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Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure Review

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Skylanders is probably aimed at kids, but whatever. I am a legal adult who can drink, buy pornography, rent a car, and vote... and I think it's still pretty cool.

Though you can get by with just the three starter Skylanders included with the game, you'll have to make additional purchases if you want to see everything.

As a parent of zero, I try to stay out of the whole "is this game good for kids?" discussion... because I have no idea. I can sit here and theorize and posit, but beyond thinking that kids are constantly getting sold short by parents who think their children aren't with it enough to handle "real" games and marketers who often try to push some sort of half-assed "edutainment" agenda when promoting youth-oriented games, I don't really have a dog in this hunt. But I will say I wasn't really expecting much from the game part of Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure. Actually, the part where Skylanders is a game is sort of the least interesting thing about it, even though it's more than competent, especially when taken against the somewhat low standards we usually see in the "for kids" area. The cool part is the tech side of Skylanders, which merges its Gauntlet-like gameplay with physical objects that unlock new characters, levels, and bonus items. It all comes together to form a sort-of-insidious-but-surprisingly-fun mesh of collectible and video game.

OK, let's break down the tech side of Skylanders. With the game you get a "magic" Portal of Power, which connects to your game-playing machine via USB. It's full of lights that can make it glow and pulsate with a lot of different colors. It also has a sensor in it that reads some sort of RFID-like datastore that lives in each one of the figurines. The idea is simple: you take a character, drop it on the portal, and bang, that character appears in your game. Take the figurine off and the action stops, letting you switch out to new characters on-the-fly or, if you like, jump a second player in or out at any time. As you play the game, you'll earn experience points, find hats, and accrue currency on a per-character basis. That information, along with the upgrades you choose to buy for your character with said currency, are stored in the figurines themselves. This then allows you to treat each one as a little save game storage device and also allows you to move your Skylanders from one game to another--in case you're heading over to a friend's house to skyland it up or something--while maintaining the progress you've made. You can also use those same figurines in the 3DS version of the game, which is a completely different beast, or, if you want to connect your portal to a PC or Mac, you can take your figures into an online collection of occasionally crummy Flash minigames and online chat. The portability of the Skylanders toy line and the way they all work with any and all of the Skylanders video games is pretty awesome. The portal itself rings up your characters extremely quickly, which is absolutely key to making it feel... well... magical.

With the starter kit you'll get three Skylanders characters of different types, giving you some decent coverage to get going with. The game itself doesn't directly trade off of the elemental abilities in a "water beats fire" sort of way, though. Instead, the game sort of arbitrarily assigns bonuses to specific types of characters in different areas. It'll also lock you out of certain areas unless you're using a character of the appropriate type. So if you encounter a gate that can only be opened by an Undead-type Skylander, you're going to need to yank your fire guy off of the portal and replace him with Ghost Roaster or Chop Chop or something if you want to get into that area. With one Skylander of each type, you'll be able to see just about everything there is to see in Skylanders, but if you aren't into the whole "buying a bunch of toys" thing, you can still finish the game and see the vast majority of the content with the starter pack alone. But then... if you aren't into the whole "buying a bunch of toys" thing, Skylanders might not be for you at all. If you start going deep down the Skylanders hole, just know that you can easily spend hundreds of dollars collecting the 32 core characters (more if you want the variants!) multiple level add-ons, and bonus items. And some of the characters haven't even hit stores yet. It's not a great deal, when you start to break it down, but the figurines look pretty nice and translate well into in-game characters, with a lot of good variety that makes most characters feel pretty different from each other.

Though Spyro's name is on the box, Skylanders feels like an all-new thing, not another attempt to drag the dragon back into the spotlight.

All of these characters are jammed into a story where the Skylanders must rebuild a mystical machine to save the world from an evil little goofball named Kaos. You're dropped into a hub world and run through a collection of top-down levels that have you bashing monsters and solving light puzzles. The elemental gates provide some optional areas, though some hidden objects don't require a separate purchase to access. Man, that sentence makes this whole thing sound kind of horrible, doesn't it? The bonus items are hats that enhance your stats, but none of them are especially crucial, and as you approach level 10--the cap--your Skylanders will be dominating the vast majority of the enemies you face.

The characters, again, help make the combat interesting as they let you tailor the game to our own style. Gill Grunt, to name one of the Skylanders you'll get in the starter package, is projectile-based, with a speargun that fires slowly but does good damage and a water hose attack that hits at a steady rate. You'll need to upgrade your water tank if you want to fire that one forever, though. If you're interested in an up-close attack, characters like Chop Chop are more melee-focused. Armed with a sword and shield, Chop Chop has a basic multi-hit sword combo and his shield is one of the few abilities in the game that, you know, blocks damage. He's also a rad-looking skeletal warrior, which is pretty cool. Then there's Prism Break, who does a bit of both and offers some more complex upgrade options. Prism Break, by default, has a small area of effect attack that pushes nearby enemies back with a decent amount of damage and a laser beam that doesn't go too far or last very long. Through upgrades you can unlock the ability to drop crystals into the level that refract your laser attack, letting you cover more territory with your beams. Then you can buy an upgrade that turns defeated enemies into crystals, which lets you sort of fill the screen with hot laser death. Not every Skylander is terrific--Eruptor just seems kind of sluggish and ineffective, at least at lower levels--but there are so many out there that trying them out in different scenarios ends up being half the fun. Again, that's sort of all dependent on the whole "I'm willing to buy all this stuff" clause.

