First of all, don’t be fooled by the name: this isn’t really a Spyro title; it’s an interesting concept that only features Spyro as one of 32 total characters. They’re called Skylanders and they’re the guardians of a colorful, charming realm where even the worst sort of evil is kinda cute. Although the cost is significant, the idea is something that might catch on with young gamers and fans of entertainment that involves collecting of some kind. It’s surprisingly stable and fun; it almost makes you forget the inherent money-making gimmick.
Visually, Skylanders is both pretty and smooth; the animations are nice, the detail isn’t overly refined but still effective, and the landscapes are vividly painted with pleasing shades and hues. The enemy and character designs are decent, too, and this is one game where we should probably examine the physical designs of the character figurines. They give new meaning to the term “action figure” if you really think about it. Anyway, despite a few imperfections and a lack of polish (could’ve used one more coat), this one is attractive.
Boosted by clean effects and fantastic voice acting, the game excels in the audio category. The soundtrack remains diverse when visiting new chapters and environments, and although I don’t think they're quite prominent enough, the tracks are well composed and implemented. The voice performances help a lot, too; Patrick Warburton (Putty in “Seinfeld” and Joe in “Family Guy”) lends his genuinely humorous bravado to Flynn, for instance, and other accomplished actors are involved as well. Overall, this is a great atmosphere for kids.
The world has been threatened by Kaos – that’s the bad guy’s name – and in one fell swoop, he has scattered the world’s guardians, the Skylanders, all over the earth. You have to bring everyone back together and attempt to take out Kaos, all the while earning new powers and skills by completing Heroic Challenges and experimenting with distinct characters. The Starter Pack gives you the Portal of Power peripheral and three Skylanders (Spyro, Gill Grunt, and Trigger Happy), three AA batteries, the wireless USB connector, and decals.
Now, the simple bottom line is that the Portal of Power is merely a gimmick used to switch characters. Place the Portal, which is a plastic but looks like a fantastical dais comprised of stone, nearby and simply place one of the figurines on the platform. That character immediately pops up on the screen and becomes playable. Being old now, I can’t help but see this for what it is: a great way to take advantage of the current “collecting” trend in kid-dom. But I’ll get back to this shortly.
The concept itself works very well and you can even put two figurines on the Portal of Power so two players can enjoy the action. Furthermore, a magic item or location piece (sold separately) can be placed on the platform as well, so there are many different combinations. The game is set up so that you can progress with any of the 32 total characters, each hailing from one of 8 categories, ranging from magic and water to fire and earth. When you enter a zone where one type is more powerful than another, the game will tell you so you can take advantage.
Some gates can only be entered with a certain Skylander type, and thankfully, exploration amidst this standard linear adventure is encouraged. You can find treasure chests, gifts that grant you a new item, and other goodies scattered around any particular area. Each character is indeed very different; for example, Spyro attacks with a stream of fire and his special ability is that he rushes forward with flame on his horns. Gill Grunt, on the other hand, fires a spear gun and can unleash a steady flow of water for his special. Trigger Happy has dual revolvers and tosses a heavy block.
The only downside is that there isn’t much platforming as there is no jumping. Shining round platforms vault your character to a new level. I’m not sure why the developers did this, but it could’ve been for the sake of accessibility for very young gamers. Jumping can be iffy, especially when your collision detection isn’t exactly correct and the camera sometimes doesn’t catch up to the action. So maybe it’s a good thing that it’s more about running around, fighting enemies, and locating loot. I can see how the jumping might get annoying in this context.
But there’s more depth here than you might think. Each Skylander has four statistics – Power, Agility, Defense and Luck – and any hero can equip any hats you find. These hats grant bonuses, like +2 to Critical and Armor. You can also spend money to upgrade each character’s unique skills, so if you really want to max out each Skylander, you could be playing for a while. Lastly, the two-player Battle Mode is invigorating and the Heroic Challenges are much more difficult and require dedicated fans.
The control is just about right, although I still wish we could jump (or at least run), the environments are pleasing and fun to explore, the design fits the family-friendly style, the presentation is pretty damn good, and the voices give the game an even more attractive sheen. There’s lots to do, especially if you want to collect all the Skylanders. And this brings me to my final point: look, the idea really is cool. It is. But all we’re really doing is changing characters; those 32 could’ve been unlockable in the game, for instance.
But instead, we have to pay $70 for the Starter Pack and $20 for additional packs that include three more Skylanders. With 29 more to get after buying the Starter Pack…well, you do the math. But then again, what fad for kids isn’t designed to completely rip off the parents? This is nothing new. Besides, given the amount of time it will take the kid to fully max out a new Skylander, plus the extra content the game provides for those new heroes, this isn’t too terrible. If you have a son or daughter who gets really into it, you know what to get for Christmas and birthdays.
Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure isn’t a throwaway product designed specifically for money-making purposes. The developers did put a large amount of effort into creating an appealing world for all ages, there’s a surprising amount of depth and longevity, the technical elements and control are good, and the humor is a nice touch. There are a few obvious problems but it could be a real gem for the intended audience.
The Good: Charming visuals and presentation. Good voice acting. Portal of Power is inventive and cool. Control is accessible and reliable. Always plenty to do, and more Skylanders add longevity. Nicely paced.
The Bad: Collision detection isn’t quite right. Camera lags just a tad. Simplified gameplay mechanic feels restrictive. Game can be very pricey in the long run.
The Ugly: “Hey, where’s my Portal of Power for a baseball game, where I can put all my old baseball cards on the platform and play as Ken Griffey, Jr. and Frank Thomas?”