When the original Skylanders was released last year, a lot of people, myself included, thought it was truly a gimmick. Trying to get people to once again invest in plastic add-ons for games after the music genre died off seemed to be the tactic. That was until I actually got into the game itself and realized that this is brilliant. Toys for Bob and Activision have created a franchise that not only appeals to gamers of all ages, but have also constructed a well-designed action/RPG in the process. Collecting figures is an addiction, but only because the game works so well. Capturing lightning in a bottle twice is hard, but Skylanders Giants proves that it can be done.
Much of what made the original Skylanders great returns for Giants. The core structure hasn’t changed as far as the game is concerned. Kaos is still the main villain, you still play as the portal master and characters frozen in toy form must save the world. The story revolves around the Giants, who were the original Skylanders. They were the ones who first defeated Kaos, and are now thought of as myths. You must re-awaken these massive Skylanders and once again defeat the Arkeyans and, of course, Kaos.
While the story is passable, the real treat comes from the audio department. Skylanders held a lot of character in the first game without much dialogue. For the sequel, the team has gone above and beyond to create voices for all the main Skylanders; some of them fairly famous. Bad puns and silly one-liners are abundant throughout the game. Hearing sighs of discontent when Tree Rex realizes that tech Skylanders are more powerful in this area, to listening to each individual song near the jukebox is a nice touch. Also the score is tremendous mixing together familiar melodies and some really cool nods to pop culture including the theme to Airwolf during a helicopter level.
The real draw to the series though has to be its figures. The original game spawned a craze that the toy world had not seen in ages. Figures were impossible to get, and some of them ended up in online auctions going for hundreds of dollars. This time around you can use all of your original figures in the game, so that collection is certainly not useless. When you buy Giants you have two options: the Portal Owners Pack and the Starter Pack. The Portal Owners Pack comes with just the game and one new giant character, Tree Rex. The Starter pack has both of those items plus a series two Cynder and newcomer Jet Vac, while the 3DS version comes with an exclusive version of Pop Fizz.
It is worth noting that instead of created tons of new characters, the team has opted to go with eight new regular Skylanders, and eight Giants for a total of 16 new figures, well at least new character figures. You can also purchase what they are dubbing as Series 2 figures, which are the original figures with a new mold and a new power aptly titles ‘Wow Pow’. This basically allows you to upgrade your character beyond the original figure’s ability. Personally, I am not a fan of this. You cannot carry over your original figure’s stats, thus meaning you not only have to shell out the money for the new character, but also upgrade them all over from scratch. Thankfully, Series 2 figures are simply novelty, and as I mentioned not required to enjoy the game.
In fact, the only figure really required from the new batch is a Giant. These characters can access areas and mini-games that regular Skylanders cannot, and since every new copy of Giants comes with Tree Rex, you can literally get away without buying any new figures whatsoever. There are also a series of what they are calling Lightcore figures, and again the differences are mostly cosmetic. These actually feature both old and new faces, and their main difference is that they light up when added to the portal. They also have a screen-clearing bomb when they come into play. Options are nice, but be cautious when purchasing figures, there are in fact only 16 truly new characters to collect.
Now let’s talk about the game itself. As I mentioned, this is a light action/RPG that is literally accessible for everyone. I have played solo, as well as co-op with my wife, who actually fell right into the trap after we started playing. She wanted to go out and immediately buy more Skylanders (personal note we own over 30 of them already). This is why the concept works. They not only hook you with the collection aspect, but they also wrap it up in a really fun game. Giants add a new dimension to things, as they are basically tanks that eliminate the need for bombs. They can crush hordes of enemies and open up puzzles that normal Skylanders need to find items for.
The game is broken up into 15 chapters and is actually quite lengthy. Running through it will take over 10 hours at least. Then you have the return of Heroic Challenges and Arena modes, plus leveling up each Skylander takes time. After playing the entire campaign, I still had not maxed out Tree Rex, and I used him the majority of the time playing through. The best part is that playing the game with someone else is truly what makes it fun. Leveling up your characters, and earning their new abilities is really the bulk of the fun.
A lot of the mini-games have returned, and one new one has been added, which also adds yet another thing to collect. Skystones is a card game similar to Eye of Judgment on the PS3. Basically, you collect these cards that have edges on them. You place your cards on a 3×3 grid in turns against another player. If your edges are stronger, you steal their card and vice versa. It is a neat diversion that unfortunately crops up too much in the campaign. I enjoy playing the game and collecting the cards, but it is forced on you too often for imperative items in the story.
As I mentioned earlier, the audio in the game is stellar. The music, the voice work, it all just sounds fantastic. Presentation is a big part of the changes to Giants. The new stats screen explains things much better, and managing your Skylanders is less of a chore.
One thing I am not a fan of is the collection in the options menu. Whenever you load up a Skylander it keeps track of them in the stats screen. Well, with Giants it only counts the Skylanders it deems part of this generation. For example, if you own Trigger Happy (as we all do) he doesn’t show up in the collection unless you have Series 2 Trigger Happy. After loading all 30+ of my Skylanders, only five of them registered. It is a small issue, but one that irks my OCD to no end.
A note about the crossed-out text above. I was informed after the review went live that you can in fact keep track of all Skylanders in the new collection menu. Players now have to navigate to the Manage tab and change ownership to the native save. This decision was made so that guest toys do not impact your collection. I am OK with this method and cannot wait to go back and log all my characters into the collection. Again my OCD demands it.
Visually, the game looks much like the first one. Environments feel more varied this time around, but the main aesthetic feels pretty much the same. It is worth noting that the PS3 and 360 versions look significantly sharper than the Wii counterpart. It isn’t something you notice off-hand, but when comparing them side-by-side, it makes a huge difference. The glitches from the original game also feel much less frequent, though the stutters and slowdown still occur on occasion. Overall, I love the look of Skylanders, and think it fits the mood of the game perfectly. I will be very interested to see how it turns out on Wii U next month.
In the end, Skylanders Giants feels like the right evolution for the series. There are enough tweaks and new content to get people back into the game, while the new figures only amount to 16 this time around (unless you really need to collect the new Series 2 ones) it makes it more manageable on your wallet. Again, I had a blast playing co-op with my wife and look forward to introducing my son to it in a few years. The game is appealing across the board, and continues to be that sort of fun experience that games used to be focused around. It will be interesting to see if they try to annualize it and how long gamers will accept it, but as of right now, I am definitely in Skylander Heaven.
Review copy of game provided by publisher. Primary play on Xbox 360.