Making creatures come to life and do battle for you isn’t exactly a new concept. Back on the Commodore 64 I made my chess pieces duke it out courtesy of Battle Chess. On the same platform I brought Dragons and Griffins to the battlefield thanks to Archon. More recently, camera/card game systems like Eye of Judgment have given us a completely new interface for virtual monster battling using a combination of the EyeToy and physical cards. With the success of Pokemon and other similar titles, it’s no surprise that we’ve got a collectible Spyro game on our hands. What is a surprise, especially after the lackluster performances of the last few Spyro titles, is that it is good!
“You mess with the dragon, you get the horns!” – Spyro
Spyro goes back to 1998 on the original PlayStation. In fact, there are 13 games that include the little purple dragon, including the subject of this review – Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure. Before we go into the storyline for the game, let’s talk about the hardware. First off, despite killing off peripheral titles like Guitar Hero and (GRRRRR) DJ Hero, Activision has got another peripheral-based title on their hands. Skylanders ships with a portal that plugs into your Wii, allowing you to warp in your creatures at will. The portal is a pedestal measuring about 6″ across that lights up and color-changes as you put new Skylanders on of it. It’ll fit a pair of Skylanders as well as some accessories that haven’t quite hit shelves yet. The box for the game includes three characters – Spyro, Gill Grunt, and Trigger Happy. These three characters are enough to beat the main storyline for the game, but that isn’t really the hook – there are 32 characters that you can use in the game in total! These characters are split between 8 elements – fire, water, air, life, undead, earth, magic, and tech. If you collect all 5 of one element, you’ll get additional bonuses for that team. (I didn’t get a complete set, so I’m not sure what those bonuses are though). Each character is about 8 bucks a piece courtesy of your local geek shop or Amazon, and for the review I received about 30 of them. Since they work cross-platform, I’ll use the same set of characters for my other platform reviews as well. Speaking of platform, it is very clear having played multiple versions that this game was made entirely for the Wii, and then ported to the Next-Gen systems.
The story is pretty simple – an evil Portal Master named Kaos destroys an ancient machine called the Core of Light using his Hydra. This banishes the Skylanders to Earth where they become toys. The Skylanders defeated, Kaos then uses Darkness to shroud the world. Rebuilding the machine becomes the top priority, and only the Skylanders and their Portal Master (that’s you!) can save the day. Powered by the elements I mentioned earlier, you have to travel to the 26 floating islands of the Skylands to capture pieces of the ancient machine to stop Kaos and the coming Darkness. The storyline is aimed at kids, and that comes courtesy of writers Alek Sokolow and Joel Cohen – two of the writers on the original Toy Story.
If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it hundreds of times – solid sound work makes a huge difference. When you are talking about kids games, most of the time you’ll get knock-off actors that are often close but no cigar. For Skylanders, we get Richard Steven Horvitz from Invader Zim playing Kaos, Patrick Warburton from The Tick / Family Guy / etc as Flynn, and Steve Blum handles things as Spyro. The voice work, as well as the cute little grunts and growls of the various Skylanders are handled perfectly. Warburton does a lot of the heavy lifting with his trademark crazy voice work, giving just enough zany to the proceedings without making it irritating for parents who have to listen to it. On the musical side you have Backdraft / The Rock / Batman Begins / Lion King / Gladiator / Crimson Tide / Inception / Last Samurai / CoD MW2 / Crysis 2 / Dark Knight Rises / etc super-composer Hans Zimmer at the helm. To say that the music is top shelf quality is understating things a little bit.
