Speaking as a man-child, I have to admit that I love the Skylanders gimmick. Being able to take physical toys, scan them into a game, and then play as them is something that me and my friends could only dream of as kids. Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to travel back in time with the game and show it to people just to blow their minds. However, somewhere in between those thoughts I was forced to stop myself and face hard facts. I’m a reviewer of games, not toys, and as such it is my duty to give the game portion of Skylanders: Giants an honest critique, gimmicks be dammed. Is Activision and Toys For Bob’s sequel to the original Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventures a giant success, or should you send this title through a portal to the junkyard? Read on to find out!
The story of Giants is a good place to start, if only to get it out of the way. Since the game makes no effort to help newcomers catch up with the plot, chances are you’ll be confused very quickly. A squeaky-voiced villain named Lord Kaos is apparently trapped inside a toy store with several Skylanders heroes. Soon he finds a portal, which whisks him away to a fantasy world called Skylands, where giants now roam in addition to regular fantasy beings. This is all explained to you by a disembodied Viking head who calls you portal master, even though Kaos is apparently also one. Then again, perhaps the tutorial mission was a prologue that took place in the past; I really don’t know.
There’s a thing called the Fist of Argus, which Kaos is looking for with the help of newly unearthed giant robots, and then there’s this guy called Captain Flynn, who helps out your group of Skylanders even though none of them show up in the cutscene that introduces him, and then there’s other giant robots you have to enlist the help of, and there’s a scene in which Barack Obama turns into a goat and break-dances in front an audience of cabbage men. Just kidding about the last one, though at this point I wouldn’t be surprised if you thought it was true. If you can’t tell yet, Giants’ story is a convoluted mess that was probably thought up by some reject cartoon writer during a hangover. It’s complimented by flat dialogue, humor that misses more often than it hits (unfunny references to Gladiator, anyone?), and in general it presents you with very few compelling reasons to give the slightest crap. The characters’ personalities are at least unique enough to entertain, but otherwise this is below average fare that lazily exploits the low standards of children.
As you probably know by now, Skylanders: Giants is riding on the waves of a neat gimmick that allows for physical toys to be integrated into the game. How it works is that the various Skylander figures can be placed on a portal device connected to your console, which makes them appear in the game as playable characters. It’s a little less remarkable when you really think about it, as the developers have already programmed all the characters into the game and are merely selling you physical keys that unlock those characters. Still, it’s a unique and innovative feature that successfully bridges the world of toys with the world of gaming, and as such creates a whole new audience for the gaming medium.
If you were to take the game itself and place it on a sort of genre portal, you’d get a simple button-mashy action game with light puzzle and RPG elements reminiscent of the recent Lego titles. Levels are arranged in a mostly linear fashion, with the player constantly hindered by roadblocks such as enemies, block puzzles, or locked gates that they must deal with. There is some room for deviation from the main path to find secrets in the form of collectible hats and hidden rooms, but for the most part there is one definitive way to complete the levels. Combat is a simple affair in which you press the face buttons to perform various melee and ranged attacks. There’s a very small hub in between levels in the form of Flynn’s flying ship, where you can perform special challenge missions and buy upgrades and additional abilities using collected coins. Occasionally, a boss fight or turret section is also thrown at you to add some variety.
It sounds like a difficult formula to screw up, but against all odds, Giants finds a way to present some niggling issues. First we come to fact that characters can’t jump. There are a lot of elevated platforms, and the most you’ll ever get to traverse them with are the occasional jump pads. Otherwise, when you fall off a ledge onto the ground below, it means you have to waste time circling the elevated area to find a ramp allowing you to get back to it. Then there’s the fact that health pickups are incredibly scarce, which wouldn’t be such a problem if enemy attacks were easier to dodge.
However, the biggest problem with the game, casting a wide shadow over all the others, is its death system. If you lose all your health points, your Skylander is incapacitated for the rest of the level, meaning you have to switch to another one, and when you completely run out of Skylanders, you have to start the entire level over again. These levels aren’t short, mind you, with some taking twenty or more minutes to complete, and the games has a nasty tendency to spike the difficulty at certain points, like when you’re tasked with fighting three Orc Warriors, an enemy type that served as the final boss for the previous level. All of this means that if you don’t own many figures, you’ll be forced to replay substantial chunks of gameplay. It’s “pay to win” in its most egregious form, literally making it easier on those who have bought more merchandise.
If you do take to Skylanders: Giants gameplay, there’s quite a lot of content to experience here, even if you don’t have the figure types necessary to explore the closed-off areas. Co-op is available for up to two players, but unfortunately it suffers from its own problems, the most frustrating of which is the “towing system.” Since both players have to share a screen, they’ll start towing one another if they get too far from each other, which will happen often if you’re playing with someone who likes to explore. I played with my sister, and we would constantly stop dead in our tracks because we were both pulling on each other. Eventually one of us would disappear and promptly teleport next to the other player. I realize that sharing one screen will always have its hassles, but it could have been handled more elegantly than it was here.
Visually, Skylanders: Giants is far from impressive. The minute you boot up the game, you’ll be greeted with blurry and low-resolution textures along with simplistic animations and some horribly compressed cinematics. Although the game’s art style makes up for some of this, you can never quite shake the fact that matched against the visuals of any other game on the market, it would be laughed out of the room in a second. It very much seems that the HD versions share the same engine used for the Wii version, which is inexcusable in this day and age. Granted, the game doesn’t look outright bad; as mentioned above, the color palette is distinct and the game has a consistent aesthetic style, but it’s at the mercy of an unremarkable graphics engine. You should expect a bit more from a giant publisher like Activision.
The sound is a bit better, thankfully. Everything from the Skylanders’ attacks to the jingle of collected coins sounds decent across the board. The soundtrack is fitting as well, even if the only track you’re likely to remember is the appropriately rousing main theme. Finally, while the voice acting is well done by a diverse cast of enthusiastic actors, it must be said that the Skylanders’ voice quips repeat way too often. Listening to the same one liner from Cynder the first 2741 times is fun, don’t get me wrong, but the next 35,789 times it gets a little unbearable. Just a little.
Even when everything clicks and Skylanders: Giants is at its best, it suffers from a serious lack of creativity. Too often the game descends into the classic “defeat enemies, get key to open door, fight more enemies” scenario, and the puzzles lack any sort of challenge or unique design. Giants is rarely outright frustrating, but it’s also rarely engaging or inspired. It literally feels like an all-you-can-eat buffet; a massive collection of puzzles, enemies and environments that exist simply to fill space on the disc.
Skylanders: Giants is not a bad game. As a light RPG/brawler, it’s built on a solid gameplay foundation, and I’m sure undemanding kids who are interested in the gimmick will be all over it. At the same time, a host of design flaws (such as the awful death system) constantly plague the experience, and even when it’s functioning at its best, Giants just isn’t doing anything spectacular. It’s the very definition of a safe game, one that was made simply because it had to be made in order to accompany the toys. It pains me to say that if the whole toy gimmick were removed from Giants, it would simply be an average action RPG. Not a bad one, mind you, but far from a great one. Saying all that, I can still recommend the game to kids, since it’s far from broken and the gimmick is a nice one. If you’re a real-life giant, though, I can’t see you being highly invested in the experience, and you’d be better off visiting other lands this holiday season.
(Reviewed on Playstation 3. Review copy generously provided by Activision and Step-3. Thank you!)