A giant something anyway.
Last month, I was fortunate enough to be among the first to witness the latest installment in what has verifiably become the Pokémon-grade craze of 2012. Skylanders Giants is, at heart, everything the first game was (with only a few exceptions), and more of a great thing isn’t a bad thing—especially not this early on in the lifespan of a franchise.
Skylanders Giants for 3DS is different though. For starters, it’s a totally separate storyline and even a modified version of the winning formula. But more than anything, it feels like a missed opportunity.
Let’s start with what the games have in common. Like its console-bound brethren, the 3DS version of Skylanders Giants still leverages the countless collectible toys you’ve invested in (thank goodness). The basic rules remain the same: you have your Portal of Power (this time, a miniature iteration of the console original) on which you place your toys to activate them in-game. The fundamental style of play is still obviously reminiscent—you traverse various levels using your Skylanders, barreling through hordes of baddies along the way, leveling up, and collecting coins.
Because all robots must have lasers.
In fact, the 3DS version actually addresses a couple of the problems we mentioned when reviewing the console title: that the Skylanders feel a little sluggish in movement, and that the game awkwardly lacks a simple jump button (instead relying on archaic jump pads that bounce your characters to and fro in necessary locations). Giants for 3DS actually adds the ability to run and jump, effectively eliminating both of those problems outright. This time, it feels much more like a traditional action/adventure/platforming game.
Sounds peachy, right? The problems begin to rear their heads from here, however. You might have been wondering how in the world you’re supposed to justify lugging around that Portal of Power with your 3DS when—after all—the sole purpose of a handheld gaming system is to be easily portable and convenient for playing just about anywhere. Well, the developers had a keen idea to address this: allow preloading of Skylanders into the game, and then provide the ability to hot swap them throughout a given level. It’s a great idea that most certainly is a requirement of making the game sensibly portable, but there is a problem: you can only swap between two Skylanders in any given level, and in order to play with any others, you have to return to the airship.
Vaguely resembles Storm Eagle, don't you think?
Of course, there are still plenty of areas in each level which are roped off, reserved for Skylanders of a particular element to access. And, as you might have guessed, since there’s no way you could possibly know which Skylanders will be required in any area prior to playing it, that means that you’ll be forced to revisit each area subsequently after making note of who’s needed where in order to reach these areas. That would be fine if the levels were fun in their own right, but they’re notably less inspired than anything you’ll find in the console version, which tragically compounds the problem and makes enjoying the game quite difficult indeed.
For the life of me, I can’t envision how this limitation ever made it all the way to the final product. I really can’t see how restricting the player to just two Skylanders throughout the course of a given trip to an area benefits the game design. If it was some sort of technical limitation, I can’t imagine how. Why not simply allow the player to preload as many Skylanders as he or she chooses? What’s the difference ultimately? At the very least, it would have made sense to have an option to pause the game and reconnect the Portal of Power to hot swap from the menu—but you can’t even do that.
As he says, bark AND bite.
There are other issues as well. While Skylanders still gain EXP and level up (quite quickly too, I noticed—in fact, there are even daily bonuses for Skylanders of a particular type, which is something entirely new), that’s all they gain when playing the 3DS version of the game. There is no treasure to collect, and any coins you pick up throughout the course of a level are converted to EXP later. Of course, since no currency exists in the game, that also means that each Skylander’s existing money stash has no place in the game. Instead, rather than buying items and new techniques, you simply gain them when the Skylanders reach a particular level. Even the hats system is functionally absent; no longer do hats provide any practical benefits—just the obvious cosmetic changes.
So maybe you don’t mind the repetition of revisiting levels with different Skylanders, the lack of treasure, the oversimplified techniques system, and the functionally bankrupt hats (four of the most central features of the Skylanders franchise). What you will mind is the lack of a fluid gameplay experience. That’s right—as tragic as it is, aside from all of these structural issues, there is a major mechanical one as well: the game downright chugs when any considerable amount of content is brought on-screen. This is in spite of the fact that it really doesn’t look any more sophisticated than your average DS game—and it’s a truly unfortunate drawback.
Everything else in the way of presentation is expectedly solid. The music is still fantastic (as always is the case for the series). The same goes for the voice acting, which was not simply recycled from the console versions.
Don't look now, but there's a terrible blue mouth monster directly behind you.
But the aforementioned unholy cocktail of annoyances and oversimplifications quickly becomes too much to stomach. The game’s glaring problems fundamentally overshadow the benefits of being able to play with your Skylanders on the go—even in spite of the positives brought into play by the inclusion of the overdue run and jump mechanics. Couple this with the fact that it’s overall shorter than the console iterations, and it’s still $75, and you have a difficult game to recommend.