Intuitive design; Simple yet entertaining card game; Great voice work; tons of replay value.
Visuals; Block-pushing puzzles; Pay-to-Play can be a bit blatant; Giants seem to have an unfair advantage over other Skylanders.
If I were a kid, Skylanders would be the coolest freakin’ thing ever. From a marketing standpoint, it’s genius. What if Nintendo required kids to physically purchase Pokémon toys just to use them in the games? Nintendo didn’t come up with this brilliant idea. Activision did, and the result is Skylanders. Of course, any real similarities lay completely on the surface. Skylanders just happens to take the whole “catchin’ them all” aspect to a very interesting new level. But how does the game itself play? Not bad, really.
For those familiar with dungeon-crawling RPGs, Skylanders: Giants will seem pretty familiar– start an area, clear out the enemies and push a few crates and blocks to reach the finish. The gameplay is reminiscent of Marvel: Ultimate Alliance, but rather than having a team of four heroes that you toggle between on-screen, you switch between characters by physically taking the toy off the “portal of power” and placing a different character on it.
Each character falls into one of multiple elemental types such as fire, water, and grass. Some areas of the game provide certain benefits to using that type, while others can’t be accessed at all without that particular type. For example, an early area I encountered was inaccessible because the Starter Kit didn’t come with a fire type that could cross the flames. If I wanted to access this optional area, I would have to go to the store and pick up a fire type.
This is where some people are going to find themselves split. On the one hand, it’s a really smart business move and it’s a pretty cool novelty, but on the other, it can be perceived as a bit exploitive. The game rewards players for buying more figures. For example, if one of your Skylanders is low on health, you can swap in a different character with their own life bar, thus giving you a leg up on a player with fewer toys. Are the Skylanders figures providing increased replay value, or are they milking parents out of more money? There’s no easy answer for that, and where you fall will likely reflect your opinion.
The characters themselves are well-designed and a lot of fun. They also offer up a lot of opportunities for customization: they can level up, you can buy them new moves (thankfully through in-game currency rather than real money), and they can be given hats that increase their stats. What’s more, all this information is saved on the toys themselves, creating one of the first real cross-system experiences. That means the stats I save while playing the Wii version can be brought over to a friend’s house within the figure itself, no matter what version of the game my friend is playing it on. Overall, it’s the technology that impressed me the most with Skylanders: Giants, and I hope Activision finds additional uses for it.
The game’s subtitle comes from the new “Giants” characters introduced specifically for this sequel. They play a big part in the narrative and, true to form, they’re absolute beasts in-game. They’re not just physically bigger either, as they’re capable of pulling off things that the smaller characters can’t– kind of like what the addition of Dark and Steel type Pokémon did for the Gold and Silver iterations. Unfortunately, this does come at a cost: gameplay is so slanted towards the Giants that you’ll be tempted to avoid using other Skylanders characters. At one point, my Giant was 3 or 4 levels ahead of one of my other Skylanders simply because he was so much more effective at smashing enemy troops. It’s like being able to control Captain America in an Avengers game when the Hulk can take out enemies so much more easily.
The gameplay isn’t all dungeon-crawler, though. A couple levels in, you’ll discover a card game called Skystones. While card-based minigames aren’t exactly a new development for an RPG, I found it refreshing and I liked that the game didn’t make it optional as many games tend to do. Since I was forced to try it, I ended up enjoying myself. The game plays out on a grid board resembling Tic-Tac-Toe, and each player takes turns placing a player card down on a space and attempting to convert the other player’s card to their side by correctly positioning an attack. It was pretty easy, but a lot of fun. The cynic in me is astonished that there aren’t Skylanders cards that can be bought and put on the portal of power, though I’m sure Activision is hard at work on this for the sequel.
The graphics in Skylanders: Giants are adequate but unspectacular. Cut-scenes look nice, but the environments aren’t as crisp as I’d like to see this late in the Wii’s lifespan. Things just a look a little blurry, at times, and there’s also visible slowdown when multiple enemies swarm your creature. The game’s story is also more Saturday morning cartoon than Final Fantasy, but it is a fun little plot amplified by a very strong sense of humor. Patrick Warburton reprises his role from the previous Skylanders game as Flynn, the team’s pilot, stealing every scene he’s in.
Ultimately, Skylanders: Giants isn’t going to convert many gamers my age as I think we might be a little too cynical for a game that’s so blatant in its “pay-to-play” model. For kids, though, this has to be the coolest thing ever. The characters are well designed, the gameplay is fun and the technology is so intuitive that I’m astonished it was pulled off this well. If you’re looking for a game for the younger crowd, you could do much worse than Skylanders: Giants. Just know that you’re going to be paying for it.
Nintendojo was provided a copy of this game for review by a third party, though that does not affect our recommendation. For every review, Nintendojo uses a standard criteria.