Presentation is a great indicator of what to expect with Skylanders: Giants. The first game looked great, but somehow developer Toys for Bob has found a way to refine nearly every aspect Ė from visuals to sound Ė something theyíve also managed to do with nearly every aspect.
Skylanders: Giants has the same visual impact as the first game. The super detailed figures pop into the game and look every bit as good as the real life figure standing on your Portal. Considering the glut of "realistic and gritty" games on the market, the bright, cartoon-y characters are a welcome relief. As with the original game, if you canít muster up a smile the first time you see a Skylander pop up on screen, let your inner child out of their burlap sack.
Skylanders: Giants makes it doubly hard not to crack a smile with its voice cast. For the first time, all Skylanders talk. There isn't a lot of dialogue -- vocals are mostly limited to key moments -- but that didn't stop Toys for Bob from assembling a great cast. Richard Steven Horvitz (of Invader Zim fame) returns as Kaos, and is joined by the likes of Kevin Sorbo, Bobcat Goldthwait and George Takei as Kaos' ancient robot ally.
Compared to the first game, levels are better themed. Youíll see typical fantasy settings like castles and enchanted groves, but youíll also travel to an oilrig, a few underground caverns and even fight aboard a hunted airship. I also love how well soundtracks click alongside the visuals. You can check out my review of the gameís original score for a more in-depth look, but in-game or out, it is great. Thereís also a neat cross-fade when tracks switch, so make sure you run around the airship a bit to hear it in action.
Skylanders: Spyroís Adventure was based around a really clever story device. All of the figures are mythical saviors who were banished by Kaos, ejecting them into the real world. As Portal Master, placing figures on the Portal summons them back into the Skylands, allowing them to reclaim their rightful place.
Skylanders: Giants goes meta-Inception with its story, introducing a wacky, and even more interesting, layer of lore. The now banished Kaos wakes up in a Toy Store and uses a Portal from an in-store display for Skylanders to jump back into the game, where he can cause problems for Portal Masters and their collection of Skylanders. This time, Kaos has hooked up with a race of ancient robots (the one-time rulers of Skyland) and is once again plotting to take over everything.
Skylanders: Giants sticks to the same basic fundamentals as the previous game. Levels are linear, top-down mazes packed with enemies, puzzles and lots of loot. One of the more staggering changes brought in with Skylanders: Giants is the amount of content available. I actually thing the technical term is "Metric Crap Ton." Levels are much bigger, and packed with lots of things to do and find.
These changes alleviate my biggest issue with the first game; once Iíd uncovered everything, there wasnít much of a reason to keep going back. First off, it takes much longer to find every little secret and "3 Star" a level. Previously, you could pick-up just about everything in a level in one or two tries. Secrets are much harder to find, so thereís more reason to re-play levels. It is a bit of a slog at times, but the rewards are almost always worth the trouble.
There is a downside to the amount of content, particularly when it comes to purchasing hats, Skystones cards, upgrades and new challenge levels. In Skylanders, players were usually flush with cash, rendering money relatively meaningless. In response, Skylanders: Giants gives you lots of stuff to buy, but also cuts down on the amount of money received during levels. The two donít mesh well, introducing a "grind" element where youíll need to go through levels multiple times just to purchase one upgrade. It is much harder to develop your characters' abilities, especially if you swap them out often since each has its own private gold count rather than a shared pool.
The "Gold Grind" is a pain, but the amount of content keeps the game fun. As you travel through your adventure, youíll also pick up a crew of misfits offering even more to do. One unlocks Heroic Challenges, another unlocks Combat Challenges and still another opens up a short turret-based shooting mini-game. There are also opportunities to customize your airship.
Iíd be remiss if I didnít mention Skystones, second only to Nightmare Mode as my favorite addition. The fundamentals are similar to Triple Triad in Final Fantasy VIII. Cards are placed on a three-by-three grid one at a time. Each has a set of barbs on the side, denoting attack power on that side. The object is to control more spaces than your opponent by "attacking" their cards and capturing them. It is incredibly simple and a lot of fun once you get the hang of it. And, youíll get plenty of opportunity to play. Someone in every level will want to play you, either for fun or as part of a quest. Eventually, a pirate will join your crew, offering the ability to play whenever you want.
