Skylanders: Being a Dad has it's perks
Skylanders is a very polished, enjoyable dungeon crawler aimed at kids. It incorporates physical toys to expand game play. Note I am basing this review just on the starter set and completed the game with just the 3 included characters.
The game comes with three toy figurines and a portal of power, which plugs into the 360 via USB. To use each character you place it on the portal where it immediately becomes available in the game. The effect is rather neat. You can switch characters at any times just by switching toys, and a second player can join in by adding another figure on. The portal can hold 2 figures and one item. (Items are sold separately)
Play consists of progressing through levels, fighting monsters and picking up gold. There are various collectibles to find. There are a few puzzle elements, keys to open doors, etc. There is one lock picking mini game, and a few shooting gallery encounters.
Each character two basic attacks. As the upgrade the attacks gain power and function, and each character gets a special ability. Spyro's ability is flight (which just allows him to move faster with an increase in defense), while Trigger Happy gets a mini gun he can fix to his location and blaze away on.
The RPG elements are limited. Loot is dropped in various forms but it all boils down to gold, which is used to by you character upgrades. Gold is specific to each character. There are about 8 upgrades for each character, which branches halfway through, giving you the option to specialize one of your two basic attacks. The only items that exist are hats, which are cosmetics with small stat bonuses. Once you find a hat any character can wear it.
This game is pretty directly comparable to the Lego games. There is a strong co-op element with lots of different collectibles. Instead of Lego bits you collect gold. Lots of hidden features and replayability.
Another game with similarities is Marvel Ultimate Alliance, but I'd rate that a superior game. Better combat, more rpg elements and you get a bunch of characters for free rather than just three.
The game looks and sounds good. The characters are all distinct and interesting, and play differently from one another. I don't know anything about Spyro, so I can't say if the game does him justice. He's just one of the many Skylander characters in the game. The environments are quite beautiful and vary completely every few levels.
The boss battles against Kaos is probably the most fun I had in the game (except maybe the last one, which was overly long). The voice acting is funny and the score is particularly good here. The boss battles involve fighting 'dark' versions of the Skylanders and avoiding Kaos's magic spell effects, which include "the deadly shark bath of doomsharks!" (Yes it's corny but it's still funny).
The difficulty ramps up toward the end to the point where I couldn't play the last few levels with my 4-year old. I think an 8-year old would have no problem with the game. The heroic challenges are no joke either as they are timed affairs.
Much has been written about the 'collectibility' aspect of the game and how much it would cost if you got everything toy that is being put out. I will agree that if you have no interest in the actual toys, the value proposition is poor. I thought I'd mention the 'up sells' that exist in the game that encourage you to buy more (because they are there). The most obvious are the elemental gates. These optional areas require characters of a particular type to open. What's behind them? Treasure chests (gold), legendary treasures (collectibles), and the hats. So nothing really necessary unless you are a completionist. There is a star rating for each level, which would require you get every collectible to get a 3-star rating, but that doesn't get you anything.
You will also find "soul gems" in levels, which are character specific and prerequisites for a top-end ability. When you find the soul gem you are prompted to watch a intro video to that character. Some people seemed to be miffed about obtaining items usable by characters they don't have, but I didn't mind. I like watching the videos because they are so well done.
There are a few other things you get with other characters. Certain elements are stronger in areas, and you get an xp bonus for having more characters of various types. But the leveling process is easy; I maxed out all 3 of my Skylanders before finishing the game.
Multiplayer - Two Player local co-op. PvP via battle arena. It's well done for what it is but is greatly limited by the number of players. The lack of online play is probably due to the Wii being the main SKU.
The game is reasonably long with 22 levels, plus the 3 heroic challengers you get from your starter figures.
I like this game, and so does my 4-year old son. Gameplay-wise it probably rates a 3.5 stars, with a bump for the novel technology. I have purchased a few add on packs and probably will buy more, depending on our ongoing interest. I don't feel compelled to buy everything.