Activision is no stranger to video games with quirky peripherals, having kickstarted the “living room full of plastic instruments” craze with Guitar Hero. But that seems almost amateur compared to Activision’s latest creation, Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure.
Skylanders blends toys and video games in an innovative way, with the game’s heroes represented by real world figures. Placing one of the 32 available figures on the included Portal of Power brings them into the game, unleashing their unique abilities as playable characters. In the game, they can level up and improve their abilities, with that character data then saved back onto the memory chip within the figure.
The most unique feature though is that your characters (and their statistics and achievements) can travel from console to console, and even to the 3DS and PC, which means that if you have friends with their own copy of Skylanders, regardless of the system it’s on, you can play the game with your Skylander, on their system. Or more appropriately, your children can, since this game is made for them.
But don’t take that to mean that Skylander’s is only for children. While it may be geared to younger gamers, there’s still something intriguing and undeniably fun about the entire concept. It may seem odd at first to be physically swapping out figures instead of just using an on-screen menu, but it quickly evolves from gimmick to a fun and strangely enjoyable part of the game.
The Parent Perspective
While the game is rated E10+, the perfect audience for Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure is probably boys in the 8-10 age range, who will appreciate the game and the collectible quality of the toys. This is an action adventure game with a certain amount of cartoonish violence and the occasional bit of potty humor, plus plenty of age appropriate gameplay.
And that leads into the biggest concern for parents: the cost of Skylanders. Initially, the game costs $70, 10 dollars more than a regular game, though that is offset by the inclusion of three Skylander figures and the Portal of Power, which plugs into the console’s USB slot.
The game and toys are designed around the elemental powers of Earth, Air, Fire, Water, Life, Undead, Magic, and Tech, with the heroes of each wielding elemental abilities and special areas and treasures that can only be accessed by a character of a specific type. So while the game does come with 3 characters representing Tech (Trigger Happy), Water (Gill Grunt), and Magic (Spyro), and it can be completed with just those three, that also means there are five different types of areas that can’t be accessed out of the box. Do you think your children are going to be happy with that?
Thus, to be able to fully access all parts of the game, you’re looking at roughly another $40-50 (at $8-10 per figure, though three packs are available for $20) to be able to open up everything in the game. But of course, what child is going to be content with just one of each type, especially when the characters are as cute and unique as in Skylanders?
Within the game, there are also subtle and not-so subtle prompts to buy more. For example, if you have one Tech character and then scan in a second one, you’ll see your elemental powers increase. Scan in a third one, and those powers rise again. Scan in a fourth? You get the idea. Accolades offer experience point bonus multipliers for a number of different achievements, most notably the ability for children to convince their parents to purchase more and more Skylanders.
With over 30 Skylanders figures to collect, not counting store exclusives and the inevitable rare releases, plus the eventuality of more characters, the cash investment for Skylanders can get quite pricey. If your children’s friends also have the game, regardless of the system, parents can always try to coordinate purchases so that the two families can collect all eight elements between them, but ultimately sharing only goes so far, and most young gamers will want to build their own collection.
Another potential downside is that storing the character data on figures is potentially troublesome knowing that children, especially 8-10 year old boys, have a tendency to break and lose their toys.
To fairly review Skylanders, it’s important to separate the toys from the game, and consider each separately. Since the toys are the much cooler part of the equation, lets start with the game.
Skylander’s: Spyro’s Adventure is well-designed to take advantage of everything the Skylanders technology can do, though it does feel somewhat simple and dated in execution. What we’ve got is fairly generic platforming, with characters who are firmly routed to the ground (unless you unlock certain powers) in levels that are largely linear, save for the special areas that are accessible by specific types of characters.
You are the Portal Master, with the ability to bring the Skylanders to life, and use them to fight the evil and diminutive Kaos, whilst saving the Skylands. That means traversing a number of levels accessible from an ever-evolving overworld, solving relatively easy puzzles, and fighting plenty of enemies. The graphics are bright and colourful and perfectly match the aesthetic of the toys, though on their own they feel closer to something we’d see on the Wii, rather that exploiting the real horsepower of the 360. The levels span a number of geographies, and by way of comparison, it wouldn’t be unfair to think of Skylanders as a less ambitious, less fantastical Mario Galaxy.
There is plenty of voicework from the game’s supporting characters, with a script that is extremely heavy on the jokes that will appeal to younger gamers. And when I say heavy, I mean that it seems like there’s not a straight line of dialogue to be found, with everything punched up with at least some small bit of groan-inducing humor.
Because Skylanders is geared to a younger audience, the difficulty is toned down quite significantly, providing a generally even experience. Controls are straightforward, and the camera (which you can’t control) is impressive in the way it manages to effectively frame the action without the usual 3D issues. Skylanders is a game that anyone can play and enjoy, but it’s definitely aimed towards a more specific youth audience.