Trigger Happy's guns fire gold coins. Seems pricey.

It's not a difficult game, but there's more to Skylanders than you might think. Or, at least, you're probably not going to waltz through the entire game in a day, giving you plenty of time to sit and obsess over the Skylanders you don't currently own and which upgrade path you want to take when you level your next character up. Once you start to pick it all apart, it's easy to see its devious brilliance--it's essentially an example of "on-disc DLC" taken to horrifying extremes, except you need to go out and buy a physical thing to unlock that content in the game. Oh, and by the way, those physical things seem to be going in and out of stock at some retailers with the sort of alarming frequency that lets you know that it's probably going to do pretty well around Christmas time, which can add a horrifying new layer to all of this if you're, for example, desperately seeking Drobot. But when you put aside the crass consumerism that drives every decent children's toy/movie/cartoon/game brand, Skylanders managed to be just engaging enough to make all my ridiculous collector's tendencies pay off.

The portal is fun to use, and exploring the powers and abilities of the different Skylanders is at least as engaging as the good variety of levels you'll see as you work your way through the adventure. Sure, I can't sit here and say for certain if kids will love it or not, but I will say that if I were to suddenly find myself in charge of a kid's well-being, I'd be OK with playing through Skylanders alongside said kid... unless the kid wanted to actually touch my Skylanders or remove them from the special shelf where I sort them all by their elemental affinity for easy access. Buy your own, ya little jerk.

Jeff Gerstmann on Google+
89 Comments
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Posted by Popskinz

Best. Review. Blurb. Ever.

Posted by Soulstoner

Tempted to get this...

Posted by JJOR64

Must...buy...Skylanders.

Posted by Vorbis

These are being advertised so heavily in the UK, can expect plenty more to come.

Posted by thevigilanteoflove

I am really tempted to get this just to see what it's all about. I mean if I just get the starter kit it's not that expensive.

Posted by ch3burashka

Wow, usually reviews are impartial and deal solely with the game's qualities. I'm pretty sure this is the only GB review that starts and ends with a justification as to why the reviewer likes it. Which is hilarious.

Posted by ghostNPC

Fantastic review Jeff. Never thought I'd see a review of this, but it was nice and fair.

Posted by jscro

Bought this for my nephew for Christmas. My wife and I got sucked in and immediately began picking up the exclusive Skylanders each time we'd wander into a store that had one. My nephew's $50 present has ballooned into $100 and he hasn't even opened it yet. Jeff's Bombcast discussions of the game made me feel better about myself after buying all this extra stuff.

Posted by Little_Socrates

Kind of shocked this got a review! Glad to see it, though. Skylanders is definitely one of the most interesting releases this year.

Posted by LolMcRofles

Starter kit should be renamed the gateway kit. This stuff is addicting.

Posted by project343

Jeff makes me so happy. I don't think he understands.

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Posted by Tireyo
if I were to suddenly find myself in charge of of a kid's well-being

Typo!

Good review.

Posted by rmanthorp

Nah. This doesn't sit well with me :P

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Posted by ArbitraryWater

I love that this review exists. I'm still not going to buy Skylanders, heavens no, but I am so glad that Jeff has.

Posted by Nadafinga

@jscro said:

My nephew's $50 present has ballooned into $100 and he hasn't even opened it yet.

This is exactly what has happened to me. Bought this for my nephew, and after realizing that some areas of the game would be blocked off, I said "no nephew of MINE will be denied content!" so I quickly bought enough characters to cover all the elements. Frickin' little brat is going to get the game, the pirate level pack, and a total of 9 Skylanders figures.

Posted by Mr_Skeleton

Oh Jeff...

Posted by Sinnix

Oh thank jebus this is a good game. I already bought it and a bunch of extra figures for my kids for Christmas!

Posted by CyleMoore

Finally I have been waiting for this! I bought this for 4 year old for Christmas and he is going to be so excited. He wants it so badly. Also I kinda want to play it too. Great time for some co-op.

Posted by buzz_killington

The word "pornography" in the summary should raise a few eye-brows of parents looking up reviews on Metacritic...

Posted by smithz2

Shopped the sales around black Friday and got the starter pack plus 6 figures for about $65. Playing it now and I am enjoying it quite a bit! I made sure to get at least one Skylander for each element and, of course, Drobot.

