Skylanders Spyro’s Adventure came out of nowhere last year to become the hottest selling toy of the holiday season. It sold out in droves, forcing parents to pay high scalper fees in order to sate their kids’ desires come Christmas time. The absolute fever pitch of Skylanders-mania surprised everyone; everyone, that is, except for Activision, who has decided to turn Skylanders into a yearly franchise (as they are wont to do). It’s a brilliant idea: give the kids a small taste for a reasonable price, and drum up desire within the game by leaving players hanging unless they buy more action figures. Skylanders Giants (which has dropped Spyro almost completely from the game, and is not even included in the Starter set) is this year’s addition to the franchise, complete with new figurines and updates to old ones, and its worth as a game comes entirely from how much money you’re willing to put into it.
As you travel through the different areas of the Skylands, you’ll take your ragtag group of eclectic creatures and pit them against various evil monsters whose sole purpose is to prevent you from making it to the end of a given level. It plays out like a dumbed down version of Gauntlet or Diablo, where you’ll guide your Skylanders through a series of challenges, fighting off bad guys, gaining experience points, levelling them up, finding hidden treasures, and solving some light puzzles (mostly relegated to pushing blocks around, though later levels tend to come up with some pretty novel ideas). It’s all pretty mindless, and nothing ever gets too challenging, but there is a surprising amount of variety on display here. With sections that borrow from on-rails shooters, a minigame very similar to the card game from Final Fantasy VIII, a boss fight that gave me flashbacks to Ikaruga (!!!) of all things, there are tons of surprises to be found in every level. It does borrow a lot from other games, but it handles most of these disparate gameplay ideas well enough to be entertaining. It’s not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, and the controls tend to feel stiff more often than not. Even so, there is a depth and entertainment level here that is sorely lacking from most children’s games.
This is all well and good, but there is one huge caveat with Skylanders and your ultimate enjoyment of this game hinges on whether or not you will buy into it. In order to see everything Giants has to offer, you have to spend money; quite a bit of it, actually. See, each Skylanders figurine has a chip built into the base, and when you place your figurine on the Portal of Power the portal reads the chip and loads the character into the game. All data regarding that character (experience points, stats, abilities, etc.) are saved onto the figurine itself, so intrepid youngsters can take their figurines over to a friend’s house and keep all their information intact. You can beat the game with the three main starter figures — you have to have one of the Giants at the very least, as there are certain barriers to progression that are only surmountable by them — but there are tons of hidden secrets in each level: there are hidden hats which provide stat bonuses to your Skylanders, Soul Gems which unlock hidden abilities, treasure chests which shower you in jewels, and other secrets. Many of these hidden items lie off the beaten path, to which you are barred passage unless you have a Skylander of the proper element. You get three Skylanders in the Starter Set: Cynder (a Death-based Skylander), Jet-Vac (an Air-based Skylander), and Tree Rex (a Giant Life-based Skylander). There are eight total elements, so in order to access all of the secret areas, you’ll need at least five more Skylanders to round out all of the element types. That’s about $50 in figures to access content already on the disc.
You will also find the game far easier the more figurines you have in your possession. Each Skylander is essentially one “life” in typical video game parlance; if it dies, you must retire it until you complete the level and switch to a different figurine. The more Skylanders you have, the more “lives” you have to complete a level. While the normal difficulty isn’t that hard, there is a harder difficulty level, and I imagine it can get pretty rough without having that safety net available. Also, certain areas contain affinities for different elements, granting strength and experience bonuses to Skylanders of that type and encouraging players to constantly be switching out their figurines rather than relying on one type to get them through the game. It can be a pain to constantly switch Skylanders back and forth because it has to be done by manually picking them up off the Portal (whose cord is only so long) and put a new one on, but it is nice to be able to physically interact with the characters you’re playing with on screen.
Skylanders Giants is an expensive proposition. To jump right in requires a willingness to buy into the whole concept that you won’t be able to do everything in the game without potentially dropping several hundreds of dollars into physical figurines to unlock content already available on the disc. If you’ve already made that investment from the first game this is kind of a no-brainer, as you get a pretty hefty adventure with a ton of secrets and unlockables and all of your previous figures carry over into the new game. What value you get out of Skylanders Giants is tied directly to how much you’ll be willing to spend on it and while it’s definitely pricey, the added value of a physical product that is actually a pretty well made and exciting piece of tech softens the blow a bit. The game itself is way more fun than it has any right being, and while it doesn’t pull off its concepts perfectly, it does manage to stay interesting throughout, with tons of clever little ideas and nods to other games. So parents, I warn you: your children’s new obsession has arrived, and it’s probably best not to fight it.