Skyrim. Uncharted 3. Modern Warfare 3. Skyward Sword.
All of these huge games, including dozens of others that have released within the last three months, are built upon epic storytelling and dramatic sequences. They’re considered AAA cinematic experiences that transcend traditional video games and rival mainstream media.
That’s not the same with Skylanders. The game is basic, predictable, and expensive. And, well, it’s the most pure fun I’ve had on a console since Super Mario Galaxy 2.
Note: It’s difficult to review Skylanders just on one console. The game really does push the boundaries of how and where it’s played, and comes off of more like an experience than a standalone. In this case, I played the Xbox 360 and 3DS versions, and dabbled online in the PC’s social world.
At its most basic level, Skylanders taps into the memories of my childhood collections of Garbage Pail Kids trading cards and GI Joe action figures, where growing up in the Midwest meant that I had to complete my collections of various toys to an almost obsessive-compulsive level. The premise of the game is centered around figurines — “statues” in the game’s world — that are placed on a USB or infrared Portal of Power to bring the associated characters into the world of Skyland. With over 30 characters, all of which are unique, the potential just for kids wanting to complete the collection is high.
They’re beautifully crafted, too. Here’s some design nerd-speak: As someone with some manufacturing background, it was extremely pleasant to see that the toys had no misaligned edges or flash, and that the separation of colors was often handled between parting lines. The mixture of materials, such as in Ignitor’s translucent flames and his plastic body, was great to see in a kids’ toy. The portal emits a colorful decadent glow that corresponds to the elemental characters that are placed on it. If the figure is magic-based, like Dark Spyro, then the LEDs inside change the top surface to a purple halo. If it’s a fire-based character like Ignitor, then the surface glows bright red-orange. All of this happens while the bottom of the portal retains a green glow.
It really does seem like magic to have these creatures surrounded by light on my TV stand. The lights are powered through the USB, so I’m tempted to plug the portal into a wall USB outlet and just leave it on all the time during the holidays, rotating figures as new ones arrive or my mood changes.
There’s much more substance to the figures than just the collectible aspect, too. The figures are essentially console-agnostic, meaning that when I take my Dark Spyro off of the Xbox 360′s portal and place it on the 3DS’s portal, they work the same. Toys for Bob did an excellent job of making things as simple as possible for me. The portal’s near-field allowed me to quickly pick up and drop the figures and play between games, even at the same time. The figures have a tiny bit of flash memory baked in. It’s just enough, though, that they can retain stats for the characters. I learned to quickly abuse it by playing the Xbox version for the main quest, and then grinding experience levels with the characters on my 3DS as I travelled. Different sections of the games open up to different characters, too, priming us to purchase another one or two just to access them.
Where the game separates itself from my past experiences is in its “Diablo meets Saturday morning cartoons” design. I mentioned earlier that it’s a standard adventure design for a modern video game. There are a few puzzles in each level, which are perfect for kids but are hardly challenging for adults. Rotate a laser here, turn a key there, essentially. The push to grab loot, however, is remarkable. I found myself going out of my way to grab a coin or diamond, often risking the game’s in-level timer. In the console versions, the loot allows for the purchase of dozens of upgrades for the characters. And, while the 3DS version doesn’t utilize it in-game, the loot collected there does translate to the consoles afterwards.
Activision chose to do different things with the game depending on what console/portable it’s played on, and I really appreciate it. Often, publishers & developers will try to make the experiences identical, sacrificing aspects of the games just for that sake. With Skylanders, the two versions & the PC world are unique enough to want me to try them all, and I happily did.
The Xbox 360/Wii/PS3 version of the game is an action-adventure that really accentuates that Diablo vibe. The giant levels are explorable to the nth degree, and the game’s story is entertaining and enjoyable, without forcing me to stay on the edge of my couch. I often went back throughout the previously-completed levels to grab loot for the individual characters and to cross-off some the minor tasks that each level has on its checklist. The visuals aren’t the best, though. The low textures and blocky polygons look like a Wii game that’s been up-rezzed for the HD versions. Thankfully the amount of color and visual effects in the game, along with the relatively quick pace, kept me from standing still long enough to complain. There’s even co-operative and PvP arena modes to engage more players.
The Nintendo 3DS version is much more of a traditional platformer. In fact, it reminded me of Super Mario Galaxy, with it’s incredibly lush visuals, floating islands, and beautiful colors. There are much more levels and regions to explore in this version, as “crystals” are needed and earned to unlock new areas. It results in quick playthroughs, and works extremely well on the portable screen; I don’t think I’d want to sit and play for hours with the 3D turned up and my neck twisted for that long anyways.
The PC version amounts to a few flash-based minigames and a lite social network, and relies on inputting each character’s unique code to open up more aspects. I took a photo of the cards with my phone and have them with me all the time to play around with once in a long while. It’s not much, and it’s not heavily advertised, so if anything it’s a decent little diversion.
The game isn’t cheap, though. At $7.99 the figures are expensive for their diminutive size, but it’s made up for by the technology inside and the quality of the build. However, I’ve still managed to get sucked in and buy 5 more figures just to open.
Skylanders is a great palate-cleansing game. When I’ve had my fill of Arkham City or Uncharted 3 for the day, I can always do some grinding with the characters to pass the time. Its simple gameplay is super-ceded by its high collectibility, and the “Big Kid” in me can’t help but want to collect all of the characters to round out the collection. I’m just terrified for the one day when I eventually misplace the level 10 Ignitor that I’ve been working on upgrading, or when the neighbor’s dog swallows it.
This review of Skylanders is based on copies of the game for the Microsoft Xbox 360 and Nintendo 3DS provided to SideQuesting by the publisher.