Is this a bunch of collectable toys or some kind of elaborate video game set up? The answer, of course, is both. And it's a pretty whiz-bang marketing idea. According to a recent NPD Group report, the collectable video game hybrid franchise called Skylanders has sold a whopping $500 million worth of games and toy figure accessories in the U.S. since it first launched in 2011.
Kids, however, don't really care how much their toys have earned. They just want to know what flashy adventures are now available and how many cool new collectable critters they can start saving their allowance for. That's why I'll start this review with a friendly parent-to-parent heads-up: As kids progress through the levels, they happen upon Soul Gems among their found treasures. But these gems don't boost skills or bestow extra health. Instead, they trigger a preview trailer of another collectable superguy your little gamer probably doesn't yet have. Which, of course, is designed to prompt cries of, "Did you see that one? It's so cool! Can we get it? Can we get it?"
That's the very nature of a game-that-is-a-toy-that-is-a-collectable, isn't it? There's always a few more characters with a few more zapping or bashing moves to add a little spice to a kid's gaming adventures. After all, a good gaming company's always got another $500 million to make.
Shining a Light on the World of the Portal Master
The new Giants storyline carries on from the end of Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure. It packs the same kind of fantastical platforming battle action and puzzle-solving, and if anything, adds just a bit more polish and accessibility.
Things begin as the goofy do-badder Kaos wakes up to find himself posing in miniature plastic figure form on the shelf of a small-town toy store. Of course, this won't do. The megalomaniacal misfit has to find a way back to his chosen place of ruthless rule. (What will his hapless minions do without an iron fist to guide them?) Then, among all the other Skyland goodies at the store, he finds a Portal of Power. Ah-ha! It's just the thing he needs to set things right, er, wrong once again.
At the same time it turns out that ancient giants have returned to Skyland—that magical place of floating sky islands. The superbig guys haven't been around since that gargantuan Arkeyan robot threat 10,000 years ago. So why are they back? Well, because when Kaos blunders back into Skyland he accidentally recharges one of those gigantic bots of yore. He scrambles into the robot's noggin and schemes to use that huge mechanical man to find a legendary relic in the Lost City of Arkus. And we all know where that will lead! Dun-dun-dun! To a Kaotic reign of ultimate power over all the peaceful inhabitants of Skyland, of course.
So it's up to the young portal masters (either just you or you and a friend) to use a cadre of brand-new Skyland heroes to stop the baddie and save the day. That cadre actually consists of over 40 new toy figures (available for purchase at a toy store near you!) that kids can place on their own Power Portal and bring to life onscreen. Only eight of those characters are actually giants (standing about twice the size of the regular plastic heroes), but all of these Series 2 figures come with new attack moves and a fancy built-in Lightcore system that makes them glow while they're sitting on that Portal of Power launch pad.
Fighting for Your Reward
Just like the first game, you can trade a variety of characters in and out of the game at any point. The individual plastic toys learn as they go, and as they gain experience points and attribute bonuses (Critical Hit, Speed, Armor, etc.) they become their own save system, "remembering" all their improvements and how far they've traveled in-game through a chip in their plastic bases.
They also work across all the different platforms available—so your new Wii U giant, Tree Rex, or his (sold separately!) giant robot buddy Bouncer will thump and bash along just as well on a friend's Xbox 360 as they do at home. In addition, Series 2 and Series 1 characters alike can be upgraded to Level 15 instead of their progress getting capped at Level 10—a bonus that'll give new life to all those old characters stuffed in that shoe box in the closet.
Gameplay is more centralized now. Each quest to, say, find a robot-expert hermit or unlock the entrance to the Secret Vault of Secrets, begins and ends back at Cap'n Flynn's ship. While onboard this dilapidated sky vessel, you can buy upgrades for your characters' abilities with the loot you've scavenged, pick up specialized hats and equipment items, battle waves of enemies in an arena bout, or participate in several other fun games that all lend small boosts to characters' development. It amounts to a fresh, nicely integrated bundle of minigames that help give that normally grinding level-up process a dash of variety.
What's not fresh amid all the upgrades and plusses are some of the same problems Spyro's Adventure has. No foul language or bloody mess amid the cartoonish combat, of course, but the eight different elemental classes—Water, Tech, Fire, Earth, Life, Air, Magic and Undead—are all represented in the new cast. And those last two spiritually shadowy categories of critters include witches, skeletons and ghosts. One Heroic Challenge minigame dares your hero to overcome obstacles and find six lost zombie heads. The reward? Experience boosts … and a synchronized zombie dance celebration.
That's not the only "reward" kids get from Skylanders: Giants, though. Even the ickiest looking creatures here are always fighting for the good guys, working hard to set their (floating) world straight again. Indeed, kids never play as the bad guys … who exist only to bring conflict to the story and give them something to fight against as they fight for something better.