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Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure

Score: 87%
ESRB: Everyone 10+
Publisher: Activision
Developer: Toys for Bob
Media: DVD/1
Players: 1 - 2
Genre: Action/ Adventure/ Family

Graphics & Sound:

A small part of me questions whether Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure really needs the Spyro named attached. The association with a well-known name is understandable and powerful - just ask Nintendo -- but it also comes with fan expectations.

Fans of Spyro's previous adventures should know up front Skylanders is not a proper Spyro game. The little dragon is playable, but he's just another character alongside the game's eclectic cast of critters. This may come as a slight disappointment, but the game is actually really good and able to stand on its own.

Skylanders's hook is the ability to pull real world figures into the digital world via a portal, a light-up base plugged into your 360's USB port. Seeing the incredibly detailed figures pop into the game world as incredibly detailed characters is a thing of wonder. If you can't manage to at least crack a smile the first time you see a Skylander on screen, you should probably let your inner child out of their burlap sack. It was easily one of the more impressive things I saw at E3 2011, and even now, it is a lot of fun to watch.

The rest of the game world isn't much of a slouch either. Every level has its own unique look and theme. There are the requisite water, forest and lava levels, though you'll also travel through a creepy old crypt, an ancient world built on magic and technology, and a battlefield. Even the "requisite" levels have some personality; for example, the forest level is dotted with giant tanks wielding chainsaws. Levels are also backed up by a rather slick soundtrack by Hans Zimmer, adding just a little extra polish.

I have very few complaints about Skylanders, though one is the amount of talking that takes place during the game. There are a few choice voices, such as Richard Steven Horvitz voicing Kaos in a very Invader ZIM-like fashion, but most of the time, I wanted people to shut up so I could jump into a dungeon and play.


Gameplay:

Skylanders is based around a clever story device. Skylanders are defenders of a distant realm called Skyland. Sometime in the past, Kaos was able to plunge Skyland into darkness by expelling the Skylanders to Earth, where they became figures. As the last Portal Master, you can summon Skylanders back to Skyland using your portal. It's a fun way to bring kids into the game, especially when characters on screen begin to directly address the player with the title, "Portal Master."

During E3 2011, I jokingly called Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure "My First Diablo," and I'd have to say the description fits. There are no randomly generated dungeons (though I would love it if there were) or randomized loot drops, though the core dungeon-running gameplay is there, alongside a touch of Gauntlet's accessibility.

Each level is a linear, top-down maze filled with enemies and various treasures. At any time during the game, you can place a Skylander figure on the portal, instantly transporting them into the game. Up to two players can play at the same time just by placing their figure on the portal. Better yet, figures are truly cross-platform; characters are compatible across all platforms. For example, I was able to use my collection on both my 360 and 3DS. Characters carried all of their stats between games, so I could build up a character on the 360, pop him into my 3DS and keep leveling him.

The figures are, admittedly, one of the game's hidden costs and may dissuade some parents from taking the plunge. The game comes with three characters, while additional characters are available in both stand-alone and combo packs. There are 30+ characters in all, though the entire game can be played with only the three starter characters. Not having a Skylander of a certain type will keep you from accessing certain secret areas, but only having a few won't keep you from seeing the game through to the end.

As to the costs - I'll leave that as a personal decision. On the plus side, kids can play with the characters outside the game like normal action figures, so it isn't much different than buying other toys. I limited my collection to one figure of each type (eight figures total, not counting the three that came with the 3DS version) and was able to unlock everything. Additional "Adventure Sets" are also available, unlocking new in-game content. Like the toys, you don't have to buy the sets, but they're a fun way to keep the adventure going, both in and out of the game.

As much as I like the concept of expanding the game by purchasing new figures, I had some trouble finding incentive to keep playing once everything is uncovered. Granted, I had the advantage of a disposable income and access to lots of toys, so I could blast through everything at once, missing out on the thrill of getting a new figure and unlocking new areas. Still, I wish there was some sort of randomized dungeon option or something else to keep me coming back.

