Review: Skylanders Giants

SkylandersGiants

Skylanders Giants is the videogame equivalent of one of those hustlers fronting a three-card monte operation on a New York street corner. As you stand there watching exactly how you’re totally being taken, you can’t help but admire the speed and expert design by which it’s all happening.

The difference is that Giants doesn’t deal in quickly flipped cards and your spare five-dollar bills; it offers cute collectible figures at $10-15 a pop and then serves up a game that all but forces you to buy a stack of them to enjoy the full experience.

Because of that irresistible collect-‘em-all vibe, Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure was at once a colorful wonderland for tech-loving kids, the bane of some parents’ existence and one of 2011’s surprise sales-figure champions. Given that Activision never met a franchise it didn’t want to ride into the ground like the second coming of Secretariat, it’s not at all surprising to see the sequel appearing a mere year later. Hell, the massive surplus of original Skylanders figures hasn’t even been discounted out of your local Target and Toys R Us yet.

And that’s okay, because the figures you amassed last year are fortunately compatible with the new 16-chapter adventure offered up in Skylanders Giants. (The Giants, obviously, aren’t compatible with Spyro’s Adventure.) The action revolves around the history of how the new Giants, eight new oversized and powerful figures, were separated from their teenier brethren by the mists of time. Mostly, it’s just a new and inviting excuse to tool around a new set of colorful environments, smashing everything in sight and pummeling on Kaos some more. Four of the eight Giants have yet to debut at retail.

They certainly look impressive, with their “lightcore” technology that filters the light from the no-longer wireless Portal of Power up through the figure, illuminating eyes, jewels and weaponry. They play pretty well, too. As you’d expect, they’re more powerful than your standard Skylander in the game—they can heft and hurl boulders, reveal hidden areas by pounding the ground and pummel boss monsters in ten seconds or less. Appropriately, they’re also plodding as hell. Don’t make the mistake of thinking you’re going to ace a timed hero challenge with T.Rex, the woodsy Giant who comes packed in the starter set.

The Portal of Power mechanic is as amazing as it ever was. I’m still awed that Activision managed to make these collectible figures non-platform specific—that’ a stroke of genius that ensures Wii and 360 kids can always play co-op or versus together. It seems to work smoother with Giants as well—none of the jerks and hiccups in gameplay that sometimes accompanied rapid character switches in Spyro’s Adventure. Even with copious amounts of jump pads sprinkled throughout the game’s environment, it’s still jarring that none of the Skylanders can jump. (Shades of the original GoldenEye!)

Other touches seem baldly capitalistic, like the fact that more than half of the 48 “new” figures are actually familiar characters with new poses. Sure, the lightcore versions of these figures look extra cool when they’re camped on the Portal of Power, but if you already own Stealth Elf, it’s not like her lightcore variant unlocks a new section of gameplay—it’s just another version for completists to add to the shelf alongside your basic and legendary versions. It’s easy to imagine how another 6-10 months of development could have yielded a full roster of new and interesting Skylanders. Clearly, that didn’t fit the Holiday 2012 business plan.

The game’s soul gems, meanwhile, are just plain insidious. As before, every one you find unlocks an in-game commercial for a character you probably don’t yet own. And just like that, ShroomBoom isn’t a dopey dude with a slingshot; he’s a gotta-have addition to your collection. Cha-ching.

Younger gamers, the ones who make up Giants primary target audience, aren’t likely to care about these things. Neither will the parents who sit down and play a few co-op levels with them—when you get right down to it, Skylanders remains one of the best ways to experience that addictive Diablo vibe with your children (or on your own) sans splashes of blood and half-clad demonic succubi.

Still, every one of Activision’s franchises eventually hits a tipping point, that magic moment where it either has to evolve and offer something different (think Call of Duty: Black Ops II) or face inevitable development extinction (think Guitar and DJ Hero). Skylanders Giants doesn’t quite reach that point, but unless there’s a major overhaul of the gameplay and presentation, the next entry in the series likely will.

TryIt

Pros:
+ RPG-lite gameplay formula remains entertaining
+ New Giant figures add an entertaining new wrinkle to the mix
+ Lightcore figures look awesome

Cons:
– Not a lot of innovation
– New figure series features a ton of new poses for figures you probably already own
– Um, why can’t we jump?

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on Xbox 360, also available for Nintendo 3DS, Nintendo Wii/Wii U and PS3
Publisher: Activision
Developer: Toys for Bob/Vicarious Visions/n-Space
Release Date: 10/21/2012
Genre: RPG
ESRB Rating: E10+
Players: 1-2
Source: Review copy provided by publisher

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About the Author

Aaron R. Conklin has been writing about games and games culture for more than 15 years. A former contributor to Computer Games Magazine and Massive Magazine, his writing has appeared on IGN.com and in newspapers and alt-weeklies across the country. Conklin's an unapologetic Minnesota sports fan living in Madison, Wisconsin, home of the Midwest's most underrated gaming vibe.