We've started to reach the point where video games are starting to change. While add-on accessories for consoles have been around since the days of the Power Glove and R.O.B. the Robot, they've always been a sideshow to the main exhibit. With the longer console generations and the introduction of more casual gamers, we've seen games moving away from the traditional controller idea. Add-ons like the Kinect or the Balance Board transform consoles into completely new experiences, so it isn't surprising that children's games are moving away from being "normal" games and into something more exciting. Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure represents a glimpse into a potential future of gaming, where games are just an extension of a larger real-world toy franchise.
Skylanders is set in the world of Skylands, a mysterious land in another dimension where the forces of "portalmasters" wage battle to decide the world's fate. A portalmaster known as Chaos wants to use his evil powers to take over the world. The last good portalmaster, Eon, was defeated by Chaos, and his powerful allies were thrown out of his world and into ours. Due to the lack of magic in the real world, his monster allies were turned into helpless statues. Now only a new portalmaster can use the power of Spyro and his friends to defeat Chaos and save Skylands from disaster.
The most unique thing about the new Spyro game is the way that you select your monsters. The various characters are not built into the game, so your playable character is represented by a toy, or "interaction figure," which you buy separately, and it represents the magic-less statue forms of the various monsters. Each of these toys, of which there are over 30 in all, can be purchased and placed on a "portal" accessory that comes with the game. Placing a character on the portal changes your playable character in the game. You can switch figures at any time by simply removing it from the portal and replacing it with another character. This is important, as characters come in many shapes and sizes, and each has a unique ability. This also means that you're not going to have access to every character right off the bat. When purchased, the game comes with a handful of these interaction figures, but you'll have to buy the rest separately. Each of the collectible figures can be used in the game, allowing you to eventually collect and trade with friends.
In Skylanders, players are thrust into one of a series of dungeons and tasked with getting to the end. You have a few different attack buttons available, so your monsters can use different skills. There's a variety of enemies to fight, but the gameplay seems straightforward and simple. It's almost akin to a beat-'em-up, although with more variety than one usually sees from that kind of game. You're tasked with getting through a level and beating up everything between your character and the goal. It's simple and straightforward, although the game was clearly designed to be replayed. In a way, it's sort of like a kid-friendly Diablo, right down to the loot collection.
As you'd probably expect, your monsters are not static creatures. Each of the tiny toy statues actually records information about the monster. As you play the game, your monsters gain the ability to level up. Pure levels, gained through experience points, simply increase the amount of HP you have. Each monster also has abilities that you can buy as you progress, and they allow for new strategies and tactics. Prism Break, for example, is an Earth-elemental golem character who has the ability to shoot laser beams. By leveling up his abilities, you gain the power to raise crystals from the ground that you can then use to refract your laser to attack multiple targets at once.
The more you upgrade the character, the more powerful its abilities. A single upgrade of the refraction crystal may only allow you to hit two enemies at once. With multiple upgrades, you can use lasers to blast half the screen at once. These upgrades also slightly change the appearance of your monsters, making them bigger and more dangerous-looking as they level up. Characters can also be customized with different hats, which offer minor bonuses and lets you change their physical appearance. For those who are worried, it should be noted that you can clear the data from your toy at any time. If you get bored and want to start over or simply want to trade a "fresh" Spyro to a friend for his Stealth Elf, you can do that.
The various characters have unique abilities, but they're also part of an elemental system. There are eight elements — Air, Earth, Fire, Life, Magic, Tech, Undead and Water — and they're made up of four opposing pairs: Air opposes Earth, Life opposes Undead, Fire opposes Water, and Magic opposes Tech. Certain elements may be more useful in certain areas or less effective in others. Switching to a water elemental character in a water-filled area may allow you to access places you normally couldn't, but switching to a fire character may allow you to do additional damage in that area. There are even areas of the game that are locked to specific elemental types, and they often contain challenges and rare items that are necessary.
Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure is built around the idea of multiplayer. The toy-based storage medium means that you can take the characters to a friend's house and use them on their copy of the game, even if it's on a different system. Those who want to work together can go through the main story levels in co-op. It's just a question of putting a second toy on the portal to jump right in. A higher-leveled player can hop in to help out his weaker friend, or a weaker pal can tag along to assist. There's also a competitive arena mode where players can pit their monsters against one another in a battle to determine the best portalmaster.
Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure is shaping up to be an interesting experience. Skylanders is far from the first game to attempt something like this, but that doesn't make the implementation any less interesting. What makes Skylanders stand out is that it feels less like a video game and more like a fancy toy. The game is there, and it certainly seems to have potential, but the real fun is going to be collecting different monsters and seeing how they function in the game. It's unsurprising that Activision chose to reveal this game at a toy convention instead of E3. Skylanders may not be the kind of game that hardcore gamers are looking for, but it may turn out to be an ideal toy for the younger crowds.
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