Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure [Game Review]

Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure is insidious. I almost hesitate to recommend it because of the potential cost should a child become seriously hooked on the game, but it’s hard to deny just how fun the whole experience really is. Activision took a huge risk with Skylanders, and it paid off with a unique game that the whole family can enjoy.

Skylanders comes in various versions for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Wii, PC/Mac, and Nintendo DS. Some bundles have different figures, but all of them are essentially the same. At the heart of the experience is the game itself: a colorful adventure which involves exploration, fighting, some light puzzle solving, and plenty of funny characters.

If that’s all Skylanders was, then it would be a perfectly good example of a juvenile action/adventure game, and nothing more. But Skylanders adds toys to the mix create something fresh. Each starter set comes with the game itself, a “Portal of Power” base, and three little figures representing characters from the game. The portal attaches to the game machine either via a wireless USB receiver or a wired connection, then lights up. For a character to “enter” the game, its matching toy must be placed on the portal, whereupon it pops into the landscape.

Thus, every base package comes with three playable characters, each representing a different kind of elemental power: fire, water, air, earth, life, tech, magic, and undead. Only certain powers can unlock certain areas of the game, and here’s where the insidious part comes in. Although it is perfectly possible to play the entire main plot of the game with just the three basic characters, certain other areas of the game world are locked off, and can only be accessed by purchasing toys with a particular power.

Right now, there are 37 different characters representing the 8 different elements, and more to come. At $8 a throw, simply unlocking the entire game will cost as additional $40, and let’s not even talk about kids who want a complete compliment of figures.  And good luck even finding the figures. Since Skylanders was a huge Christmas hit, it is impossible to buy some figures without paying scalper’s prices that can go as high as $50.

But does this serve any purpose other than driving parents insane and separating people from their cash? Actually, yes, it does. Each character can be upgraded as he goes about his adventures, and that data is saved to the figure itself using an RFID chip. A child can then bring a favorite figure to a friend’s house and it will retain all its levels and progress. Even better, swapping out figures is not merely integral to the gameplay, it’s fun. Kids love developing their little characters, and then watching them warp from the real world and into the game world, where each has some skills that are necessary for different parts of the adventure.

A lot of the action involves traversing various landscapes, collecting things, opening gates, and fighting foes. The game functions equally well as a solo game or in co-op mode, and feel a lot like the Lego game series. Different characters function better in certain environments, so as you enter a wet area, for instance, the narrator will inform you that a “Skylander of the water element” will function better there.  There’s a straight path through each level, culminating in a sequence of arena battles that pit the player against waves of enemies, traps, and other Skylanders.

There are also plenty of hidden areas, bonuses, money, hats, and other items to discover, adding greatly to the replayablity factor for those who want to earn a perfect score. None of it is terribly hard, although some encounters may take a few repeat tries. If a Skylander is knocked out during a level, it can be replaced instantly by putting a different figure on the portal. Because of this, some levels (particularly late in the game) become wars of attrition, with the game who owns more figures able to last longer.

Some special expansion packages even come with “powerup” figures and whole new levels than can be added into the game. Thus, the Darklight Crypt ($20) includes Ghost Roaster (a powerful Skylander), the Crypt level, an hourclass figure that slows time, and a potion figure that heals characters. For example, if you place the potion toy on the portal along with Ghost Roaster, he’ll heal over time.

Production is remarkably slick, with a script by Toy Story co-writers Alek Sokolow and Joel Cohen, and a musical score by Oscar-winning composer Hans Zimmer. Voice acting is very strong, and the script is often quite clever and funny. And, although Spyro’s supposedly the star of the show, you’d never know it. He’s one of the playable characters, but his name is never mentioned and he’s not particularly powerful.

Skylanders integrates the collecting/upgrading mania of Pokemon into the game realm using toys, which is a marketing trifecta. Parents may justifiably rage at the cash grab it represents, but kids (and quite a few adults) are just loving it. It’s just about the best game on the market for parents and kids to play together. If it wasn’t so darn fun, it would be unforgiveable.

Rating Summary

Artistic Quality: B+

Content: Cartoon Violence

ESRB 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 plant creatures can fire pineapples at enemies that generally disappear amid puffs of smoke. During some sequences, players can toss “cartoony” projectiles at nearby enemies, resulting in small explosions.

ESRB Rating: Every 10+

Recommended for: Kids and families

UPDATED: Regular reader Victor posts a link to a Make interview with Skylanders tech engineer Robert Leyland that has some great pictures, including a base prototype made from sink and toilet parts. Make is a great publication and site.

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About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.

  • victor

    Agreed: the concept behind “Skylanders” is truly diabolical. Santa brought the Wii version of the game and around a dozen Skylanders figures and they were so much fun we needed to run out and snap out the few remaining Skylanders on the shelves before anyone else did. Another bithday, and we found ourselves the proud owners of the 3DS verison (Dark Spyro!!!) which is a great way to level up characters quicky and get lots of new hats, but you can’t buy powers or collect money in that version, so you have these level 10 characters with no abilities when you import them back in. Anyway, we’re now at around 26 figures, 3 adventure packs, and fortunately the kids’ interest is starting to wane… just looking for Zook, Wham-Shell, Dragon’s peak at this point… So, we’ll probably have our collection complete just before Giants comes out this fall and the cycle begins anew.

