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.
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.
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.