A year ago at this time, Activision and Toys for Bob took the gaming and toy industries by storm with the hit Spyro the Dragon spinoff, Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure. The ingeniously creative union of physical toy and video game lead to shortages at stores and sent Toys for Bob scrambling to create the follow up, Skylanders Giants, in a condensed development timeframe. As certain as Kaos will always return, the Skylanders do as well in a triumphant sequel that lives up to its “giant” billing.
When we last left the diminutive Kaos, he had been whisked off to earth to suffer the same fate bestowed upon the Skylanders; shrunken down into an inanimate toy that needed a Portal of Power to be brought back to life. I had always thought this storyline would generate a Kaos toy for Skylanders Giants, but alas it did not. Instead, the sequel starts humorously with Kaos coming to life in a toy store, mocking some Skylanders trapped in a display case, and ultimately finding a Portal of Power to zap him back to Skylands for another shot at total world domination.
The opening sequence is pre-rendered CGI and looks, in a word, fantastic. In fact all the pre-rendered CGI cut-scenes in Skylanders Giants are sharply polished and exceed those in Spyro’s Adventure, and are more plentiful as well. Scenes involving soaring through the clouds are especially breathtaking to behold, and that’s not a word I use lightly. This theme of eclipsing Spyro’s Adventure continues throughout all the game’s facets until the final battle.
Upon his return to Skylands, Kaos stumbles – literally – into an old Arkeyan robot. It is from this robot, voiced wonderfully by Star Trek’s George Takei, that Kaos learns about the lost Iron Fist of Arkus and the Arkeyan robot army it can awaken. Thus Kaos, rather than trying to stop the Skylanders from setting out to build the McGuffin that will take him down in Spyro’s Adventure, begins a journey to locate and wield his own McGuffin in the Iron Fist of Arkus and rule an unstoppable giant mechanical army that can take over the world!
The Skylanders and Master Eon know Kaos is back and hatch their own plan to awaken the long dormant Giants, the ancient original Skylanders that are huge and have unique abilities. These guys can pull small islands with chains to get at treasures, smash into hidden underground areas, pick up large boulders to toss, and engage of feats of strength to move obstacles. On the toy front they light up with LightCore technology, a “magical” feature that illuminates multiple LEDs within the figures when they are in range of the Portal of Power – without the use of batteries. Giants are a great addition to the Skylanders mythos and certain to become favorites due to their stature alone.
The Skylanders Giants story mode is broken into 16 chapters, a step back from the 20 plus chapters in the previous game. In this case less feels like more as each chapter covers more real estate, hides more collectibles to find, and generally takes longer to complete. It will take roughly 7 to 8 hours for a seasoned gamer to complete the game without searching for hidden areas, Elemental zones, or collectibles. Half the fun of playing a Skylanders game is leveling up all the Skylanders and earning three stars on each chapter, something that I suspect would require anywhere from 30 hours or much more to achieve.
Toys for Bob has achieved more gameplay variety in fewer chapters with the inclusion of new ways to play such as the Arkeyan Chopper that spends most of its time letting the player fly the vehicle through the Secret Lost City of Arkus, and an Oracle level that puts a Skylander through choose-a-path trials. Though it’s not necessarily an evolution in gameplay, the wooden puppet “Wilikin” chapter is so delightfully creative and charming that it would feel right at home in the LittleBigPlanet universe.
All the collectibles are back in Skylanders Giants such as treasure chests, hats, legendary treasures (now legendary ship parts), soul gems and story scrolls. In keeping with the “everything is better” theme, new collectibles join the old timers to essentially double the amount of things to look for. These collectibles include lucky wheels that can be plugged into the Luck-O-Tron on Flynn’s ship and increase the odds of better treasure finds, to winged sapphires that knock a small percentage off of Persephone’s rates for character upgrades.
Additional collectibles can be purchased with money collected, a new feature that lets you exchange money for charms to increase abilities; exclusive hats, Battle Arenas and Heroic Challenges; keys to get by lock puzzles; and Skystones cards. Auric the merchant pops up in every level once he is introduced allowing you to shop and upgrade mid-chapter rather than only in between chapters on Flynn’s ship.
Skystones is a new mini-game that plays like a twisted match of tic-tac-toe where the x’s and o’s are collectible cards. It’s moderately fun to play until a game must be won to push further into a chapter. In these instances, Skystones breaks the game’s rhythm much like a difficult to pick lock can.
