Thanks to the new Skylanders Giants' Lightcore technology, which makes certain toys in the action figure-powered sequel blossom scintillating colored lights, my two 16-month-old children have discovered how to push in my brilliant reverse baby gate to get to the delicious plastic figures lurking behind it.
Thanks for that, Activision. Now about your new game...
Last year Activision and Toys for Bob, the small video game developer best known for creating the Star Control series, released something that turned out to be much bigger than anyone in the video game industry anticipated. Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure (named for a character tie-in that proved completely unnecessary) married physical toys and video games in an intriguing new way. Players connected a circular Portal of Power to their game platform of choice, placed any number of colorful plastic figures upon it, and those figures would magically appear in the game.
Each character is, essentially, downloadable content—technically on-disk downloadable content. In traditional gaming circles the very idea is abhorrent. This morning at GameStop I watched a woman spend nearly $300 on a starter kit, each of the new figures currently available, a battle pack that unlocks a special in-game arena and a strategy guide. Not only are parents, children and middle-age game reviewers purchasing these toys, they're actively begging for more.
The plastic pieces are so integral to the experience that it's impossible to review the game without reviewing the toys as well.
They're very nice.
The giant characters are particularly lovely. Being twice the size of the smaller characters, these eight behemoths (four currently available—Swarm, Crusher, Bouncer and Tree Rex) pack a lot of detail, and when placed on the Portal of Power a set aglow, they truly come to life. New smaller characters like the Pop Fizz (voiced by freaking Bobcat Goldthwait) and the ice maiden Chill continue to build upon the personality established in the first game, bringing us ever closer to the inevitable Skylanders cartoon.
It's really a pity that more of that personality doesn't shine through in the video game portion of this transmedia sensation. With more than 50 unique characters available to play, creating complex storylines with fully-voiced cut scenes for each would be a monumental effort. Instead the Skylanders are limited to a handful of catchphrases, the bulk of the narrative delivered by a series of quirky non-player characters.
As the story goes, the villainous Kaos (voiced by Richard Steven Horvitz of Invader Zim fame) returns to the Skylands after his Earthly exile in the previous game. He discovers a powerful artifact belonging to a lost race of giant robots (the king of which is none other than Star Trek's George Takei) and decides to use it to take over the Skylands once again. The Skylanders team up with the bombastic Flynn (Patrick Warburton, doing his best impression of someone doing a bad Patrick Warburton impression) and a growing cast of misfits to take Kaos down.
It's 15 chapters (a couple of hours, if you speed) of the sort of action-RPG combat as we saw in the original game. Characters run through twisting levels, seeking hidden treasures while battling the forces of not-good with their fantastic powers. Once again there is no jumping—they didn't want to burden the children with too many game mechanics.
Despite some flashy new skills from the second round of toy creatures and the addition of bits that require the titular giants to strut their strength, Skylanders Giants is more of the same—another technically proficient action game without much challenge or substance. Once one completes the normal story mode a "nightmare mode" is unlocked, but it's only really a nightmare if you're under 10.
Skylanders Giants is much more rewarding if you're slightly OCD. The story mode may only last a few hours, but have you collected every stat-enhancing hat? Beaten every heroic challenge? Taken on all of the arena battles? Leveled all of your characters to 15? The value here is in how you play after the main credits roll.
If you can forgive the light challenge and the overall lack of depth, there's plenty of fun to be had in Skylanders Giants, though I'm wondering if any adult could have as much fun playing the game as Toys for Bob had developing it. From the silly catch-phrases "Hawk and Awe!" right down to the musical themes (there's a flight sequence where the composer is totally riffing on the theme to the old Airwolf television show), it's readily evident that the developer is having a blast. Tap into that, and you'll probably have a blast as well.
If you're not in a collecting mood, then you might want to steer clear from Skylanders Giants. Due to the toy tie-in nature of the game, you're really not getting the most out of the experience unless you're spending several hundred dollars on collectible figurines. You'll need at least five additional characters beyond the starter pack (one of each element) to unlock the hidden areas of the game, and each new piece you add enhances the powers of those already in your collection.
When it comes right down to it there are really three ways to enjoy the Skylanders: Giants experience.
1. Buy everything available, dump it out on your living room floor and roll around all day long, game controller in hand.
2. Purchase a starter set and pace yourself. Give yourself toys as a treat. Did you write a game review today? Why not buy yourself $100 worth of Skylanders? (This just happened.)
3. Be a child. Try not to eat them.