For years, we have seen card and toy games such as Bakugan and Pokémon that are rooted in physical play be brought over to the video game world, usually by incorporating their legacy game action as an accompaniment to the video game. With Skylanders: Spyros Adventure
, it looks like developer Toys for Bob and publisher Activision have finally broken that cycle. For the first time that I am aware, the actual physical toy will directly interact with the video games on screen instead of just being a companion piece or a virtual character by entering a code.
It all starts with the Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure starter pack ($69.99 MSRP), which comes with the game, Portal of Power, Skylander Elemental Chart, trading cards, stickers, online codes and three Skylanders figures: Gill Grunt (Water), Trigger Happy (Tech) and Spyro (Fire). The three included figures are just the tip of the iceberg, as there are a grand total of 32 playable figures (including Spyro) across eight Elemental Classes, with four Skylanders assigned to each class. In case you haven’t seen the commercials or advertisements, there is a very aggressive ad campaign with Toys R Us tied to both the game and the collectible figurines that has been rolling for several weeks now. I know it is working, as both my kids were beyond thrilled when I showed them what we would be reviewing and my son has been asking for the Skylanders stuff for Christmas.
One of the coolest features about the interactive design of the toys is that the figurines actually store data on them from your games and it can be read regardless of what the original platform was. So if you own an Xbox 360 and take your Skylanders to a friend’s to play on their Wii, PC or PS3, your Victory Pts and Experience from Battle Mode, custom nickname, currency, upgrades, abilities, stats and current hat travel with you. In addition, whatever you earn on the go will continue to accrue and come back to your home console. However, this concept also leads me to a few concerns about the idea of incorporating the physical toys into the video game with such a high degree of dependency. The most obvious is what happens if you lose or break a Skylander character, as all of your stats built up for it are gone because they are saved in the toy itself. Another concern is with the Portal of Power and if you can get a replacement if it breaks or is broken? In both instances, it appears that the game would effectively be neutered and become unplayable.
One other note is that if you buy into the Skylanders concept, you will need to spend some money and get at least one of each of the eight Elemental Classes. There are areas of the game that you cannot get into unless you have each of the classes. From my understanding, it is possible to finish the game with only the starter pack, but if you are like me and want to explore every area and collect every item, then you will need to have at least one of all eight Elemental Classes. If the figurines become as collectible as the marketing campaign suggests they are, you can expect to shell out $7.99 for individual figurines and $19.99 for three-figurine Adventure packs.
As for the game itself, it is broken into the dominate campaign mode and the PvP local Battle Mode. The campaign can be played single player or co-op, with each person required to put their Skylander figure on the Portal of Power to get into the action. This is where the pick-up-and-go use of the Skylanders figurines comes into play on any console or PC. Let’s take a look at the game modes as well as how each console differs from the other:
The campaign mode starts you out as a Portal Master, tasked with trying to save a village of moles or otters from a nasty looking twister. As you work your way through this level (it is essentially a training level with descriptions, game play tips and NPC introductions), you learn that there is some underhanded dealings going on from an evil Portal Master called Kaos that is impacting the entire world. You are provided NPC helpers along the way, including Flynn the Balloonist (voiced by Patrick Warburton of Family Guy and Seinfeld fame), Hugo the scholar, Cali the trainer and so one and so on. Once you complete it, you are flown by Flynn back to the “Ruins”, which acts as the games main interface for launching new quests. In addition, as you progress through the campaign mode and unlock more NPCs, they will appear in the Ruins and allow you to upgrade your Skylander, travel to new or past levels, find out what to do next or torture some sheep. Yeah, I said it. Several sheep show up here after rescuing Cali, and they react differently to each Skylander. I personally like the using one of the Fire element Skylanders, as the sheep light up like a flaming marshmallow as their wool burns off and they run around trailing smoke and fire. Of course, they don’t die and the wool grows back instantaneously, but it is still fun to do.
Like most games, you do have to complete each game area to open up the next storyline and area as well as unlock further NPCs. Only then will their corresponding challenge upgrades to the next, but once you have unlocked the “Ruins” and Flynn, you can go back to any previously played level to try and find that missing item or area. Also, every time you open up a new area, you get a new NPC to help you along and they will be at the Ruins always available as some sort of resource. I also found that as you progress into more levels, the difficulty does increase and the game throws new challenges, monsters and bosses at you. I actually prefer this, as it lets you build up your skill level gradually so you aren’t learning the game on the fly. It still wasn’t to the degree of difficulty as some games, but considering the target audience, I think it is appropriate.
My only real complaint with the campaign is the inability to fast forward through the dialogue cut-scenes. When you go back and play the same level or challenge several times, you kind of memorize what the scene will be about. The major cinematic scenes can be blown through with the flick of a button, but you have to sit through lots of dialogue in the game that really could have used a fast-forward button as well.
Much like Travis at the preview event
, I found the ability to swap Skylanders off the Portal of Power and the corresponding character change in-game to be seamless and done quite well. As expected, the PS3 and 360 were faster than the Wii, but you were still changed and back into the adventure in under 3 seconds with all of the consoles. This technology also allows for easy drop-in and drop-out local co-op by placing two Skylanders figurines (and one additional magic or location object) on the Portal of Power. It seems to work pretty well, and in some cases, a helping hand is almost required.