Beyond the Story Mode, players can also import their figures into a Battle Arena. Here, two players can pit their Skylanders against each other in a trap-filled arena. It's fun, especially for fans of the brawler Power Stone.


Difficulty:

Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure is built more around the idea of collecting everything in a level rather than making it through to the end. With the exception of a couple of boss fights, levels are pretty easy. I only remember having a Skylander knocked out a handful of times, and even then, it was usually because I was trying to play with a Skylander whose level was a little too low for the challenge.

One of the few caveats to the system is the more characters you own, the more retries you get. Once a Skylander runs out of health, you can replace them with another. If you're out of figures, you have to restart the level. This isn't an issue during most levels, though I had to cycle through most of my collection during some boss battles. I was down to my last Skylander during the final fight with Kaos, and even then I barely made it.

However, in order to really complete an area, you need to find all hidden objects and complete a par time. Completed goals carry over between plays, so you can tackle each one at a time. Uncovering all hidden objects is usually just a matter of having the right element at the right time, though some hiding places are a bit obtuse. Hitting par times is the more difficult goal to complete, but doable.

Between levels, you can take your Skylander through a series of Heroic Challenges, which earn their name. None of the Challenges are easy and some are just unreasonable. In one, you have to kill green monsters without killing purple ones. Not only are you given a strict time limit, you have to hunt down packs of green monsters through a labyrinth. First, separating the two is hard, but the purples will jump on your back, ticking down your health. You can shake them off, but doing so counts as a death. You're only allowed two accidental deaths before you have to restart.

Puzzles, which mostly involve pushing blocks into place, are challenging enough to make players think, but never overly challenging. The one exception might be the lock puzzles, which have you flipping a box so a green monster hits a series of lights. Older players should be able to figure out most solutions; younger players may require some help.


Game Mechanics:

Getting back to the "My First Diablo" comparison, all Skylanders gain experience points by defeating enemies and level up after hitting certain number totals. New levels unlock new abilities, which you can purchase using gold found while exploring areas. In addition, hats are hidden in levels, granting additional stat boosts. You can also augment your character further by completing the already mentioned Heroic Challenges, though these boosts will be hard fought.

I think the most striking aspect of Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure is how unique each of the 30+ characters are. With the exception of a handful of repainted characters (Spyro, Dark Spyro and Legendary Spyro are the same character in-game, for example), all have unique move sets. Some are melee or ranged only, while others have access to both types of attacks. Others, like Zap, can quickly glide through levels while Prism Break can burst through rocks/ crystals without a pickaxe. It would have been easy to push out a hundred figures with similar moves, so it is great to see that developer Toys for Bob went the extra mile to make sure every character is a different experience.

Combat is straightforward, though I did have a few issues with ranged attacks. With melee attacks, I could hit whatever was in my way, but it's a little harder to land ranged attacks on your intended target. Projectiles lock on to whatever is in front of you, though I would have liked the option to aim. This would have helped a lot during the "Green Monster/ Purple Monster" challenge. Some sort of strafe option would have been welcome, though I can see where that might be too overpowering in some situations.

Skylanders has an accompanying website where you can register your Skylanders and play with them in a handful of browser-based adventures. In the online game, you can play through mini-games, like an Angry Birds clone or shooting gallery, build your own personal Skyland or visit friends. It's a cool addition and adds just a little more value to buying characters.

Skylanders is a major risk from a company usually accused of playing it safe. There's no guarantee the idea will take off, but after playing through the game, I really hope it does. Skylanders is the sort of thing I would have flipped over when I was nine. Actually, based on staff reactions, its something even big kids can get behind. I'm still not completely sold on some aspects, but it's a solid offering and I can't recommend it enough.


-Starscream, GameVortex Communications
AKA Ricky Tucker

Related Links:



Nintendo 3DS Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure Microsoft Xbox 360 Air Conflicts: Secret Wars

 
Game Vortex :: PSIllustrated