Another welcome improvement is the addition of four difficulty levels. The first game was a bit of a cakewalk, at least for older players. Skylanders: Giants gives more advanced players (and higher level Skylanders) more options. Easy is comparable to the original, while Normal offers a decent challenge. Previously, I was able to get through most levels without losing a Skylander. Here, getting a levelís "No Lives Lost" objective is slightly harder. Hard ups the challenge even more while Nightmare, unlockable after completing the game once, earns its name. Letís just say, every piece of food counts, so you might want to spend some time leveling up your Skylanders before heading into Nightmare.
As with the first game, more figures means more retries, though it doesnít become an issue until late-game boss fights. Fewer figures also means youíll end up locking yourself out of some level areas, depriving yourself of a few helpful collectables, like hats, which provide incredibly helpful stat boosts. Not getting these wonít put you at a severe disadvantage, but every little bit helps in Hard and Nightmare.
Heroic and Combat Challenges earn their names, mostly. Heroic Challenges are straightforward and, conceptually, really easy. However, most feature short time limits and confusing layouts, so you may need to play through them a few times to figure out a workable strategy. Success in Combat Challenges hinges on your Skylanderís level and upgrades, so you may need to grind a little bit longer to complete them all.
Ultimately, the Skylanders figures are the core of Skylanders: Giants, perhaps even more so than the first game. The range of Skylanders available has been expanded. You can still use your original figures, which can now reach level 15. You can also pick up "Series 2" versions of the original cast. You canít transfer stats between original characters and their updated versions, though the new versions have new poses and an expanded upgrade tree, including a brand new "Wow-Pow" attack, which helps a lot. Older characters are viable, though new levels donít come with new abilities. It is a downer, but I was able to get through the game with a team composed of primarily original figures without much trouble.
You can make up for the original characterís deficiencies by completing Challenges and by purchasing hats and charms. Both offer noticeable statistical boosts, so even though you canít get new abilities, you can still ensure they are powerful enough to get you through the game.
LightCore Skylanders are another neat addition. The figures light up when placed on the Portal and produce a powerful area attack when they enter the game. Skylanders: Giants also introduces a new cast of Skylanders. I havenít had a chance to try out all of the new faces, but there is some refinement compared to the first group figures. Fizz Pop, a new Magic Skylander, attacks with a set of potions that produce random effects as you run up his upgrade tree. He can also transform into a beast, opening up a set of melee attacks. Some characters feel similar (Gill Grunt and Jet-Vac, for example), but it is neat how different each feels.
Then there are the Giants, the Hulks of the Skylanders universe; useful when the Avengers need to smash something or require an extra boost of strength, but still limited in usefulness. Giants can take on anyone and are needed to reach some areas, but even with a few stat boosts, they are too slow for my tastes. Despite their limited use, Giants are just as varied as the other Skylanders. Crusher, an Earth Giant, is proficient in melee while the starter Giant, Tree Rex, gains a powerful ranged beam attack. As to whether or not you want to invest time in developing an army of Giants, it is a personal decision, but you only need one to get through the game.
There are a few compatibility restrictions with figures. All of the original figures can swap between Skylanders and Skylanders: Giants, though they are capped at Level 10 while in the original game. LightCore figures of original characters can travel to the first game, but are treated like normal Skylanders. Giants and the new faces are limited to Skylanders: Giants. Check the compatibility chart below for a full rundown.
I should also note Skylanders: Giants comes in two packages. One, the Starter Kit (which I reviewed) comes with a new Skylander, Jet-Vac, a Series 2 Cynder and one Giant, Tree Rex. Youíll also receive a new Portal of Power, though you can use the original Portal if youíd rather. Players who choose to stick with their original Portal can pick up a pack that includes Tree Rex and the game.
Additionally, Skylanders figures will come in waves -- so not every figure on the back of the box will be available at launch. I don't have access to a complete list of when each wave hits, but during my studio tour I was able to see the full line-up and, well, lets just say I'll be passing through the Skylanders section each time I go to the store.
Combat is tighter, but hasnít changed too much. Ranged attacks seem more accurate compared to the first game. I want an aiming mechanic as much as I did in Skylanders, so thatís enough of an improvement for me.
I had a few issues with Skyanders: Giants, but the improvements over the original are noticeable and notable. Anyone who enjoyed the first will love it and the curious should take the opportunity to give it a try. Regardless of your feelings towards the "Collectable Figure" aspects, Skylanders: Giants is a solid offering.