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.