Skylanders: Spyro?s Adventure review for PS3, Xbox 360, Wii

Platform: Xbox 360
Also on: PS3, Wii
Publisher: Activision
Developer: XPEC Entertainment
Medium: DVD-ROM
Players: 1 – 2
Online: No

It?d be easy to pass Skylanders: Spyro?s Adventure off as a gimmick. I think we?ve all been burned a time or two by plastic peripherals that plug into a video game system, and most of those gadgets have come from games published by Activision, the same publisher behind Skylanders. So inviting more plastic toys into your home for video games might not seem like a great idea. But the more I continued to play Skylanders, the more I found myself genuinely impressed with the concept. The game itself isn?t what I?d label great, but I?m pretty surprised nobody has come up with this concept before now.

When you pick up the Starter pack for Skylanders, you get the game, the Portal of Power base that plugs into your console, and three action figures. When you boot the game up for the first time, you?re prompted to place one of the figures on the Portal of Power, which then reads information from the figure?s base and tells the game which character you?re currently using. As you play the game and level up your character, those stats carry over to the toy itself, so you could then bring the toy over to a friend?s house, plop it down on his portal, and not lose a thing.

The toys are pretty detailed, well painted, and overall I love most of the character designs I?ve seen. The starter comes with Spyro, Gill Grunt, and Trigger Happy. Then there are 34 additional characters, with individual character packs and a few sets, along with exclusive store figures. So if you?re into toy collecting, you might dig this too. My only real complaint is that the figures are stationary, they have no moving parts, which makes them a little plain by modern toy standards. I think giving kids a reason to play with the toys outside of the game wouldn?t be a bad idea, but their mobility is akin to a Happy Meal toy, which feels a little cheap in comparison to how good they look.

The Portal of Power accessory plugs into your console like a standard controller, and my Xbox 360 had no issue detecting it. Switching between characters is as easy as taking one off and putting another on and the game automatically pauses when you remove a character. It also loads up the character information quickly, so it only takes a few seconds to switch between two Skylanders.

The actual game could use a little more ingenuity though. It?s not bad by any means, but as far as action RPG?s go, I found it to be a little plain. I think the developer tried really hard to make this as accessible as possible for kids, but I feel like it could have been spruced up a little more without turning away the target audience. The plot is passable, and feels like Saturday morning fare. And while the character designs are mostly cute, and pulled from the animal world, some of the voice over work is pretty bad. You?re also not able to skip over the dialogue quickly (outside of slightly speeding up the text), which is a shame because there are points where the dialogue gets to be a little long winded and over explanatory.

The game is divided into a series of stages that are launched from a home base style area. As you collect Eternal Sources to rebuild the Core of Light, the home base will change its appearance, and also unlock new sections. You?ll run into new friends that will also show up on base, occasionally providing bits of dialogue or directions for you. Some of these characters have other roles, like the fairy Persephone who can upgrade your current Skylanders abilities.

Gameplay is handled like an action RPG, and you can think of this a bit as a kid?s version of Diablo or Torchlight. It isn?t loot heavy like those games, instead the majority of the stuff you collect is just cash used to pay Persephone for your abilities. The only equipment you find are hats, generally hidden behind portals scattered throughout each level. These hats enhance your Skylanders base stats, and will add to their armor, speed, or elemental powers. The game does a poor job of explaining your characters current stats though, so I found it hard to determine how much the hats actually end up doing for you.

As you defeat enemies you gain experience, and you max out at level 10 for each Skylander. You?ll most likely max out your 3 base Skylanders by the end of the game without replaying levels, so you can get a pretty full experience out of the starter pack. After you buy up a few powers, Persephone will ask you what direction you want to take your Skylander, and she offers up a choice of focusing on one of two primary attacks your Skylander starts with. This gives you a little reason to possibly start your Skylanders stats over again if you choose, and you can erase the stats earned on your figures through the in-game menu.

Combat is handled in real time, so you?ll run up to enemies and press attack buttons to defeat them. As I stated above, each Skylander starts with two basic attacks, generally one that?s ranged and one for melee. You can also acquire a Soul Gem for every Skylander that adds an additional ability down the line. My only complaint about combat is that it gets a little haphazard with multiple enemies. There?s no lock on function, instead the game will focus on the nearest enemy in range and drive your attacks there. It makes it nearly impossible to focus on anything else, unless another enemy comes in close. Another frustrating side to that comes when you?re close to other breakable objects in the environment, as your Skylander will sometimes focus on that instead of the enemy bearing down on you.

The more I continued to play Skylanders, the more I found myself wishing for alternate control set-ups. It gets a little button mashy, in that you can?t hold down your ranged attack button to auto fire, but must continuously press A to fire off shots. It?s not so annoying for the first few hours, but starts to wear thin not long after. I almost feel like a dual stick shooter set-up would have been a better alternative, and it would have alleviated most of the issues I had with targeting the correct enemy.

One last complaint stems from some of the end game content. Without going into spoilers, one of the last stages you encounter is inside of a factory producing giant war machines. At one point in the level you?ll board one of these machines, and the game will move you through a seemingly endless corridor. You have two attacks to use, a punch and ranged attack, and enemies will either fly at you or shoot you from atop platforms. The end of this sequence involves punching another giant war machine, but this whole sequence feels really bad control wise. It?s difficult to judge where your punches are going to actually land, and when you?re trying to use the ranged attack it seems like your shots are actually arching above your on-screen crosshair. It?s not a difficult section at all, but it?s easily the worst part of the game, and sort of leaves a bad ending impression.

My other complaint related to the end of the game involves the final boss, which is downright ridiculous. Up to this point the game hasn?t offered up much of a challenge, and most of the boss fights have been a piece of cake. The end boss turns that around, and ends up being a grueling encounter that lasts for far too long and creates a pretty huge spike in difficulty. It ends up not feeling balanced in comparison to the rest of the game, and was kind of off-putting to me. Even if you end up doing a great job at learning attack patterns and dodging those attacks, it still takes forever to put the boss down, even with your Skylanders at max level. I didn?t enjoy the last boss at all, and can?t see myself ever going back to him again.

Thankfully there?s not much need to do so. The final boss is a level unto himself, and you can revisit any of the other levels to find anything you missed at any time you wish through the pause menu. There?s a lot or replay value here considering that a lot of stuff is locked away until you own the correct Skylander to unlock it, and there?s also a number of well hidden collectibles that you probably won?t discover on your first pass.

I think if you?re looking for a fun kid?s game to toss under the Christmas tree this year, Skylanders: Spyro?s Adventure is worth a look. It has some flaws, but the overall idea is well implemented, and pretty unique. It certainly tugs on the heart strings of the collector in me, and I?ll probably soon lose the ability to resist buying a few of the additional figures for myself. If the game ends up seeing a sequel, I hope the developers will try and expand upon the action RPG trappings a bit more though, as they could certainly use a bit of work. Still, not bad for a first go, and it?s worth taking a look at. I think it?ll be appreciated more by kids than adults, which it?s certainly targeting, but despite the faults it has I found myself enjoying it.

Grade: B-