Posted by Shaanyboi

So is this the future of Crash Bandicoot?

Posted by bunnymud

I refuse to get sucked into this money sink unless I can buy a "Forever alone" mask for my face whilst I play it

Posted by badcaseofheadcrabs

that's the best byline I've ever read.

Posted by pyromagnestir

@UKSamwise said:

@Popskinz said:

Best. Review. Blurb. Ever.

Pretty much this

I smell a box quote for the Game of the Year Super Pack edition.

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Posted by Dino_Sousa

I'm happy you did decide to give a proper review to the game after playing it so much. Good work.

Posted by Senate4242

I would have never given this game even a first glance, till I saw the quicklook and this review. Now I am very intrigued by the game and my inner child is trying to coerce me into putting down some cash.

Posted by GnomeonFire

The idea of how this game works greatly intrigues me, fight the power Jeff.

Posted by GetEveryone

Glad to hear it, I've been dithering over this for a while.

The reception has been surprisingly warm.

Posted by jscro

Yep. My wife and I got the collector bug over it. I think we're more excited to see this stuff put to use than our nephew will be. It really keys into our basest, most childish instinct that deep down our nephew is better than other nephews and he should have every figurine Activision throws at us. Good lord...what have we become?

Posted by Winternet

Skylanders is at the same level as Saints Row: The Third for GOTY discussions.

Posted by JackSukeru

I've no real interest in the "game" part of this game, but this review was a fun read.

I can't wait until my nephew gets old enough so I can start recommending some good games to his parents, and get him some for christmases and birthdays.

Posted by TJ311

Best header I have ever read on a review

Posted by Krakn3Dfx

Activision is missing a huge piece of marketshare if they don't put '"I am a legal adult who can drink, buy pornography, rent a car, and vote... and I think it's still pretty cool." - Jeff Gerstmann' on the back of the box.

Posted by LassieME

This review is probably a waste, but whatever. I am a legal adult who can drink, buy pornography, rent a car, and vote... and I think this is still pretty cool.

Posted by Sparky_Buzzsaw

I love that this review exists. And tacos. Man, I do love tacos.

Moderator
Posted by chilibean_3

Love this.

Posted by RandomInternetUser

DAT SKYLANDERS REVIEW.

Really, I'm glad you reviewed this.

Posted by DG991

haha that description/abstract of the review or whatever you call it is hilarious.

Posted by Guided_By_Tigers

Strange that Jeff would decide to review this now.

Posted by Hector

Really... all Skylanders is a cheap scheme to get parents to drop cash so they can buy for their kids all these figures and expansions for a platformer that is mediocre at best!

Posted by GalacticPunt

@Krakn3Dfx said:

Activision is missing a huge piece of marketshare if they don't put '"I am a legal adult who can drink, buy pornography, rent a car, and vote... and I think it's still pretty cool." - Jeff Gerstmann' on the back of the box.

The PR team can boil it down.

"I am a legal adult who can buy pornography... and I think it's pretty cool." -Jeff Gerstmann

Skylanders, y'know, for kids!

Posted by Zanzibar106

I think the concerns about 'on-disc DLC' don't really apply in the case of Skylanders. If putting the character on the Portal is supposed to be 'magic', then having storage device/download data management would ruin that illusion. As hardcore gamers that kind of nonsense is second-nature to us, but you can't expect Skylanders' younger audience to have the same kind of experience with that. Plus, most of the Wii consoles are still offline, so you'd either completely fracture your audience or else you've gotta include a CD with every Skylander to load the data.

Posted by Masha2932
@Shaanyboi said:
So is this the future of Crash Bandicoot?
Activision owns the Crash Bandicoot IP so this is definitely a possibility. The Crash Bandicoot universe does have a bunch of interesting characters which would allow for different character packs. Come to think of it a crash bandicoot spin-off is not a bad idea.
Posted by Rattle618

Fuck, what have you done Jeff?

Posted by Sanj

Best blurb for a review ever.

Posted by kerikxi

This is a weird product, just because it's not aimed at us, as Jeff's blurb and opening paragraph point out. It's really hard to put yourself in that position you were in when you were ten, but looking back, I'm pretty sure I would have bought right into this. This is no worse than POGs, Pokemon cards, or any of the other stuff that's been marketed to kids.

Posted by Darknezz

@kerikxi: POGs were way worse! Are you kidding? POGs weren't magic!

Posted by weegieanawrench

@buzz_killington: It seems like Metacritic already thought of that. Here's the blurb:

The cool part is the tech side of Skylanders, which merges its Gauntlet-like gameplay with physical objects that unlock new characters, levels, and bonus items. It all comes together to form a sort-of-insidious-but-surprisingly-fun mesh of collectible and video game.

It would have been awesome if the summary were left on the site. Oh well.

Great review, Jeff.

Posted by TheEvilCory

Jeff's adventure with Skylanders is the highlight of my 2011.

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