Everyone with a child knows the pervasive mixture of love and pain that is Skylanders. Love meaning it can bring a parent and child together into the same universe, working alongside one another to conquer challenges and reap the thrills of cooperation and communication; Pain meaning it hurts right in the wallet.
Well, it’s back, and if you’ve plodded your way through the original and all its expansions, you’ll feel perfectly acquainted with Skylanders Giants from the start. The basic formula has remained triumphantly intact, with merely minor changes and tweaks taking place, most of which qualify as bona fide additions. The goal and structure of the game, as well as the gameplay style, puzzles, progression, humor, and collectibles are still much the same with few exceptions.
The Story Remains the Same
In case you haven’t had the pleasure of knowing a Skylander, here’s a brief primer to bring you up to speed. Skylanders are toys that come to life in the game by way of a magical accessory called the Portal of Power. There are dozens of them, each featuring its own unique attributes, abilities, and special powers, and even leveling up and collecting its own stash of gold for purchasing additional upgrades and items. This information is all stored within each and every individual toy, meaning you can bring them to your friends’ houses to continue playing and progressing there without missing a beat. Hot-swapping Skylanders on and off the Portal of Power during gameplay is the cornerstone of progressing through the game worlds, parts of which often demand a particular Skylander for passage or to yield an advantage to the player. For a much more detailed explanation of how this works, see our original Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure review from last year.
While the series is quite clearly geared toward a younger audience, there’s something here to be enjoyed by everyone. That same design philosophy has been carried forward to the sequel, which sports just same same goofy humor, colorful characters, and rich (sometimes familiar/famous) voice actors as the original, plus even more. But is it enough to justify a purchase?
Let’s start with the basics. The story is merely an extension of the original, and the development team references their foresight in implementing the foundational lore of Giants in the original game (via a specific Story Scroll mostly). In the ancient times of Skylands (10,000 years in the past, specifically), a race called the Arkeyans ruled, seeking power and knowledge via giant war machines and a relic known as the Iron Fist of Arkus. However, the great protectors of the world at that time, the Giants (also Skylanders in their own right), eventually drove the war machines back and defeated their leader, without whom they could no longer function. In spite of their victory, the Giants were swept from Skylands and were never seen again… until today. With Kaos back, hard at work locating the lost City of Arkus, it’s now up to the Portalmaster to guide the Skylanders, Giants and all, to victory against the inexorable forces of evil.
On this level, you fight a giant, singing drill
The Starter Pack of Giants comes in two editions: one featuring three new figures (one of which is a Giant), and the other featuring those same figures plus a new, corded Portal of Power for an additional $15. Before you dismiss the retreat from wireless technology as a regression, try to imagine how many batteries you think your original one consumed. Of course, you can always use rechargeable batteries, but in its defense, the USB cord is long enough (~10 feet) to reach a significant distance from the console.
The eight toy Giants are literally (and appropriately) twice the size of their basic Skylanders counterparts, and they play just like you’d expect them to: they’re slower and stronger, plus, they can pick up and throw large objects and leap off ledges through special cracked floors. In addition to them, there’s also eight new regular Skylanders, bringing the grand total up from 32 to 48. Finally, 24 Skylanders from the original game return in new Series 2 toys, which feature new powers and even an additional choice of upgrade path (plus a nifty orange base).
Of course, you can still use any of your original (“Series 1”) toys in the sequel. In fact, doing so raises their level cap from 10 to 15, an upgrade which has been universally welcomed. But, of course, you can’t bring any upgrades back with you to Spyro’s Adventure, and naturally, none of the new toys can be used with that game either.
Once you recover from shock over the sixteen new Skylanders (plus Series 2 additions) and jump into the game, you’ll see precisely what I mean about the minimal changes which have been made. Giants is more or less a very large expansion to Spyro’s Adventure, and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There are more Battle Arenas for PVP, as well as collectible Hats, Soul Gems, Legendary Treasures, Story Scrolls, and Winged Sapphires, as well as Heroic Challenges for every new Skylander. These items are scattered throughout 16 all-new levels, most of which are larger than any of the 24 from Spyro’s Adventure.
This is Kaos’ home, where there’s a sewing room… filled with circular saw blades.
The hub world is now an airship—Flynn’s Ship, to be precise—and it flies you to your next destination as you progress through the game’s 16 chapters. Aboard the ship are a growing number of crew members hailing from each of the game’s various environments, including all of the familiar faces and a number of new ones, too (my favorite of whom is Ermit the Hermit, who happens to be downright terrified of clouds). Besides Cali’s Heroic Challenges, Brock offers a choice of 21 different arena battles (3 arenas, 7 contests apiece). And since you’re on a ship, you can now customize its look using—cleverly—legendary treasures, which, unlike previously, now serve an actual functional purpose as airship alterations.
