Skylanders: Giants hides a fun, child-friendly game behind enjoyably crass commercialism
- Wii U
This is how Skylanders works: You put the game in your system, you connect the plastic portal via USB, and place one of your plastic toys on top. The game talks to the portal, reads the information on the bottom of the character, and suddenly you’re controlling that Skylander as you play. Switching characters is as simple as swapping toys on the portal, and that process is quick, easy, and fun. The more toys you buy, the more characters you have access to in the game. The first Skylanders title was a huge success, with toys growing scarce in retail. A sequel was never in question, and now Skylanders: Giants has been released, complete with a new quest, new ways to play, and of course new characters to buy and use in the game.
Skylanders exists to sell you toys. Certain areas of the game are blocked off until you have a certain type of Skylander, and you find upgrades for Skylanders that you don’t own as you play. The game helpfully asks if you’d like to “preview” that character in the hopes that you’ll either run to the toy store to get one, or beg your parents to do the same.
You can happily play the game with the three toys that come with the standard set, including one giant, but the game goes out of its way to remind you that you would probably have more fun if you had even more toys. You can now buy Version 2 versions of existing characters with different upgrade paths and powers. There are new characters, and versions of existing characters that light up when placed on your upgraded portal. Each character’s power-ups, coins, and levels are saved on the toy itself, so you can take your favorites over to a friend’s house and continue to use them without having to worry about your saved game. It’s a brilliant concept; the toy is the character, complete with the work you’ve put into them. Take care not to lose them under the couch.
It’s another way to push players to collect ‘em all, but at least in this case you get little statues to go along with what amounts to DLC, and the whole system is addictive. I was a fan of the original game, and the sequel features larger toys called Giants that allow you to bash through certain barricades or lift heavy objects, and they also glow when placed on the portal. Yes, it’s another ploy to get you to buy toys, but it’s neat. I’ve never grown out of enjoying things that light up.
Why Skylanders excels
The toys may offer the product’s largest gimmick, but the game itself remains a fun, childlike version of Gauntlet, albeit with a few sliding rock puzzles and enjoyable diversions. You run around each level, trying to find keys and other hidden objects while using your attacks to kill the enemies. It’s not hard, and it’s aimed at children, but the mechanics are solid. The Skylanders themselves are a big part of what makes this work; each character has distinctive movements and attacks. When you put a new character on the portal, you’ll have to change tactics, and different Skylanders are powerful in different situations.
It’s easy to get mad at games that are both aimed for children and not very well designed. There’s a certain snide aspect to those titles, as if kids don’t understand when a game is shitty. Skylanders never falls into that trap; it treats children with respect and shows them the good time. The game is filled with small details, animations, and hidden objects and collectibles. Each level rewards multiple plays.
Your Skylander rides on a giant, stomping robot in one section, and you fight other giant robots. The combat system is easy to grasp, and the game tells you the best time to attack, but it looks badass. The robots are large, and look like something taken out of the second Hellboy movie, and between the combat segments you’re asked to shoot at smaller enemies that buzz your robot’s head. The projectiles you fire change depending on which Skylander you’re controlling, so undead types will fire ghosts, while plant types will fire watermelons.
The game is filled with fun mini-games, heroic challenges, and even an interesting tile-based game of strategy called “Skystones” for you to find and play; the video embedded above that explains the basic rules. Skylanders Giants does a fine job of keeping the surprises coming, and offering up new ideas just when things begin to drag. You’ll recognize some hoary clichés from past games, such as moving crystals to direct light and pushing and pulling boulders to create paths, but 10 year-olds didn’t grow up playing the classic Tomb Raider games, so much of this may seem new and interesting.
A second player can jump in at any time by placing a Skylander on the portal and picking up a controller. There is no online multiplayer, but who cares? Half the fun is bringing your toys over to someone else’s house and using their portal. This is a game that prizes the tactile feeling of playing with your toys and creating your little fighting force of Skylanders before you begin to play.
You need one of each type of Skylander to see everything in the game, but luckily the toys you purchased for the first game work here. Not only that, but their level cap has been raised from 10 to 15. You also only need one Giant to unlock those barricaded sections. Every starter set at retail comes with a Giant character, so you’ll be set there. The game does reward you with buffs for using multiple characters in each class, and there are now character-specific challenges, but these additions also reward players with many characters as much as they drive them to buy more. My extensive collection of toys from the first game gives me quite the advantage in the second.
You can also fight through the game’s 15 chapters with the two Skylanders and one Giant you get in your starter set, but it’s worth picking up a few extra to swap ‘em in and out and enjoy the new animations and attacks. Players will quickly find their favorite characters, even though we all know Prism Break is the best Skylander ever, and some attacks will be better in some situations. There is a decent amount of strategy to be found with understanding what each character can do and deciding when to bring them in. Since the Giants aren’t always the best character, it’s fun to save them until they’re needed and then bring in a huge character to kick some ass.
There are numerous tweaks, updates, additions, and extra mini games in Giants, giving players a good amount of things to do while playing through the campaign and leveling up their characters. I had a blast with the game, and the push to buy new characters isn’t nearly as annoying as it could have been. The commercialism of the game’s core concept of toy collection is tempered by the high quality of the game itself, which is enjoyable when played with your children, or even by yourself.
Skylanders is one of those great properties that appeals to men and women, children and adults. Even the voice talent, including actors like George Takei and Patrick Warburton, is very good, and the writing is likewise high quality. The game suffers from an uneven frame rate, which is silly with the somewhat basic graphics on display, but there are few other complaints to be found. The toys themselves are solid and feature attractive sculpts and paint jobs.
Giants is a wonderful extension of the original game, and there is no reason not to buy it along with a few new characters. I’m hoping for something that mixes up the concept a little more for the third game, and it would be a shame if Activision runs this concept into the ground due to its success.
Toys for Bob, who you’ll remember was also responsible for the Star Control series, has created a fun children’s game that treats kids with respect, and that’s rare with games aimed at a younger audience. The toy collection aspect of the game also adds a significant amount of replay value and variety to the core levels, and the Nightmare difficulty that unlocks once you’ve beaten the game gives you a reason to play once more and gain levels for your favorite characters. If you have kids, or are looking for an excuse to buy toys to play a simple game with your significant other who likes their platforming on the easier side, this is a great purchase.