Another new addition in Skylanders Giants are individual quests for each Skylander figure that update throughout the course of the game. An example would be Monster Masher where a Skylander must destroy 1,000 enemies to complete the quest. The game will update the progress every 200 monsters or so in real-time so the player knows when the quest is almost fulfilled. There’s no reward for completing the quest, but it does give the player more goals to aim for.
Quests, collectibles and the ability to better manage them are a more advanced form of action/RPG than what Spyro’s Adventure introduced. This is exactly the approach I expected from Toys for Bob as the original game’s beginner players come in more experienced, a year older, and ready to take one step closer toward playing a full-blown RPG. It’s a natural progression that I expect to continue in future installments.
There are many, many players out there who will boot up Skylanders Giants with a small army of Spyro’s Adventure figures , adventure packs and power up accessories at the ready. This is where Toys for Bob has achieved their greatest triumph with Skylanders Giants. Rather than forcing players to go out and buy all the new toys, they have made the game completely backward compatible with all the old toys. This means all those Spyro’s Adventure figures appear in Giants as Series 1 figures, complete with whatever hat they were last wearing in the previous game. The treasure chest from Pirates Seas still points you toward the goods, and Pirates Seas itself is ready to be played by new or old characters alike.
The irony here is I knocked Spyro’s Adventure in my review for being one of the most expensive video games to truly complete. With this amazing backward compatibility, Skylanders Giants seems like a bargain since you can play the game from start to finish by only purchasing the Portal Owner’s Pack with Tree Rex. Though you only need one Giant to complete the game, you will want the others as they are incredibly cool to watch light up on the Portal of Power and use in the game.
The Giants are so powerful in Skylanders Giants that it almost seems unfair to rely on them. Enemies flatten with their attacks. Treasure chests open up almost instantly. Breakable objects crumble by merely walking into them. I played through the game from start to finish with Tree Rex and only once was my health near its bottom.
I then tested some latter chapters on medium and hard level and still was able to dominate with the big guy. Yes, difficulty levels are introduced in Skylanders Giants and are a perfect example of Toys for Bob listening to what fans wanted and coming through with the goods.
Kaos Nightmare mode unlocks when you beat the game but I haven’t gotten far enough into it to properly comment. Early on it seems the enemies take a lot more hits to take down which should help level the playing field a bit.
Once you go Giant it’s hard to go back to the regular-sized Skylanders, even though the little guys are speedier in making their way around Skylands. The urge to dominate with Giants is hard to resist, but for those who can, an extreme challenge is there for seasoned or advanced gamers to take on nightmare mode with one or two Skylanders, a more mature alternative unavailable in Spyro’s Adventure.
Apart from a couple instances of the game slowing down for a second or two while Tree Rex leveled up during a big fight, the only letdown while engaged in the story campaign comes during the final fight with Kaos. Whereas in Spyro’s Adventure Kaos put up a strong fight and used dark versions of Skylanders as his own personal weapons, here the fight is much easier and over almost as fast as it begins. Maybe this will change on nightmare difficulty, but as it stands, the final fight is not as challenging as it should have been.
Players with an itch to take on friends can do so in the returning Battle Arena. Several of these arenas make an appearance during the story campaign, and they have been improved with dynamic hazards and crowds that chant the name(s) of the Skylanders doing battle.
I would have questioned the lack of online co-operative play if not for the short development cycle Toys for Bob had to work on Skylanders Giants. It is absolutely amazing what they have been able to achieve in just under a year while fixing many of the gripes players had with the first game at the same time. The level of polish is superb and the attention to detail evident in every aspect; from the music and actual English language voices for each Skylander to the cut-scenes and the toys, and even something as simple as breakable items now having a slight vibration to them so they are more easily spotted and smashed. Skylanders Giants is a true and solid sequel that accomplishes what all sequels should: improve upon the original in every way.
All the love crammed into Skylanders Giants makes me wonder what Toys for Bob could pull off if they had the development timeline of a Mario Galaxy game. Right now the “sky” is the limit for this burgeoning franchise.
– Dan Bradley
Shop for Skylanders Giants on the platform of your choice at Amazon.com (October 21, 2012 release date).