Game reviewing, after a while, becomes formulaic - to a certain extent. You start forming opinions early, no matter how careful you are to remain completely unbiased, and will often be pretty accurate in your initial assessment - much as you might preset your mouth, say, to expect a certain flavour from your pizza.
As someone with a lot of experience, then (i’ve been doing this for more than ten years, after all), I saw the fancy box (it’s large, and blue), complete with its portal of plastic power and gaudily coloured toys and thought to myself “Oh. This is going to suck, then”.
I was wrong. Dead wrong. About as wrong as my preconceptions have ever been for a review, perhaps.
But let’s start at the beginning...
Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure is a complicated beast. At its videogame core, it’s one of those action platformer games - you know the type, reminiscent of games like Ratchet & Clank or even Crash Bandicoot. You control this little dude, cruise around obliterating enemies with whatever weapons you have at your disposal at the time, and progress the narrative through to it’s ultimate conclusion.
So far so good, right? There’s more to it than that - a lot more. You see, that “videogame core” thing wasn’t just a turn of phrase; the game itself is just part of the big picture. In that big box I described earlier, there’s this USB-connected thing called a portal of power. You hook it up to your Xbox and then load the game - but you can only go so far without placing one of the three plastic action figures (that also come with the game) on this portal.
Why would you do that? Because - and this bit is important - doing so transports the figure into the game. Pop them on, bam - a playable version appears in the game. Lift it up - poof, they disappear. Any progress you make in the game with the character - say, leveling him up or finding a cool hat - is stored (via the mechanism of the portal and some miscellaneous technical wizardry) in the character itself.
It's a cool hook and it manages to completely sidestep the obvious risk of it coming across as a gimmick.
So what do you do with these characters once there in the game? The title is probably best described as a platform action game, with light RPG elements (the aforementioned leveling up and hat-related loot mechanics). You traverse the titular Skylands (islands in the sky - a cartoon version of that part of Avatar, perhaps), defeat the badguys, rescue the good guys and interact with a host of typically caricature characters.
Check out this trailer for a character called Whirlwind to get an idea of what to expect:
Each of the gameplay elements is tightly refined and presents what can only be described as thoroughly excellent - best in class, even. The controls are easy to understand, combat provides depth to those who are capable of understanding it without confusing those who are not and, much like The Simpsons, the game manages to be appealing to gamers of all ages.
The characters all have their own strengths and playstyle, including various ranged and melee abilities, which allow for plenty of scope in finding a favorite or - more importantly - a reason to switch between them on the fly to suit the situation you find yourself in, as enabled by the portal of power mechanic.
There's a decent amount of content, too, with loads of levels, hidden secrets, unlockable items and challenge-mode maps to test your skills in. You'll need certain characters to access some of it, though, and there's no way to see everything the game has to offer with just the set of characters that come in the box (more on that in a moment).
There's also an impressively executed (and ludicrously fun) multiplayer mode, where players can face off against each other in interactive arenas. The rock-paper-scissors nature of the abilities afforded by each character really comes to the fore here, as does smarts in how to use the environmental interaction (i.e. switches trigger spike traps, etc) to your best advantage. The portal's large enough to fit two characters onto it at a time, so your mates can challenge you in your living room without needing to lug the portal itself around.
Where things get interesting, perhaps, is in the aforementioned plastic figures. The game comes with what can only really be described as a starter set, including just three characters (each of which is aligned to a particular element).
Why the "just" in that description? There's some 30+ additional characters you can buy - much like Pokemon cards, perhaps - each of which costs around $20. Depending on how you look at it (each one packs in a bunch of new moves, a new challenge level, and some items), this is either a great way to expand the game or a financial risk to put in front of "gimme gimme gimme" children.
Another caveat to consider - especially if you have some of those needy kids in the potential audience - is that throughout the game you'll find tokens that provide upgrades to specific characters, most of which you probably won't have.
Why is this a caveat? Each plays out like an advertisement for that character, instilling a desire - even in this hardened reviewer - to go out and buy that $20 add-on. What it will do in the hearts and minds of impressionable children, we'll leave you to determine.
Regardless of your particular alignment on the question as to the value proposition, Skylanders is a very well executed and fun game. It's appropriate for the entire family and delivers a compelling new hook that isn't just the same stuff re-skinned for a new generation.
If you can deal with the collectable nature of the peripherals, Skylanders comes very heartily recommended.