Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure starter pack comes with a USB Portal of Power model, toy figurines, stickers and Web access code cards.
Oh, yeah, there's a video game in there, too.
Based on two peripheral gimmicks, proprietary Web site integration, expansion peripheral purchases and a long-beloved franchise character starring in many games across several console generations, Skylanders is the perfect alchemy for gaming disaster. The feature list alone is toxic. Even allowing for Activision's admirable hit-to-miss ratio with gimmick games, it's a wonder Skylanders is as good as it is. It's a wonder it's any good at all.
However, a lot of talented game design and top-notch storytelling also went into the colorful cardboard box that contains a veritable toyshop. The story was written by Joel Cohen and Alex Sokolow, part of Pixar's "Toy Story" writing team; they have a lot of experience taking other people's concepts and characters and fleshing these out into a rich, cohesive whole. Notable television and film character actor David Warburton provides his voice talents, as does Richard Horvitz, of "Invader Zim" fame. The Portal of Power device itself glows a rainbow of colors, and the toy characters are nicely detailed, a couple of grades above the usual work put into fantastical figurines of this type.
Rather than attempting to pick up where the original studio, or any of a slew of follow-up developers, left off, the story and characters are spun far off the three original Spyro classics created by Insomniac Games. This game could have been called Spyro: Inherit the Dragon, and Skylanders developer Toys for Bob (the Xbox 360 version was ported by XPEC) wisely chose to create its own game world and backstory, casting Spyro the Dragon as one of many characters in an ensemble. This may disappoint older gamers, but Skylanders is aimed squarely at kids whose parents were probably still happy-go-lucky college co-eds when the original Spyro title was released. Skylanders doesn't add a thing to Spyro's legendary tale, but neither does it run any risk of ruining it.
Like most good games designed for younger children, the story unfolds in dialogue and cut scenes akin to an animated movie, serving mainly as backdrop for the action/platforming sequences. Unfortunately, only some of the wordy parts can be skipped with a button press — during replays, this oversight likely won't bother children nearly as much as it does their parents. The story is cookie-cutter light fantasy, with plenty of hilarious villainy plotted by non-threatening, mostly self-defeating "evil" bad guys, along with hammed-up repartee from the NPC protagonists. In other words, it's trite, cliché, and exactly what young children find so cozy and comfortable about their favorite movies and TV series. There's a maxim in storytelling, that it's not so important what you tell as how you tell it. Following that rule of narratives, Skylanders' story succeeds.
The main characters, quite a few if you invest in all the expansion sets, are the Skylanders, magical creatures who use their powers to defend the tranquil floating world of Skyland. Kaos, a dastardly Portal Master with a bunch of ugly monsters and sinister wizards for henchmen, has used his lordship over Skyland's portals to trap the Skylanders on earth.
Enter the Portal of Power USB peripheral. This simple device, connected to and powered by any USB port on the Xbox 360, provides the transit system for bringing our heroes back to Skyland, so they can get down to the reasonably lengthy business of defeating Kaos and making Skyland a nice place to live. Place a character figurine on the Portal of Power, and it's teleported into the game. The gameplay allows swapping characters at any time in the solo and two-player cooperative story modes, creating a bit of featherweight strategy if kids catch on to it.
At the start of the game, Flynn the Balloonist, voiced by Warburton, befriends the Skylanders, offering the services of his flying machine for getting around the various floating realms of Skyland. A little later, when the characters have earned some XP and start to level up, a fairy named Persephone is introduced; she provides Skylanders opportunities to upgrade their magical weapons and abilities. Here, the game becomes something of a baby RPG, or even an RPG trainer. Kids looking for purely linear action can play through the whole game without once trading out armor items or upgrading anything, but the mechanic is there and simple to grasp, for when players want to replay the campaign, or they get a little older and find the process of assigning attributes and spending XP less daunting.
Although the main story can be easily finished with the characters included in the starter pack — Spyro, of course, along with Gill Grunt and Trigger Happy — the Skylanders fall into a handful of elemental categories, which interact in different ways in the game's levels. Tech Skylanders have greater power in some zones, while Water Skylanders fare better in others. This isn't just a conceptual notion that has little demonstrable effect on gameplay. Using the appropriate Skylander in the right area — there are audible and visual cues upon entering zones — has significant influence on gameplay. The Skylander currently in his home element deals out far more devastating damage in combat than a partner player of another element. Also, some optional treasure and exploration regions are locked behind gates or portals that require Skylanders of a specific element to access.
Besides the story mode, Skylanders includes a locally competitive battle mode, with three different sub-modes: Arena Rumble, SkyGems and SkyGoals. Arena Rumble is just the kiddie version of one-on-one deathmatch with some environmental traps and extra weapons pick-ups. It's stock stuff, but children enjoy it. SkyGems, a collecting competition, I found the weakest of the three. The highlight, at least from an adult's perspective, is the somewhat more complicated SkyGoals. It's a bit like football, soccer or rugby: Players score goals by putting a ball between posts, while opposing players use their Skylander-powered attacks to cause fumbles.
As if the game needed any more bangles and charms, rounding out the whole package is integration with the Skylanders Web site. Skylanders is hardly the first console game to incorporate moderately deep integration with Web-accessible content and services, but unlike a lot of Web-based adjuncts to games, this one lends Skylanders a sort of cross-platform portability. Skylanders figures come with unique code cards for registering every character a player owns. Further, additional character-specific codes are generated in the game, so attributes and progress can be tracked online. This information can be shared with friends, even if they play Skylanders on other platforms. Minigames can be played between Skylanders created and upgraded across the various platforms, and this goes a ways in making up for a lack of online play via Xbox Live.
The optional, though recommended, expansion sets are fairly robust, including new Skylander characters as well as location pieces. When placed on the Portal of Power, the location pieces unlock new gameplay regions. There are many expansion sets planned, but you hardly need them all: A carefully collected selection of Skylander characters representing most of the elemental categories is enough.
Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure is so specifically targeted to children and the unique way they approach games, often vacillating back and forth between tightly focused and wildly erratic in under half an hour, it's difficult for an adult to fully and fairly evaluate this game's entertainment potential. After all, as parents, we have to pay for all those expansion sets, and we've patiently endured the same sorts of stories a thousand times. But if my kids jumping around and screaming with excitement is any indication, Skylanders unquestionably accomplishes what it sets out to do: Provide an exceptional amount of ongoing gaming fun for children, with engaging peripheral devices and toys that seamlessly interact with both the video game and the Xbox 360 console.
More articles about Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure