(Xbox 360 Review) Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure

Developer: Toys For Bob
Publisher: Activision
Genre: Action / Platformer
Players: 1-2
ESRB: Everyone
Reviewer: Marcus Way

Overall: 8 = Excellent

When the evil Portal Master known as Kaos topples the powerful Portal Master of Skylands, the realm’s protectors, known as Skylanders, are transformed into toys and sent packing to Earth. Weakened after their defeat, the exiled Skylanders look to you, their new Portal Master, to summon them back into the game from their toy form and help them rebuild the Core of Light to keep Kaos’ approaching darkness at bay.

Well, more likely the younger gamer—or toy fanatic—in your life. As the first game for the 360 to use “interaction” figurines, Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure bridges the gap between the physical and digital worlds by utilizing novel technology to transport the virtual counterparts of real toys into a world filled with monsters, puzzles, and mounds of treasure.

A lot of things could have gone wrong with Skylanders, but developer Toys for Bob managed to pull off a peripheral-based gaming experience that works as advertised, which is no small feat considering the younger audience the game is geared towards. The Starter Pack this review is based off of is a set that includes the game, three Skylander figurines (the same in each kit), and the USB device that ties the toys to the system, the appropriately dramatically named Portal of Power. Each Skylander is of a particular elemental class, with the Starter Pack including characters from three different classes: Tech (Trigger Happy), Water (Gill Grunt), and Magic (Spyro). The game can be beaten with the trio, but only at about thirty-five percent completion. The one hundred-percent mark will require at least one of each of the eight element classes (Air, Earth, Fire, Life, Magic, Tech, Undead, and Water) in order to unlock the various elemental-restricted zones and powers, while a full set will require over 30 Skylanders, sold as singles and three-piece sets, at a cost of well over a hundred dollars. The additional purchases open up new side areas to explore and powers to try, but again, they are not required to topple Kaos.

An item of particular note is that, despite the title, Spyro is not the focus of the game. As one of the many heroes able to be summoned, he isn’t noteworthy in any way, aside from being a powerful little bugger.

Utilizing the Portal of Power, players swap and insert Skylanders into their or their friend’s game by simply placing the figures on the surface of the unit. Even antsy players who want to take full advantage of each figure’s abilities and powers at every turn will find the portal capable of withstanding some fast and frequent swaps. The entire setup is smooth, responsive, and given how simple the process is, downright elegant.

The figurines are sturdy, and the portal, though a bit light, is large and responsive enough to allow for frantic play. The figures are more display pieces than toys, however, as they are attached to their bases and aren’t very flexible. Aside from looking nice, they also represent the player’s in-game character as all of the Skylander’s stats and items are saved within the unit itself. This means that a Skylander can be brought to a friend’s house and played in their game, on their console (the toys are compatible across all systems), and then re-inserted back into the owner’s game, complete with all previous items as well as anything acquired during the prior session. Ownership of a Skylander can even be transferred so that gamers can trade their figurines. The characters are colorful, fantastical, and very likable, and the ability to replace their names with nicknames adds a great bit of in-game customization while the high quality of the figures make for nice decorations when players want to store them between games.

The Ruins, the game’s hub, will be restored to Skylands greatness by traversing several themed levels in order to grab several powerful elements to rebuild the Core of Light. The Ruins will slowly expand as the pieces are found, eventually housing several friendly non-playable characters who have their own bone to pick with Kaos. The characters that set up shop will assist the Skylanders in various ways, including expanding their powers for money and offering up Hero Challenges for permanent stat boosts.

Each Skylander has a primary power, a secondary power, and an unlocked special power, all of which can be upgraded in a variety of ways, including increased speed, strength, and duration. Characters also have moves that can be unlocked by uncovering Soul Gems, items scattered throughout the world that are sometimes locked inside element-restricted zones. At some point, a fork is reached in the upgrade path that shifts the Skylanders’ focus towards a particular attack. So for Gill Grunt, the included water elemental Skylander, he can further develop his water-spray weapon so that it unleashes explosive seashells within the stream or his harpoon projectile to be even deadlier with increased damage. The characters themselves become more powerful through a traditional leveling system, with Victory Points (experience) gained in combat filling a meter that will allow them to become stronger and faster. No points need to be allocated, so the only choice for players is to make is in regards to which power to focus on. Characters can, however, receive additional stat boosts. Temporary boosts are available through hats that are found scattered throughout the levels, and permanent boosts can be gained by completing the aforementioned Hero Challenges. Some of the challenges are quite difficult, but as you’ll come to find out, difficulty spikes are not uncommon in the search for Kaos.