    I can’t blame Activision, though (they gave us a great Ghostbusters game back in ’84). They took a big risk on the product, and it paid off for them (it’s such a great concept that I’m glad it worked out for them). If you haven’t seen it already, you might enjoy this article on Robert Leyland, the technical engineer behind the hardware (with some great prototype pics!).

  • Thomas L. McDonald

    You’re in deep, and there’s no coming out now. Great piece you linked to. Loved the picture of the base prototype. (We’re big Make fans around here.)

    I was able to play Giants and it looks great. Lots of innovation in the the way the figures interact with the environment. Snapped a couple of pictures at their booth. They had huge Skylanders on display:

    Also snapped up the metallic Cynder show-special figure, which was actually GETTING $200 on eBay that day. I don’t sell show promos because it’s unethical, and I wouldn’t have because part of the reason I’d gone to Toy Fair that day was to get my daughter the figure, but it was tempting:

  • Thomas L. McDonald

    By the way, do you play it along with the kids? Like the Lego series, it’s a great parent-kid experience. My daughter couldn’t finish the end until we tackled it together, and we were there working out strategies, swapping characters, healing, etc. Very exciting and fun experience. Parents who aren’t gamers at all could really enjoy it. She was overjoyed when we finally beat it.

  • victor

    Yeah! I remember seeing the Dark Cynder figure on your games blog. Cynder is a great character, and that is definitely a sweet paintjob. I do play the game with my kids, actually (in fact, they won’t play it unless I’m there to play it with them — something about the five year old intentionally sabotaging the 10-year-old every time they play by pressing against the edge of the screen while the 10-year-old is getting whaled on by enemies so he can’t escape — and don’t get me started on the whole “changing characters every 10 seconds” thing). It is a blast and they get so excited whenever I bring home a new character (it helps that the toys themselves are so cool). We’ve been pacing ourselves through it, taking time to do all of the Heroic Challenges. And now that you mention it, it is rather a lot like the Lego Star Wars games (our older kid cut his teeth — almost literally! — on the original Lego Star Wars back in 2005). I’m glad to hear that Giants is sounding like it has some fun twists up its sleeves. It would have been so easy to do a rush-job “version 1.5″ sequel (“Chaos Returns!” ) and it’s to Activision’s credit that they didn’t go that route.

    I still wonder though, if the game hadn’t been such a success, would they ever have released the Waves 3-5 figures, or just dropped them down the memory hole (“Privew Camo? Too bad you can’t buy him! Ever!”).

    But yes, to any parents reading this who haven’t picked it up yet: pick up the starter pack and a three-pack or two of figures (enough to make sure you have at least one of each “type”) and play it with your kids. You will have a blast!

  • The Crescat

    My son saved his money for 6 months and traded in old games to acquire this on his 3ds. We don’t have a TV so we can’t play the Wii version. But he loves taking his characters to his friends house and playing them there and they use his DS game to give extra junk and stuff to their characters.

  • Jesse

    I am looking forward to skylanders giants in fall, but I have to say that i fear much expense on buying up the whole set again. I estimate I spent a total of $300 to try to collect all elements characters and then the giants come out! tut

  • Mikey

    Pricing is created by the frenzy that Activision wanted. Who remembers the crazy that was cabbage patch dolls with parents fighting other parents just to get their hands on one?
    I think as long as you can teach your children limitations when a crazy hits them, maybe it’s a good lesson learnt.
    Lookinf for Ghost Roaster personally gimme gimme gimme!

  • Boomer Go Rock

    its a very poor game they ruined the older spyro games graphics and style for this terrible thing i say its not worth the huge sum of money you have to pay

  • Kels

    wow. where to start?
    The actual gameplay and levels seem pretty fun, great for small kids or pretty much anyone that wants to have a go. But this is pretty much one of the ONLY good points about this game. yes, it is one of the most important, but it is still one of the only ones. The graphis are DIABOLICAL, what happened to spyro D:
    I understand a little change to the character(s) is due in every game but not THAT much. It is also VERY expensive due to having to buy extra levels or characters. I understand that this game is made for kids, and it is absolutely great for that, but if you are an old spyro fan (I’m talking the first games on PS1) it’s seriously not worth it.

  • nikos

    I am looking for sales advice. I plan on purchasing the “spyro” version of this game for my three kids (ages 8, 8 & 7). I don’t understand the game enough to know what to buy, if anything, in addition to the start up package. I am hoping I can get a “main” character for each child but am not sure that can be accomplished with the starter pack or if I need to purchase additional characters.

  • Thomas L. McDonald

    You can get through the entire game with the three figures in a starter pack, but to access all the areas and get the most out of it, you have to buy 5 additional figures to unlock all 8 regions. (They’re divided by types like Tech, Earth, etc)