Aside from the main storyline and its surprising abundance of levels, with multiple layers of objectives in each level encouraging replay, there is also a series of Heroic Challenges. These one-off levels, one per Skylander that you scan into your game, offer valuable rewards upon completion and are worth investing in time in. Thankfully, the difficulty is ratcheted up considerably, though as your character’s abilities grow, that increased difficulty wanes.
The gimmick of swapping out different figures is as seamless as it is brilliant, made simple with the very cool Portal of Power. To change characters at any point in the game, you take your figure off the portal and put another one on in its place. After a couple of seconds of transition, you’re right back into the game playing as the new character, complete with the accumulated experience and bonuses. Some levels offer bonuses for using certain types of characters, but as a general rule you are free to play with whichever of your Skylanders you’d like.
The game also supports two players, through the campaign mode or in head-to-head battle arenas, using the same character swapping dynamic, with two players sharing one Portal of Power. Co-operative gameplay is definitely fun and a real boost to the game, introducing an element of strategy in how you pair up characters, though since either player can swap in and out at will, the need for strategy is still fairly limited.
The figures themselves are very well made, with sculpting and painting that bring these virtual characters to life. There’s a wide variety of designs, from the lithe elven Stealth Elf, to a number of dragons, to heavyweights like Bash and Prism Break. Best of all, each character is unique, not just slight variations, and that carries over into the game, where each character has unique powers and personality as well. Outside the game, the figures have limited playability, as they are posed and lacking in articulation. As a result, they are really best suited as decorations, but very good looking decorations that deserve a place around your game collection.
While Skylanders is a new property, the familiar Spyro the Dragon has been added to the mix, and it comes across as somewhat odd. Spyro was originally created by Insomniac Games, who created three Spyro titles before moving on to PlayStation pillars Ratchet & Clank and Resistance. But while he was once a popular property, Spyro has waned over the years, with a series of less than notable titles put out by other developers.
So, he was an ideal place to be brought into the Skylanders fold (and truth be told, other than a lack of flying, the game doesn’t feel that different from Spyro’s original outings) as a semi-known property, kind of like a small budget movie bringing in a washed up star to headline. On one hand, it’s a marginal positive to anchor the game with a known character, but on the other hand, who exactly is Spyro appealing to? Original PlayStation owners? Not exactly the target market for Skylanders, nor is he going to be the kind of hook to entice them to buy for their kids. Ultimately, Spyro doesn’t really help or hurt the game, and he’s just one of 30+ characters you can use.
If Spyro’s Adventures aren’t enough, there will also be a whole online world available for children to explore. And it’s most definitely for children. When I created an account to check it out, the registration process asked for my parent’s email address. Proceeding from there just felt completely creepy, and the buggy experience was essentially non functional. I’m looking forward to seeing how this works when it’s up and running, but for now, treat it as icing on the cake.
The GamerPops Recommendation
The real success of Skylanders is not necessarily in this game, but in whether Activision can successfully build a long-term brand around these characters and concepts. In fact, Skylanders should only be considered a success if Activision can support it with a series of quality titles. Because thousands of parents out there who purchased these toys for their kids will be justifiably upset if this one game is it for Skylanders.
Whether that means more action adventure titles, a diversifying into other family friendly genres such as kart racing and party games, or perhaps even moving into a console based MMO experience, there would seem to be limitless possibilities for the Skylanders and the Portal of Power, and the more value Activision can build into these characters, the better it will be for everyone involved. That needs to happen also, because the Skylanders themselves transcend being a simple gimmick. The idea of swapping out characters on the fly works well and the dynamic gameplay that results keeps Skylanders fresh and interesting. It’s an idea that needs to continue to grow organically and not just through crass quickie sequels.
On its own merits, this certainly shoudn’t be the last we see of Skylanders. The mix between toy and game is as successful as it is innovative, and the Spyro’s Adventure game itself is fun, if not slightly easy. Hopefully this marks the first of many Skylanders adventures, but the potential to introduce this style of gameplay to other properties (imagine a Star Wars: Clone Wars or Marvel Superheroes game utilizing this toy/game crossover) creates a lot of future possibilities that could be lucrative for Activision and expensive for parents.
Despite my reservations about the potential costs that parents will incur, we’re going to stand behind our belief that Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure can definitely be worth the money. This is fun and unique entertainment for both younger audiences and the parents who can play with them, so long as those parents understand in advance just how much money that entertainment could ultimately cost.
A review copy was provided to GamerPops.
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ESRB Rating Summary
Rating: Everyone 10+
Content descriptors: Cartoon Violence
Rating summary: This is an action platformer in which players assume the role of whimsical creatures that must save their world from an evil villain. Each playable character uses elemental attacks (e.g., Magic, Water, Earth, Fire) to defeat robots, elves, and giant bugs; for example, dragons can spit fireballs, water creatures can shoot ice blocks, and rock monsters can toss boulders at enemies that generally disappear amid puffs of smoke. During some sequences, players use targeting crosshairs to fire “cartoony” projectiles at flying airships; successful hits are accompanied by small explosions.