Activision flew me out to California to spend a day at Toys for Bob for a studio tour, discussion opportunity with developers, and gameplay session with Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure.
Toys for Bob studio president and creative director, Paul Reiche, made it clear straight from the introduction of Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure that his passion in creating video games throughout the years has always been about monsters. From Dungeons & Dragons to the Star Control series, monsters have been at the forefront of the design process. Skylanders was often described as simply being a game about monsters. After spending some quality time with the game in both single player and cooperative play, I was able to see their fascination with bringing these monster heroes and heroines to life and how that translated into an unique gaming experience not seen before on any platform.
Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure is a completely different direction for the Spyro's series that is now geared toward children and teens. The only continuation with the past series is the name and of course Spyro will be one of the many playable characters in the game. Toys for Bob is creating the Nintendo Wii version, which is thus being ported to Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC by other developers. Each of these ports will be nearly the same except for an upgrade in visual quality and change of controller. There is also a version of the game that is being developed for the Nintendo 3DS that features the same Skylander characters, but instead has a different story with emphasis on platforming gameplay.
The unique aspect of Skylanders is in the form of "toys with brains" that allows for saving a character's stats and upgrades on the actual toy itself. For each platform, the game is available in starter kits that include the game, a "Portal of Power," and three Skylander toys. The "Portal of Power" connects wirelessly to your console of choice (wired for Xbox 360) and has enough room for two toys. Once a toy is placed upon the portal, that particular Skylander appears on screen and ready for action. If another toy is placed on the portal, a second player spot opens up allowing for cooperative gameplay. From my experience with the portal hardware, switching to a different Skylander toy is flawless and does not include any load time. The toys support cross-platform gameplay allowing for your character to gain experience on all of the consoles. Each of the Skylanders gain stat boosts and upgraded abilities when used in gameplay. The level cap for all characters is set at ten, but a range of collectible items, challenge levels, and wearable hats extend the experience.
While exploring some of the levels in the game I would occasionally find areas that would only allow access to a character assigned with a certain element type. The standard elements of earth, air, and fire, are joined by life, undead, magic, and tech. The eight elements each contain four Skylanders, thus exploring the entire world will require one from each type. However, the developers stated that it is possible to beat the game with only one character. My inner child beckons to collect every one of the Skylanders to allow for a complete experience. As an added bonus with each toy, a challenge level designed around their character is added to your game. I was also shown small expansion pack sets that add new adventures and usable abilities to the game. One set in particular contained a miniature pirate ship and treasure set that both activate when placed upon the portal. In my opinion, these retail expansion sets and extra character packs are a new form of downloadable-content specially designed for children and their parents.
The story places the the player in the role of a portal master that sends the banished Skylanders on earth back to their world of Skylanders to rescue it from destruction. The evil portal master, Kaos uses his powers to summon monsters into the various game worlds. I was quite thrilled to hear that the game's story was created by the lead writers of Toy Story, Joel Cohen and Alec Sokolow. The few cinematics that I was able to experience during gameplay contained a quirky Double Fine vibe in the dialogue sequences. The game is geared toward children, but adults still should get a couple of laughs from the experience.
Before delving into the gameplay of Skylanders, I must admit that I've never played any of the past games in the Spyro series. My impressions will based on hands-on time with a PlayStation 3 build that included both single player and cooperative gameplay. I was able to play through about three levels that each contained plenty of enemies and puzzles. With each level I was either acquiring an item or defeating a boss to aid in the rebuilding of the hub world between levels.
I was quite confident in my ability to rush through these levels with ease, especially with the help of a developer for cooperative gameplay. However, we managed to die quite often from hordes of enemies, environmental dangers, and challenging boss battles. When one of your Skylanders meets his or her demise, you can simply place another toy on the portal of power to bring in another monster. If all of your Skylanders die throughout a level, you must restart from the beginning. We were frequently walking over to the other demo stations to grab extra Skylanders.
My experience with the single player levels did not include any of the mini games or challenge levels mentioned by developers. The gameplay in the campaign levels include defeating monsters in an area which was then usually followed by a puzzle to reach the next section. Occasionally, the puzzles involved moving a canon around the level to destroy walls or doors. Other puzzles included dragging a key around or using a miner's tool to smash rocks in your path. Defeated enemies will award your character with experience points and also a random chance to drop food or gold coins. Don't expect for deep RPG elements or a range of different skill trees. The gameplay experience in Skylanders is a simple affair that doesn't break any benchmarks set by past casual games.
Each of the Skylanders include a primary and secondary attack which can be upgraded with collected experience. For part of the time, I played as the monster Eruptor that had a secondary attack of releasing a giant pool of lava from his body. Another character that was a favorite among developers and journalists was Trigger Happy. His weapon of choice were two pistols that unleashed a trail of golden coins against enemies. Cooperative gameplay offered many choices in how to finish a level because of the various combinations of characters that could be paired together. One player could select a range based Skylander while the other could be a melee specific character.
The game also has a host of multiplayer options that we tested during our gameplay session which included duel, football, and crystal collection modes. In the duel matches, two players can select from their collection of Skylanders for battle in arenas that have various power ups and special weapons. The football inspired mode had both of us racing to grab a randomly spawning football in hopes to carry it to goal posts. The last versus mode required one of the players to collect all the crystals in the level for victory. However, the experience became quite hectic when both of us would spam attack the other to take away their crystals. It was a constant struggle back and forth in the attempt to collect every crystal versus avoiding attacks from your opponent. The one problem in cooperative and versus modes was the ease of losing track of your tiny Skylander on screen amongst the action. I was often spamming the attack buttons in hope that my Skylander was doing some sort of damage to the other character.
My time with Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure was only a small glimpse of the final product, but the gameplay session was quite an enjoyable experience. The actual toys were described by the developers as a revolution in collectible toys because of the dedication and detail that went into their creation. The game and toys may have been created for children, but I share the sentiment of the team in that the experience can be fun for adults as well. The change in direction from a mature to children based Spyro game is still an issue for many dedicated fans of the series' past titles. However, it was evident that the developers behind Skylanders are passionate in creating a product that bridges the gap between video games and toys that is hopefully enjoyable for both children and adults.
Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure will be available on October 16 for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC, Wii, and Nintendo 3DS.
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