Skylands is in danger! An unnamed Darkness looms over the horizon, the Skylanders have been shrunk down and whisked away to earth and it is up to the new portal master to rescue them from retailers everywhere (for a mere eight bucks a pop) so they can save the day. Spyro the Dragon returns with Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure in a way he hasn't been seen before – in a three inch action figure.
Skylanders is an adventure game that mixes toy collecting and videogames. The game works with Skylander action-figures and a figurine reader called the Portal of Power which synchs wirelessly to the game through a USB adaptor plugged into your console or PC. When a figure is placed on the portal, that character is placed in-game. Experience, abilities, and money collected with that character is stored within the action figure, enabling players to easily use their characters in friends’ games - even cross platform. Unfortunately, game progress is saved on the console, so the figures will not transfer saves.
The whole system works great; the portal enables players to switch out characters on the fly, which is often needed to access secret areas. It also sets off a little light show that changes the color of the portal depending on the element type of the character and activates a short, but awesome, character animation – which we never got tired of watching. The Portal of Power does suck the juice out of batteries quickly though, and does not have an option to be plugged into an outlet. So, investing in rechargeable batteries is probably the best bet since the game cannot be played without the portal.
But enough about the toys – what about the game? Skylanders is a simple action-based dungeon crawler taking up to two players to a variety of locations, like a Cyclops-infested castle, mole mines, a haunted underworld, and a WWII-inspired battlefield. These are all accessed through a central hub containing story-driving NPCs that offer ability training and challenges. Levels will have players finding keys, killing enemies, breaking objects, collecting money, finding collectables and repeating that process until you reach the end of the level. There isn’t much variety between levels in terms of structure or goals, but there is enough substance in the gameplay to keep us wanting to complete each area and strengthen our characters.
Enemies come in various shapes and sizes with unique abilities and resistances. Zombies, for instance, are easily defeated by a fire type attack but are invulnerable to physical attacks. Overall, most enemies do not present any significant challenge until the final third of the game. Since we leveled one character over the course of the story, our Skylander could handle the toughest groups of enemies with ease. Even though Skylanders targets a younger audience of gamers, a better scaling difficulty curve would have made some portions of the game feel like less of a grind.
Improving your character is a significant part of the gameplay. Gaining experience will build a Skylander’s attributes like damage and health, but gathering money to unlock new Skylander abilities is where the real addiction sets in. These upgrades range from powering up current abilities to earning completely new, more powerful skills. In Spyro’s case, he is able to upgrade from throwing a single fireball to being able to shoot three at a time, as well as gaining the ability to fire one huge supercharged blast. The variety in the 30-plus characters is easily the most rewarding part of Skylanders as we had the most fun leveling characters and unlocking abilities, then switching to another character to do it again.
Once a character is strong enough, players may want to take them into multiplayer to test their Skylander’s abilities against a friend’s. The multiplayer modes offer a chance for players to challenge their friends one-on-one in Arena Rumble, SkyGoals, and SkyGem Master. Arena Rumble pits players against each other in a free-for-all battle, SkyGoals requires players to move a ball into a scoring zone, and SkyGem Master awards the win to the first player to collect five gems. These modes were fun to play a few times, but they are not robust enough to keep players wanting to return. Also, the game does not allow more than two players to compete, making team competition completely absent.
One tricky thing about Skylanders is it's not so subtle push to get the player to buy more action-figures. Only specific elemental types are able to unlock designated gates containing collectable hats and special ability unlocks. Each of the Skylanders falls under one of eight elemental groups: fire, water, life, earth, tech, air, undead, and magic. So, if you are not in possession of all character types, you're out of luck. The hats provide attribute bonuses and characters wear them in-game, adding some customization and making them look cool. Finding hats is definitely a great bonus – if you have the right figure to get access to them. Also, throughout the game world are Soul Gems that unlock all characters' ultimate abilities. When these are found, the game cuts to a video showcasing the new character and their awesome abilities, essentially advertising the figure. Even we had a hard time fighting the urge to go out and fill the void in our collection.
Skylanders is an entertaining and addictive game with unique ideas that never feel gimmicky. While the game is fun in its own right, the figures and portal make it into more than just the average adventure game. The price may be a little steep, with the game constantly encouraging players to buy more characters, but the figures are well made and make great collectables. We wouldn’t be surprised if Skylanders became the next “gotta catch’em all” craze.