It's hard to imagine my childhood without toys. My room was full of the manly plastic awesomeness of the 80s: Thundercats, G.I. Joe, Transformers, Voltron, and DC’s Super Friends figures. By no small coincidence, these also happened to be the very same shows I would consume daily along with my morning cereal. Sure, there have been (and still are) plenty of shows that seem to exist mostly to sell the toys, but what about video games? You can find action figures and statuettes of videogame characters, but have they ever made a game that encouraged buying toys?
Enter Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventures, a video game that claims to “bring your toys to life.” You take on the role of “Portal Master”, with the power to control various Skylanders on a quest to save the world (of course). With over 30 different heroes to collect, you must build and control your army to retrieve the Eternal Elemental Power Sources from the evil Portal Master - “Kaos” - so you can rebuild the Core of Light.
You've got the Touch! You've got the Power!
Simply put, the game comes with a Wi-Fi 'portal' that can recognize the small plastic statues of the game characters and activate their digital counterparts for play. While this is the first game to use the Spyro license since Activision took over, don't let that mess with your expectations. Regardless of the subtitle, this is not a Spyro game, rather it is a game with Spyro in it.
He is one of the three starter figures
If you were to judge this game at first glance you would probably label it a platformer with a gimmick. However, in practice it is more of an action RPG dungeon crawler with a hook. Placing a figure on the “portal” and watching as that character appears on screen is (for lack of a better word) awesome. The characters are also cross-platform. Meaning if you play the PS3 version you can save that character’s stats to the figure, activate it in the 3DS version, and then visit your friend who has the Wii version and it will track the changes through each experience. Which, you have to admit, is pretty incredible.
Like I said before, the console game plays like a dungeon crawler, not a platformer. Heck, there isn’t even a jump button. You have a hub world and 24 levels, each of which has you working your way through waves of varied enemies looking for treasure, finding keys to unlock doors, and solving a few minor block puzzles. Your characters gain experience by defeating enemies and can spend their money on upgrading their abilities between levels. These levels and money are tracked separately for each character; there is no pooling resources. Each character has a basic attack, secondary attack, and will eventually unlock both a third attack and ultimate attack as they level up. There is even a sort of skill tree for each character that splits which attack they will specialize in after level 5. The abilities gained are quite robust and do give you a good reason to max a character out.
Psst! Elf girl! Always target the mage hiding in the back first.
You can tell a lot of work went into these upgrades to make them more than merely damage modifiers. There's a visual change, as well as a change in how the character controls. For example, one of the starter characters (a Water type named Gill Grunt) was my least favorite in the beginning. He was slow, his harpoon gun had a long reload time, and he had to stand in place while he used his water gun. His only saving grace was that he talked like a salty sea dog with a Scottish accent. Since you can rename your Skylanders I changed his to Cap’n McGill. By the end of the game, the good captain had become my favorite, gaining a jetpack that made him one of the fastest characters in the game. He was blasting enemies with a giant anchor gun and used a cannon that fired a powerful stream of boiling water and exploding starfish.
Single player has you only controlling one Skylander at a time. There is a two player co-op mode making this an excellent game for a parent to play with the kids. There is even a mini battle mode arena where you can have a 1-on-1 match. The co-op is not drop in/drop out, however, and you will have to return to the main menu to add or remove the second player. The co-op is also not online, and understandably so given how the game functions. Still, it's a nice addition and helps promote the idea of taking your collection to your friend’s house.
Boom shaka laka
A major part of the gameplay revolves around using the right Skylander for the right situation. This goes beyond how some characters are brawlers, while others are ranged fighters. There are currently 32 different characters planned (not including retailer-exclusive variants) that fit into eight different elemental types (Air, Earth, Fire, Water, Life, Undead, Tech, and Magic). Certain areas of a level may give bonuses to a character of a certain type. There are type-specific gates that can only be opened by a character of that type. There are also environmental barriers - namely only Water types can swim and only Fire types can walk across lava. Perhaps now you're just starting to glimpse at the evil genius in the game design, and why it's such a different beast to review.
Every copy of the game comes with three figures (one of which is always Spyro) for $70. You can make it through the whole game with just these three characters, though for this review I did get an additional three pack to bring my army up to six figures. Even though there are only 24 levels, they are longer than you might expect making completing the game around 20 hours. It's even possible to obtain all of the trophies/achievements for the game with just the three starters. The problem comes with just how often you run into a gate that requires a character of a certain type to open, not to mention the feeling of entering an area that tells you that “Undead Skylanders are strongest here” when you don’t have one. All the gates are side areas (usually leading you to a massive treasure hoard or a stat-boosting item). This is optional content, but gamers are a completionist lot and the checklist of objectives at the end of each level doesn’t help. Plus, the number of lives you have through each level is the same as the number of characters you have. You can buy more characters, either in 3-packs for $20, or in single packs for $8. So you are looking at a minimum of $108 to get the game and a character of every type in your army... and that would still leave you with only a fourth of all the characters.
Mo money, Mo ammo
What we are looking at is a new breed of the gaming peripheral, a sort of hybrid of collectable and add-on content. You get a new character to play and that gives you access to more areas of the map, as well as a pretty nice toy. They may not have articulation, but they are quality made little statues. The paint jobs are clean, the designs are inventive and distinctive, the construction is sturdy, and part of the price is the technology that is hidden in the base. There are even a few “adventure packs” that comes with a character, some special items, and a new world to travel to. At this point in time it seems a little pricey, but I would wager that we will be seeing more games from Activision in the future that support these figures. Only around half of the planned figures are even available for purchase at launch, so it would make sense for them to release the second half around the time of a second game.
I reviewed this game on the PS3 and the game looks much better than expected. The environments have a high-end cartoon quality, while the music and sound design are top notch. Excellent little touches like how each Skylander has a unique footstep sound (my favorite being my Water type making squishing sounds like he's walking on wet carpet). The enemies are just as varied as the heroes and can attack in surprisingly large numbers. The boss battles will have you dealing with “dark versions” of various Skylanders sent to destroy you by the evil Portal Master while you dodge different environmental hazards. The dynamic lighting and particle effects also help to bring the world to life.
I call the big one "Bitey".
It's not all entirely great though. I could have done without the story sections. I know they're targeting this at younger kids but the script is downright insulting to anybody over the age of four. The characters are your standard cartoon animal stereotypes; there's the mole that can’t see so well, the tomboyish catgirl, and the fishman who makes terrible fishing puns. The best example I can give you of how bad it gets is the skeleton character you meet named… ugh… T-bone. In response to another character he says, “Well hey, no skin off my nose. Get it? Because I’m a skeleton, and I don’t… you know… have skin.” I mean, there are bad puns and then there is the comedy killer of explaining the terribly obvious bad pun. Sadly, 90% of the cutscenes are painful and unskippable. The only enjoyable cutscenes are those that focus on the big bad Kaos as he is voiced by the always-fun Richard Steven Horvitz (Invader Zim). He put his all into the role and fans of the show will enjoy his “ultimate doom spells of doomish doom.”
At the end of the day, the entire toy/game experiment would be a failure if the game itself wasn’t fun. Frankly, this game is way more fun that it has any right to be. It's a bit on the easy side, but it is aiming for the younger demographic, and there are plenty of optional challenges to complete that will give you a run for your money. They could have gone the cheap route and made the characters mere palette swaps that all played the same, but each Skylander is fleshed out and unique. I, for one, am eager to see where this franchise goes next.