First impressions of Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure aren't good. There's a new peripheral to clutter the living room, a collectable range of toys required to play the game, and the reappearance of a tried and tested video game character--all the components needed for a cynical money-making scheme. Ironically, however, it's the toys and how they are used in the game that turn what might have been a derivative action platformer into something much more interesting.
Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure revolves around how these figures work. Owning the physical toy enables you to access the related character in the game by placing it on the Portal peripheral that comes in the starter set. Your progress levelling up the character, collecting money, purchasing more abilities, and discovering stat-boosting hats are all saved back to the toy itself rather than to your console. This is the first of a clutch of innovations that make Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure more appealing. For example, this approach to saving enables you to switch characters in the game by simply replacing the figure on the Portal with another one from your collection. In about three seconds, without pressing any buttons, you are back in the fray with your new character. Furthermore, a second player can join by pressing a button and placing his or her toy on the Portal.
Although this system generally works well, it can get a little confused when younger players overzealously switch figures on the portal. The downside is that rather than accessing the characters you have unlocked in the game, you are limited to the three that come with the starter pack (Spyro, Trigger Happy, and Gill Grunt) until you purchase more figures. Each of the characters is grouped into eight elemental families (earth, fire, air, life, undead, magic, water, and technology). There are 32 figures in total; a full collection would cost as much as a new console. The good news is that you don't need to own them all. You can complete the main conquest with just the figures in the starter pack, although you will only be able to access the side quests that relate to their element. You can use your figures to play on a friend's game and access all your enhancements. This works across systems, so you can take your Wii character and use it on the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC, or even 3DS. The wired Portal, however, is system specific and therefore is provided in each starter pack.
When it's not a figure-collecting and shopping exercise, Skylanders is an action platformer that combines shooting and fighting elements with puzzles and short fetch quests. It's similar in many respects to the Lego games, although its focus on progression and customisation of each toy character grants it more of a role-play feel. Things start at a sedate pace as you're introduced to the Portal concept, the different characters, and the central hub world. Each character starts with basic stats (health, strength, speed, and the like), which slowly increase as you collect experience from killing enemies. You also start with two basic attacks--one ranged and one close combat--which can be expanded through branching upgrades that are purchased with money you find in each level by opening chests and destroying objects. Finally, each toy you own provides a hub-world challenge that offers a further performance enhancement, and if you own all the figures in one element, they each get an extra boost.
From all this it may sound like Skylanders is over technical and gimmicky, but in practice it's fresh and engaging to play. Starting a game and placing a toy on the Portal feels similar to playing Guitar Hero or Wii Sports for the first time. The gameplay is familiar, but there's an exciting unfamiliarity to playing it with this technology. Entering a new area and switching to a more suitable character, by swapping figures on the portal, quickly became second nature. It not only simplifies the process but also creates a better connection between you and your in-game characters.
The campaign mode follows a story where you, as the Portal master, must recover each of the different element pods to bring life back to the land of Skylanders and defeat Kaos. Each level is themed around its related element and culminates in a boss encounter. Other reasons to replay each level come in the form of goals such as losing no lives, clearing all areas, and finishing within a tight time limit. There are a number of collectables, too: soul gems that grant characters their final big weapon upgrade, legendary treasures, stat-enhancing hats, treasure chests, and story scrolls.
At times, the requirement to buy more figures feels a little heavy-handed. In particular, collecting soul gems triggers a thinly veiled advert for a new character that you can only access by shelling out for the related action figure. While younger players may enjoy saving up money for such a purchase, parents should know that the game regularly encourages the purchase of new characters. And older players who are used to earning characters with skill rather than money may balk at the proposition.
Another incentive for owning more toys is that each one functions as an additional life in the game. When one of your characters dies, you simply place another one on the Portal to continue (restarting or completing a level restores all your characters to full health). While this impacts the difficulty according to how money you spend on toys, it also creates some interesting tactics where favoured characters are removed from play until a health-replenishing snack is found, whereupon they are reintroduced. It also means that you need to have a broad range of levelled-up characters rather than a focus on just one favourite.
Skylanders boasts some nice graphical touches. Each time you hit an enemy or take a hit yourself, a small red splash indicates how much damage has been inflicted or taken. And the hub world's sheep can be soaked, flamed or otherwise abused with visually amusing results. This charm extends to the characters themselves, each of which is well realized. This makes levelling up and purchasing extra attacks a big part of the fun. Each addition to your arsenal is satisfying and coherent with the theme of the character. The sound effects are top-notch, with an orchestral soundtrack from Hans Zimmer that adds a greater sense of importance to the derivative storyline.
Elsewhere, Skylanders can't compete with the quality that has evolved over the years with the Lego video game franchise. Cooperative play is a welcome addition to the campaign, but without split-screen or an online option, you have to carefully coordinate the direction in which you want to go. The quality of the writing does lift individual scenes, but it's a shame you can't accelerate or skip these spoken sections, particularly when some will be heard multiple times. Nevertheless, they are all acted with considerable flourish; the character of Flynn the Balloonist a particular standout thanks to humorous voice work by Patrick Warburton.
Beyond replaying levels, options to extend Skylanders are available in the form of two Adventure expansion packs. These come with additional objects that unlock new adventures when placed on the Portal. The Pirate Adventure pack comes with a pirate ship and exclusive Terrafin character while the Dark Light Crypt pack comes with a crypt and exclusive Ghost Roaster character. Coming in at about one-third the price of the starter pack, it remains to be seen just how much value and additional content these packs provide.
Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure is a good concept that has been well executed. The Portal does get a little confused at times, the cooperative mode lacks split-screen, and the risk of losing the figures will be the bane of many parent's lives, but the attraction of toys with brains is compelling enough to outweigh these shortcomings. It's a little too easy and a little too short to interest seasoned players for long enough to justify the price of entry, but young children are likely to enjoy taming this dragon.