I found that the game has many attributes seen in titles such as Ratchet and Clank, Super Mario Galaxy and Donkey Kong Country, but is a little rougher around the edges. It also does not quite have the game play depth you expect from those franchises, and although the gameplay is very addictive, it isn’t overly complicated nor is it anything we haven’t seen before. However, this is ok as the game is geared toward the 10 and up crowd, and I believe it was developed appropriately for the targeted age group. My kids were eating the game up, fighting over who got to play what area, which I finally solved by letting them play co-op. In addition, if you haven’t played a Spyro game before, Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure goes away from the traditional Spyro franchise play and is set up for those that have zero experience with the fire breathing dragon. I haven’t played much of the Spyro franchise, so that makes me a prime candidate (albeit slightly outside the age bracket) for what Toys for Bob wanted the direction of the game to be. Their intention was to make it geared toward younger gamers that did not have experience previously with the Spyro character.
Overall, the campaign mode is really good with all the pieces you would expect to keep you interested and coming back for more. It also has an excellent storyline and Flynn has some killer dialogue, which isn’t too much of a surprise when discovering that the story was written by Alek Sokolow and Joel Cohen, who worked on the original Toy Story film. While the gameplay isn’t overly tough (although some areas and objects are easy to miss), the puzzles, mini-games and game play provide just enough of a challenge to make you work for it, but not frustrate you. The campaign mode is by far the best part of the total concept, even better than the Skylanders figures that bring the game to life.
The Battle Mode in Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventures is Toys for Bob’s attempt to incorporate multiplayer into the game. It consists of three different modes (Arena Rumble, SkyGoals and SkyGem Master), but looks to be local only multiplayer, limited to PvP between two players. After spending some time playing these modes for the review, I have concluded that they probably were included to help “sell” the concept of taking your Skylander to any console at any time and play on the go. While the Battle Modes had their moments (we did enjoy the SkyGoals football themed mode), neither the kids nor myself felt that they really enhanced the game over what the excellent story and campaign offered. I am sure some players may enjoy it and it doesn’t really hurt anything, but it seems forced to have it in there unless the three modes are just the foundation for additional ones in the future.
Other Version impressions
While I played the Xbox 360 extensively and as the primary source for the review of the game, I was able to spend some time with all four of the platforms (PS3, Wii and PC.) The Wii version is the original build (developed by Toys for Bob) and the game was ported to the other platforms by XPEC Entertainment while being overseen by Toys for Bob. While the controls on the Xbox 360 worked fine, you could tell from a graphics and physics standpoint, the game was not taking full advantage of what the 360 can do. This isn’t to say it was a problem, as the addictive game play masks many of the rough edges that Xbox 360 and PS3 gamers do not expect to find. However, here is a brief synopsis of some of the differences and additional notes on each:
The PS3 version was virtually identical to the Xbox 360 version with the exception of the wireless Portal of Power. While the 360 and PC portals were connected via 10’ wired USB cable, the PS3 and Wii both use a wireless USB receiver and battery operated portal. Otherwise, the PS3 and 360 versions look and play identical.
As expected, the Wii version has a different look and feel than the Xbox 360, PS3 and PC versions due to the control scheme and system constraints. However, it didn’t look too far off graphically, but it was just rougher around the edges. My biggest issue with the Wii version was with the directional control mapping to the nunchuck analog stick, as it was not nearly as responsive as the analog sticks of the other three. Also, the ‘C’ button on the nunchuck (the little round button above the trigger) was used extensively as the secondary weapon and was a bit awkward. The Wii Remote or nunchuck triggers would probably have been a better option for this control. Otherwise the game played fine on the Wii and was just as fun as the other platforms.
When I got to the PC version, I started to run into some trouble. In addition to having to wait to install the game (versus the instant gratification of popping in the disk on the console versions), the game was extremely sluggish and the audio was completely out of synch with the cut-scene video. The biggest difference between the console and PC versions is that you have to wait to play the game. While the install time was expected (approximately 10-15 minutes), I am very concerned about how poorly the game performed on my gaming laptop. I was thinking it must be my gaming laptop, although it easily meets the minimum specifications and has significantly more memory and video card performance than the specs. On the other hand, I did check my task manager and saw that the processor wasn’t being taxed at all but the game was tying up over 665MB of memory while it was running.
The PC experience wasn’t all bad, as I was happy to see that USB Xbox 360 controllers were mapped to the game. The PC instructions suggested only customizable keyboard controls, but I was able to use
my Logitech Chillstream out of the box with much success. Despite the sluggishness, the game looked as clean and tight as it did on the Xbox 360 and PS3.
After spending so much time the last few days with Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure, I am sold on the game itself and the implementation by Toys for Bob and XPEC. While I am a bit leery on some of the potential long-term pitfalls involved with the toy integration, the game play, plot and development should allow it to sell itself even without the strong marketing campaign that is quickly turning the Skylanders into one of 2011 Holiday’s must haves. If you have children asking for the Skylanders toys or you enjoy a very well implemented Action/Adventure game with a dash of puzzle and mini-games, then Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure would be a nice addition to your gaming collection.
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