spirits out of sacred statues etc. Spyro 2 manages to always keep things feeling fresh and new, which is a very good thing.
Speedways return from Spyro the Dragon and are as enjoyable as ever thanks to the panic-inducing drama of attempting to pass all the challenges in the time limit. Each now also has its own secret quest to find as well which continues the wacky variety, including highlights such as stealing treasure back from cat burglars or riding a remote control plane.
With that said, things don’t always hit the mark. Some challenges work better than others, with certain ones featuring slightly under-baked mechanics – riding through rings on a jet ski and head-bashing earth shapers stand out in this regard as being annoying rather than enjoyable, which is a shame as nearly everything else feels so perfect.
Fairly brief by modern standards, Spyro 2 will still take you a good while if you want to go for full completion (and you should so you can visit the awesome fanservice-laden Dragon Shores), but otherwise can probably be completed in a couple of afternoons. Thankfully there’s nothing as frustrating as the multiple charge pads from Tree Tops here and most things can be worked out with a little critical-thinking and experimentation, which makes the game a very worthwhile exxperience.
Insomniac demonstrated their flair for game design with Spyro 2, creating a platformer sequel that keeps the core elements of its predecessor in tact while expanding and adding a variety of new ideas, nearly all of which work stunningly well. The shift in tone from a quiet, solitary adventure to a more fun, friendship-driven journey is incredibly well judged and the new characters add a great amount of depth, making an overall package that’s as good now as it ever was.