Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure Review

Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure (Xbox 360, PS3, Wii)
Developer: Toys for Bob
Publisher: Activision
MSRP: $69.99

I’m not sure what it is about peripheral gaming, but as long as the actual peripheral is unique, I’m usually on board. Guitar Hero seemed ridiculous when I purchased it day one, yet months later it became a total phenomenon. Eye of Judgement, a trading card game that used the Playstation Eye to read the cards you owned, proved unsuccessful due to expensive and hard to locate booster packs and finicky technology. The allure of interacting with video games with peripherals remains an enticing proposition, especially when they’re thoughtfully executed. Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure’s (a game having very little to do with Spyro) unique portal mechanism is both effective and inventive, but by contrast the game it serves can be painfully mediocre despite its simple-yet-engaging combat mechanics.

The base game includes one portal and three figurines. The portal syncs wirelessly to a USB drive that you plug into you’re console. Once you turn the portal on, it’ll glow – that’s when you put a figurine you own on it and voila! That selected character is in the game, controlled by that consoles controller. You can change your character at any time by taking it off the portal and replacing it with another one you own. Each toy also stores information – collected gold, experience, nicknames – that can be read by any portal you set it on, encouraging two-player co-op. What this means is that purchasing new toys accesses previously locked content already available on the disc, yet it never comes off as money-grubbing because a tangible object is now in your possession.

The narrative justification for this peripheral can be off-putting. You are the Portal Master, controller of the portal, and the toys placed on it are called Skylanders. Characters will then talk directly to you, thus breaking the fourth wall and creating clunky narrative. They’re also inconsistent as to whom they’re addressing – sometimes it’s you, sometimes the Skylander, and sometimes both. The inconsistency can be jarring. Younger gamers may actually like this approach, as it might make them for a more engaging story. Older folks will groan.

What’s most exciting about Skylanders is its role-playing roots. Because it plays like an action role-playing game, your toys level up via gained experience and you can purchase upgrades and new attacks for them. Each toy has its own unique attacks that make investing in a large collection of them addictive. There are 32 in all, each with their own skill trees to explore. Even though it boils down to deciding which attack you’d like to further develop, it’s enough of a difference to make my Sonic Boom more special than someone else’s. The action is engaging and adorable, even without having much depth.

Levels are linear but offer diverging paths to hidden piles of gold, hats (that enhance particular stats), rare treasures, story scrolls (for those who are fasinated by Skylanders lore; ie: nobody), and soul gems (that show a brief clip of a Skylander – an advertisement – and also unlocks an upgrade for that Skylander). These areas are often blocked by gates, which require Skylanders of a certain element. The initial purchase includes three (all of which are surprisingly strong), buy you’ll need to purchase five more Skylanders in order to access all of the content. This is not an inexpensive endeavor.

To break up the games core action, mind-numbingly straightforward block puzzles are included. I was initially glad for their inclusion, but I soon realized how much they actually detract from the overall experience. The solutions are obvious, which makes replaying levels littered with them a chore. However, the more alarming issue is that these puzzles weren’t designed for cooperative play in mind at all. You can’t be too far from your ally, and because some puzzles are quite large, the two of you must follow each other around instead of working together to solve them faster. But some puzzles work poorly with two players, constantly sending both of you back to the beginning. And one in the last level doesn’t make any sense if played through the first time with two-players since the game gives you no indication of what you have to do to progress. They ruin the flow and fun of the game and make cooperative a pain rather than a pleasure – a frustrating negative, especially considering I specifically bought it for co-op play.

Whoever decided that unskippable dialogue and cutscenes were a good idea should be fired. This doesn’t appear to be a significant problem at first, since some initial characters prove to be at least moderately charming, but it becomes a poor design choice during boss battles. The battles are fun as you alternate between battling evil versions of the established Skylanders to avoiding lasers, sharks, fire, and other obstacles. The transitions between these two are incredibly irritating though: the head honcho Kaos talks for 30 seconds about what he’s going to send out at you next, even though you become very aware of the format after the first boss fight. These battles would have been a highlight if you could either skip the dialogue or if they weren’t so horribly fragmented.

Skylanders could have been something special. All of the systems are in place – skills trees, engaging combat, cooperative play – to create a fun, action role-playing experience. But instead, too much emphasis was put on frequently clunky, unskippable narrative and tedious, overly obvious puzzles that could have been used to make more exciting enemies, level designs, and an overall deeper game. Conceptually, Skylanders is a hit, albeit an expensive one. Mechanically, though, it’s littered with too many poor design choices, making it difficult to recommend.

 

 

 

Quick tidbits:

– The music is quite catchy and memorable, whereas the writing (penned by the Toy Story guys) is overly pun-y.

– I was never too fond of this games art direction for whatever reason. It appears others have no problems with it though.

– Good luck completing your collection. Retailers are sold out across the board.

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