There is a good chance you have heard of Skylanders. There is a decent chance you have seen the huge Skylanders display in the electronics section of a retail store. Given how successful the first game was, there is an equally good chance you already have a small army of these plastic fantasy figures standing guard around the gaming consoles in your home.
So if you are a parent, there is a great chance that you are reading this to see if you should buy your young child Skylander’s: Giants. Yes. There, I’m saving you a bunch of reading (please keep reading). Yes, buy the starter pack. Yes, the $75 one with the three characters. Even if your kid already has the first game, this is the most figures for your money and hey, back up portal thingy. Your kids will love it, your wallet will hate it, but frankly what do your kids ask for that is actually cheap? What’s that? Candy, you say? Yeah, how’re those dentist bills treating you?
If, however, you are not a parent but instead just a curious gamer we need to chat. Look, real talk time. This game can get expensive very fast. You have your normal figures that will run you about $25 in 3-packs, $15 for the new giant figures, or $12 for the special “lightcore” figures. Not to mention there are certain figures that have retailer exclusive “legendary” versions. That’s on top of buying the game itself. So, if you are a serious collector, you could be looking at spending more on this single game than it probably cost you to get the console you are playing it on. Before you get all grumpy pants, here are some things to consider:
* You can complete the entire game and all of the achievements/trophies with everything you get in a starter pack, so you do not truly have to buy more figures.
* Every figure is a completely unique character. There are no recycled character models, no recycled powers, and (beyond those legendary variants) no simple palette swaps.
* Each character has its own distinct leveling tree and stats, as well as character specific challenges (called heroic quests) to complete.
* Each character comes with a code that unlocks that character for their internet site that has even more games to play.
* Unlike standard DLC, you can resell/trade these figures if you wish as they are true physical items.
* Also, unlike standard DLC, these figures are platform universal. Level one up on a PS3, take it to your friend’s place and it will work on his Wii version. All of the information is saved to the figure itself so no matter what you play it on, all progress will be stored with the physical character.
So before getting into the review proper, I'm going to just go ahead and address the most common complaints that the gaming community has over the Skylanders franchise:
It’s expensive! - Well yeah, but so is everything that has ever been collectible ever. Magic the Gathering? Good luck not going bankrupt.
It’s manipulative in getting kids to want more toys! - Have you watched any cartoons that have existed in the last three decades? Transformers, G.I. Joe, My Little Pony, Adventure Time, Thundercats, X-men, Ben 10, Justice League, Batman, Spider-man, freakin’ Star Wars Clone Wars. What do all these things have in common? Right, you can find them in the toy aisle as well as on the TV. Children are giant balls of want and companies have been trying to get their parents' money since there was such a thing as money. This is just the first video game franchise to figure out a formula that actually works on every level.
I want a real Spyro game! Yeah, but Spyro hasn’t really done well since Insomniac stopped developing his games back in 2002. Yes, it has been just over a decade. Just be glad he’s in something relevant that is making a ton of money. (Unlike say Mr. Bandicoot) This is the best chance we have of getting another Spyro game; one that is funded by Skylanders profits.
Ok? Are we good now? Can we stop using the same old complaints over and over when talking about this game? It isn’t going away. The price obviously doesn’t bother enough people to slow down its sales. Can we please just talk about whether or not the game itself is fun? Please?
Smashing evil elfish lancers in the face with a rock hurled by a large ent = Fun
So, Skylanders: Giants is a direct sequel to Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventures. It plays exactly the same as the first - an action-RPG dungeon crawler. It has many colorful in-game characters and enemies as well as a charming world design and soundtrack. You can play the entire game single player or two player co-op. Beyond the story mode there is also a two player local versus mode that will allow players to show off their Skylanders head to head.
Every character starts out with a unique primary attack and special attack. As you battle enemies you will be able to collect experience orbs that level up your character’s stats, making them stronger and tougher. This time around the level cap is maxed out at 15 instead of the 10 of the first game. This also means you can bring in the Series 1 figures and get them to the new level cap too.
Giants is compatible with all of the Series 1 (green based) Skylander figures, so you can bring in any old friends you have. Like all figures, they retain their level, what powers they have unlocked, as well as whatever their player-given nickname or hat was when they were last used. The only difference is that now all of the Skylander characters are fully voiced, so those animal squawks and monster roars from the first game are now replaced with actual catchphrases and sayings. This does give them (and all of the new characters) a lot more personality so you will probably not feel too nostalgic for the old sounds.
There are a few understandable catches to this though. Series 1 figures will not be able to get additional abilities like their Series 2 (orange based) counterparts. Series 2 figures are sadly not able to be loaded into the first game, which is again understandable given how the system works.
