Remember a time when kids used to be pretty self-sufficient? Not self-sufficient in the leave-them-at-home-alone-to-fend-for-themselves way or the leave-the-car-window-cracked-when-you-run-into-the-shop-to-buy-a-carton-of-milk way, but a time when imagination was everything. Every cardboard box was a spaceship, a race car, or a cubby house in the making, and toys came to life powered by the spark of the child's imagination. Things are a little different nowadays, and the peripheral market that Activision ushered in with its Guitar Hero and DJ Hero brands have been put out to pasture--at least temporarily--but the company hopes that its new line of toys for Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure will hit the right notes with younger audiences.
It makes sense, then, that when setting about the task of bringing lumps of plastic to life, Activision would tap the talent of people who had played in the space before. Enter Toy Story scriptwriters Joel Cohen and Alec Sokolow, who are penning the game's story. Cinema composer Hans Zimmer is also getting in on the action and will be scoring the soundtrack.
The game will be sold as a bundle starter kit and include the "Portal of Power" base, three characters, and a copy of the game. Placing one of your character toys on the portal will activate its virtual avatar for play in the game. In our case, putting down the Undead Champion Knight Chop Chop teleported him into the gameworld, and he promptly started swinging his swords. Each avatar has its own unique set of powers. During the course of the demo, we saw Flameslinger run faster than others, leaving a blaze in his wake (useful for chasing fast-moving enemies or avoiding damage); Gill Grunt, the water elemental, douse foes and navigate swampy areas that are normally inaccessible by other characters to collect experience points; and Stealth Elf channel rogues to disappear from view and attack from behind with twin blades.
As you enter each zone, you'll be prompted with the elemental type that is most effective, and your initial offering of three characters may sound small, but developer Toys for Bob has confirmed that the game can be completed solely with the characters provided in the box. So, what's the incentive to go out and purchase more of these little plastic figurines? Much like Pokemon's "gotta catch 'em all" philosophy, you'll need particular characters, abilities, and elemental types to enter hidden areas and complete optional puzzles--like pushing around boulders to form bridges over gaps. Doing so grants access to chests containing rare loot, like hats. Character leveling progression and item inventory is tracked on the figure, and each one only supports a single save file, but it means that there's no futzing around when you want to go head-to-head with another player, help a friend with a tricky encounter, or tag along on the adventure. Activision has confirmed that more than 30 different characters will be available to purchase and play with (pricing still yet to be determined), as well as vehicles, including pirate ships and such item bonuses as sacks of gold. The game features a single-player story mode that you can take on alone or cooperatively with friends. And, for those that don't play well alongside others, there will be one-on-one player-versus-player arenas. The example of the latter that we saw in action put two characters in a level with a user-activated spiked pit and a handful of power-ups. Players use their unit's special abilities, like Spyro's recognizable fireballs, to deal damage to each other until a victor is crowned. It looked simple but enjoyable, and the product clearly skews toward younger crowds, though grown adults were reduced to screaming children as they battled for stadium supremacy.
The action adventure gameplay of the single-player looks like fun, and there are bound to be the inevitable calls from the peanut gallery that this is another cash grab from Activision by merely unlocking characters already included in the game by selling accessories, but there's some suggestion that the toys will be available widely through toy retailers at reasonable prices.
We'll admit that we're probably not the target audience, but even still, Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure has some good things going for it. We're hoping that the portal base is an early indicator of things to come, including potential tie-ins with the company's other licensed franchises, like the Transformers. We'd also like to see it expand to allow for turn-based card games like Sony's reasonably well-received title, The Eye of Judgment. Spyro's latest outing is targeting releases on all of the major platforms in 2011.