There are a couple new types of collectible items as well: namely, Luck-O-Tron Wheels, which can be loaded into a special machine aboard Flynn’s Ship to influence the drops spilled by enemies when defeated, and SkyStones, which are tiles featuring Skylanders enemies that are used to play a strategic game that many of the NPCs challenge you to spontaneously throughout the adventure. It’s sort of like a slightly-more-complex version of Othello, but with only 9 squares. It’s also pretty fun, and somewhat strategic, too, though the AI is generally pretty bone-headed.
Apart from that, the rest of the alterations and additions to the formula are pretty minor. New breeds of enemies are now vocally introduced when first encountered, which is a nice touch. Actions previously requiring the right stick (such as shaking treasure chests, inserting keys, and so forth) are now performed using the Triangle button. And, as previously mentioned, the levels do seem larger than those in the original game. Overall, however, even with all of the new content, the game itself seems somewhat shorter than the original.
Shark Week is every week.
The boss battles and special sequences are superior to the original, though, and that’s a big plus. Each chapter feels more unique in Giants than it did in Spyro’s Adventure, and it’s probably thanks to a greater variety of gameplay throughout. For instance, at one point, you’re piloting a giant robot through a river, blasting and punching bad guys along the way. In a strange town, you’ll switch regularly between fake wooden backdrops and actual, real-life buildings and (weird) inhabitants to progress. A little bit later, you’ll battle a singing giant drill boss, which is pretty funny stuff. And there’s even a throwback to Ikaruga with a strange bullet-hell barrage of red/blue projectiles which must be toggled on the fly to survive patterned waves, all while battling the boss.
If you find it too difficult, there’s also a new difficulty selection option which can be adjusted on-the-fly right from the pause menu. There are three difficulties from the start, plus an unlockable “Nightmare” difficulty once the game is completed. (No, in spite of the relation to Blizzard Entertainment, there is no “Inferno” unlockable difficulty. I asked.)
I also should mention the presentation before we move on. While the visuals are merely on par with those of Spyro’s Adventure, the music is arguably even better. Much of it features real live instruments, and it’s all environmentally dynamic—so while wandering around a level, you’ll hear the base theme, but when things start to get heated (such as during a battle), it builds into a much more impacting, percussive composition.
One of Tree-Rex’s lines: “Bark AND Bite!”
So, then, what’s not to like? Apart from the exorbitant cost of purchasing your child the latest slew of Skylander toys, and forgiving the marginally shorter adventure (which is something like 20 hours in length if you take the time to collect most things along the way and complete some Heroic Challenges and Arena Battles), not much is wrong, per se. There’s still the lingering (and perfectly valid) complaint of how deeply commercialized the experience is, jam-packed with content you can’t access without a particular type of Skylander and a regular onslaught of teaser videos for Skylanders you don’t yet own. But beyond those items, the biggest problem I encountered, in fact, was a surprising assortment of wayward bugs which, in a few cases at least, were pretty serious:
In one ice level early on in the adventure, I found myself unable to progress because a beam of light was being stopped by an invisible, unmovable obstacle. I was forced to completely restart the chapter to progress, after which it worked.
On a different level (specifically, Aerial Attack!), there is an air-elemental course where your character rides gusts of wind to move between floating fragments of land, not unlike Gusty Garden Galaxy in Super Mario Galaxy. However, twice while playing this level, my character became completely stuck upon landing, unable to move at all. The first time, I was forced to restart the mission, of which I was about 25 minutes in. The second time, I was fortunate enough to be knocked off the platform by a nearby enemy—keep in mind that you aren’t even supposed to be able to fall off the sides of these platforms—after which I appeared safely in the center of it.
The Drill Boss on the drill level didn’t appear at all the first time I reached the apex, requiring me to leave and reenter from below the wall of lifts below.
While the game is certainly polished and feels high-quality in most cases, the presence of these QA issues leaves concerns that perhaps the project was rushed a bit and consequently didn’t get to undergo the amount of testing that probably would have squashed these bugs dead. With any luck, we’ll see a patch to resolve these problems. Still, just be aware mostly of the danger of that particular Aerial Attack! segment above all else and you’ll probably be all right.
But what about the original question of whether or not it’s worth the investment? The honest answer is, if your kids are Skylanders fans, it’s almost a foregone conclusion. All relatively minor issues aside, this is a genuine sequel, and much of what made the original so enthralling works the same magic for Giants. The same level of attention has been paid to the content as before, and the new Skylanders are certainly fun to play with and beautifully designed. If more Skylanders is what you’re after, this is what you’ve been looking for.