As far as sequels go, this game has improved on the first one in almost every way. The graphics have a whole new level of polish, with smoother models, better lighting, and much improved animations in cutscenes as well as during gameplay. There was never any slowdown even with a full screen of enemies and switching between characters is still quite rapid (about 4 seconds).
Even though there are 15 chapters in the story mode this time instead of the 22 in the original, the game is actually longer. The level areas are bigger, with many more branching paths and hidden secrets to discover. Trying to complete the checklist to get a perfect 3 stars on each level will require multiple playthroughs and skillful playing, even more so now because the game has added difficulty levels. These levels can be adjusted at anytime so it can accommodate those times when a much younger child wants to play or it can be increased when a more skilled player wants to tackle the challenges alone. The levels basically shift how hard the enemies hit and how much damage they can absorb. Enemies attack in larger numbers and act a bit smarter this time around so the game will punish you for not leveling your characters up enough on the tougher difficulties.
There is more content this time around with additional mini-games you can play to help gain experience and gold for your characters. Arena battles, which are similar (but simpler) to those found in the Ratchet and Clank series, will force you to survive multiple waves of enemies while having to follow special rules. These can be frustratingly challenging when the difficulty is high but your character’s level is low. You will, however, find it is one of the faster ways to gain experience in the game and it unlocks very early in the campaign.
The other major mini-game is a collectible card game called SkyStones. About a quarter of the way through the story mode, you visit a carnival world run by a group of pirate werewolves (awesome) who teach you how to play this game. All around the game’s chapters you will run into characters that will trade prizes for winning a round with them. These prizes can include gold, more powerful game pieces, or even unlocking secret gates. The game is fairly simple to understand, but actually challenging and fun to play. This is my favorite new addition to the game and I would not be surprised if a real world version of this game materializes on toy store shelves.
You read right. Sadly the titular Giants characters are not my new favorite addition. They are ok, but there isn't much that makes them stand out from any of the other dozens of characters. They are obviously larger (both physically and in-game) but in many cases don’t seem to pack that much more punch than the regular-sized characters. What is most obvious is that they are slower. Much slower. Groups of enemies will run circles around them and, on top of being a bigger target, this typically means that when the going gets tough the giants fall down. There are certain doorways and paths that require a giant to unlock, but beyond that I really never felt that rewarded for using them. What I’m saying is maybe just stick with the one they give you in the starter pack and don’t feel too obligated to “collect them all”.
Two Giants enter. Only one gets purchased.
My other complaints are more minor annoyances with some of the design choices that have been repeated from the first game. You still can’t jump except at pre-set jump pads, which might make level design simpler but I can’t help but imagine how much better the actual combat would be with the addition of aerial moves. It is nice that all the gold collected by a character is saved to that figure, however there is still no way for you to trade your coins between characters. You could have a few thousand gold on one character you have already gotten all the upgrades for and another character that is a few thousand short of their next upgrade. Sure there are more ways to earn gold than the last game but, the characters are all part of the same team, right? So why isn’t there a sort of bank that you can deposit gold into and withdraw from with someone else?
Why can’t we have more than two players at a time? If they allowed the world to scale correctly this would be an amazing Gauntlet-style game. You can fit about five figures on the portal at once, so it isn’t a space issue. Hopefully (since this is the last game that will have to be compatible with the Wii) they will be able to take advantage of the beefier processing and get some 4 player co-op going. Plus that would turn the Vs mode into a Skylanders version of Powerstone.
My final complaint is that even the fastest characters in the game have slower than satisfying movement speed. You know how fast Mario walks in 2D games when you aren’t holding down the run button? That’s about how fast these guys move. Sure, eventually some of them get charge moves that will make them go a little faster for a couple seconds, but in general it always feels like the characters are just strolling everywhere. Hey guys, the world is in peril. How about picking up the pace?
Those complaints, however, are really just nit picking. Almost everything about the game is improved in the sequel and the game is still way more fun that it has any right to be. The script and dialogue are roughly a million times better than the painfully kindergarten-level puns of the first game. Also, you can skip all of the dialog and cinematics this time if you wish. I experienced much joy and happiness discovering this.
So that’s the deal. The game is fun and plays solid. The characters are unique and bursting with personality. The content is extensive and rewarding to unlock. The new difficulty settings will make sure most skill levels are satisfied by the experience. Really, while I still wish the additional figures were half the price they are (because obviously I would always want the things I buy to be cheaper) I still feel like they are a relatively fair price for what you get, especially if you have friends who also play.
Someone finally figured out how to merge toys and videogames together successfully; don’t be surprised if this is just the first of many sequels to come. And as long as they keep improving, that’s not the darkest future I can imagine.
This review is based on a PlayStation 3 copy of Skylanders: Giants.