The gameplay for Skylanders is pretty simple to start – the levels are linear for the most part, but they get more complex and larger as you play through the game. In fact, later levels take a bit of skill to complete. The levels also have additional branches based on the powers of your other Skylanders. For instance, you can complete the basic line of a level using just about any character, but there are often locked areas that require a specific type of character to access. Pulling your Skylander off of the Portal and placing the requested Elemental type onto it will warp in that character immediately. All of the alternate areas have some special goodie at the end like a new hat, additional treature, or a new skill. Pulling in RPG-lite elements, the Skylanders all level individually up to level 10, giving them additional attack power and the ability to unlock new attacks and defensive moves. You can also collect coins to purchase upgrades. Each Skylander is completely different – they aren’t just pallet swaps. Some Skylanders fly and can unleash gears against their enemies, others use swords and shields, daggers, or can leave a streak of fire behind. In a nod to the awesomeness of Team Fortress 2, you can also unlock hats for your characters. There is nothing funnier than watching your water dragon slide along the landscape with a giant stat-boosting metal pot on his head for protection. Well…maybe the game ending – I won’t spoil it, but Kaos gets a good taste of his own medicine in the end.
Every new character you introduce into the game means another chance to try out new powers and attack types, but they also bring new challenge modes. The challenges are usually pretty difficult, but the rewards are often augments to your character’s attack power or health. There is a suggested character for each challenge, but I found that I was able to complete some objectives far easier with some of the other Skylanders in my stable. For instance, one challenge asked me to kill off a bunch of creatures, but not the purple ones. The game suggested I use a ranged character, but after failing it several times I snagged a melee character a blew right through it. The challenges are usually pretty carnage filled and almost always timed, so you’ll have to keep moving to get the job done.
Back to the game proper, you’ll spend most of the time exploring the individual floating Skylander islands. Occasionally you’ll get a minigame to break things up including some waggle-controlled items, controlling the occasional cannon, or shaking your Wiimote to open chests. You’ll also pick up quite a few keys to unlock gates, giving players the chance to mimic the key insertion and turning action. These little actions break what might otherwise become monotonous. Since the camera is self-sufficient, the game is very easy to control. Since the game supports drop-in/drop-out cooperative play for two players (simply drop another Skylander onto the portal!) this is a good thing as it simple for non-gaming parents to be able to easily join their kids for this adventure.
When a game is made for the Wii as the primary platform, something great happens. Simply look at the upcoming Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword to see just how beautiful a product you can produce on this hardware. Visually, Skylanders works very well. The characters are all bright and detailed, each having their own movement and attack animations. The environments are varied greatly, sometimes plunging you into a dingy dungeon, other times having you traverse a barren wasteland, or even trekking through a castle or jungle setting. Since each character is attuned to a specific environment type, this change isn’t merely cosmetic. The only downside is a fun one to have – you’ll become attached to your character and not want to switch away from them for long!
There is one area where you may find yourself switching characters – boss battles. In an interesting push to get players to build up their other characters (as well as purchase new ones), if your current critter is low on life you can simply swap in one that hasn’t been used in that level yet. This brings in a fresh fighter for battle, giving you a chance to polish off the boss without dying and going back to a checkpoint. The best part is that your Skylander keeps their level and such with them, so when you go to a friend’s house and put them on the Portal, they’ll warp in at full power!
Skylanders features local multiplayer in addition to the drop-in / drop-out play. The three modes are called Arena Rumble, SkyGoals, and SkyGem Master. In Arena Rumble players essentially deathmatch against one other with their hat-wearing critters – simple. SkyGoals is absolutely football, no matter how you slice it. Players pick up the ball and then run or toss it to their goal. You can knock the ball lose from the other player by using your attacks. Again – simple concept that just works perfectly with the universe. The third mode is a race to pick up 5 gems before the other player does, with attacks making the player drop gems they’ve already picked up. Since there is a paper/rock/scissors type system in place, certain elements will do better against others, so chose your Skylander wisely. All three modes give your Skylander the opportunity to shine, but there are also all sorts of power-ups and traps in the environment to give you an edge, even if you are the “wrong” element. Honestly, the only complaint that I have is that I have 4 Wiimotes and this game only supports two players. Football with 4 player multi would be a blast!
In the end, Skylanders knows exactly what it trying to be – a family friendly affair featuring cool creatures. As the purchasers, we can also see the “gotta catch em all” pull as well, but the little critters are just too darned cute to pass up. I now have a little collection of dragons on my desk, and based on my time with Skylanders, so should you.