By and large, Skylanders is appropriate for all age groups. The characters are stylized, and the voice acting, which includes the ever-delightful Patrick ‘Puddy’ Warburton, is just right for the goofy script. Subtitles are also used, with large font set inside dialog menus so players can read along, though the option to skip these during the initial playthrough would’ve been nice as there are some repetitive bits. The action is filled with cartoon violence, so enemies are bonked and pushed and stomped into stars and puffs of smoke. The controls are responsive as well, with the left analogue stick controlling movement and aim, though old hands will miss the more precise scheme of using the right analogue stick to aim as the game’s aim assistance can lag a touch behind the action. The puzzles are, for the most part, easy to solve, with arrows being used to show where an object can be moved. The humor is also spot-on, with visual gags, such as a pan or fruit bowl used as a helmet, and dialog, a blind mole with a whistling lisp, sure to get a chuckle out of younger gamers—and (ahem) older ones.

For all of the concessions to the younger crowd made by Toys from Bob, though, there are, for some inexplicable reason, really frustrating boss fights. Now, the Skylanders don’t die in bloody combat, instead merely resting while another takes their place (with a chapter restarting if all need to rest), but they will certainly take a beating. Despite a difficulty spike around Chapter 10, with some environmental puzzles being a bit of a chore due to the slower pace of some of the characters, there is in general a low difficulty curve throughout most of the game. That low curve also extends to many of the boss battles, but then there are others where Kaos himself intervenes, and these are downright ridiculous. The pattern is the same each time: Kaos calls down an area affect spell, followed by an evil doppelganger Skylander, followed by a new version of the spell, another evil Skylander, another version of the spell, a third Skylander, and then everything at once. Guh. While this approach strongly encourages co-op play, the encounters are like nothing else in the game. The Skylanders tend to take significant damage when hit, sometimes a disproportionate amount, but there is enough food to keep their health up and the pace brisk. Despite the food available upon the defeat of one of the evil clones, it isn’t difficult for one of the spells to chew up much of a character’s life. More experienced gamers can get through these without much trouble, but they are bound to cause problems for the younger crowd and are really out of step with the rest of the encounters.

The disparity between the difficulty during the Kaos boss battles and the rest of the game hints at something more than just a mishap. The switch is too jarring to be an accident, and it fits nicely with a selling model that allows those with enough Skylanders to continue on, holding out the next level as bait. Younger gamers will be in for a tough time, but more experienced hands can see them through without the need for them to drain their piggy banks.

But those battles aren’t the only times when the game’s pace stutters. Throughout the levels, there are gateways that are restricted to characters of certain elements, and others where certain elements are more potent. The problem with this is that they are all over the place. While this is great for those who have several of the figures or who want to go back and explore once they buy a few more, the stream of announcements and barred areas have a tendency to bog the game while not actually bogging it down, as well as continually remind younger players that they are missing out. In many instances, these areas are just small side paths that aren’t too different from the main course, but it’s the mystery they represent and possible treasure they hold, be it gems or a new amulet, that make them so alluring. They serve as a steady “Nope” in an otherwise very inviting game.

A number of the hold-ups are smoothed over by the addition of some extra muscle in the form of a friend’s Skylander. Two-player co-op and versus play is available so that pals can adventure together or brawl in one of the several arena modes. Multiplayer is local only, which is limiting, but I would say an understandable call to ensure that parents, siblings, etc. know exactly who the younger crowd is spending their time with. The Adventure can be dropped into and out of at any time, with each Portal of Power simultaneously supporting two Skylanders along with either one Magic item or one Location Piece, which also serve to expand the quest.

Battle Mode consists of three different submodes: Arena Rumble, SkyGoals, and SkyGem Master. These allow for players to duke it out one on one, fight over a ball to toss or carry it into a goal, and brawl over gems in order to collect the five needed to win. A number of options are available to switch things up and maintain a balance, with the ability to restore health each round, add power-up items, have food drop to replenish health, insert environmental traps, and remove all levels and upgrades so that the Skylanders are on a level playing field. The latter is an especially nice touch given the age of the targeted market—and it should save parents more than a few headaches. While not necessarily overflowing with features, the versus component does offer enough to keep figure-hungry players busy for some time.

Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure
might have very little to do with Spyro himself, but it certainly provides a unique take on the action-platformer by adding the addictive element of collectible, colorful figurines. That same addition causes some irksome pacing issues along with some flustering difficulty spikes that require experience hands be close by to lend some assistance, which takes some of the power away from younger players. Still, for older gamers, and even non-gamers, the chance to play a light-hearted game with humorous characters, role-playing leveling elements, and an array of imaginative powers in a world that isn’t so saccharine the TV oozes sugar with the younger gamers in their lives, Skylanders offers a great change of pace.

(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)

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