Skylanders: Spyro's Adventures - Game Review

Skylanders Offers a Lot of Fun ... How Much Fun Can You Afford?

Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventures
Skylanders is one of the prettiest games on the Wii. Activision

Pros: Fun gameplay, visually striking, clever peripheral.

Cons: Lame story, tedious boss battles, pricey accessories.

There is no word that so aptly describes the action adventure game Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventures as canny, not because it’s a good game, which it certainly is, but because it has been so ingeniously designed to suck large sums of money from parents a little bit at a time. Skylanders is designed to be the gift that keeps on giving ... to its publishers.

Developed by: Toys For Bob
Published by: Activision
Genre: Action-Adventure
For ages: Activision says this is suitable for ages 6+, although the ESRB rates this for 10+
Platform: Wii
Release Date: Oct. 16, 2011


The Gimmick: Hardware Lets Toys Enter the Game World

Skylanders’ big gimmick is the “Portal of Power,” a game peripheral used to select your avatar. The Portal is a cereal-bowl-sized, battery-powered device that looks like a tiny ice skating rink and communicates with the Wii via a USB dongle. Put a plastic figurine on the Portal and the corresponding creature is transported into the game world.

The Skylanders Starter Pack comes with a Portal of Power, three figurines and the game itself. Put in some batteries and turn it on and the Portal will glow with a shifting array of colors. Put one of the game’s figurines on it and that character will leap into the game with a war cry.

The game’s conceit is that you are a magical “portal master” able to send creatures known as skylanders to Skyland from your home planet, Earth. This is the planet to which the skylanders were banished after being shrunk to little figurines by the game’s bad guy.

As the game begins, Skyland is having issues with the evil villain Kaos and with something called “The Darkness.” To save the world, the player must send skylanders out to search for various magical objects that can push back the Darkness.

Gameplay: Fun, Easy Action and Adventure

Underneath the hardware and premise, Skylanders is an action adventure game in which you must lead a creature of your choice through a colorful world populated by a huge variety of monsters (the game introduces new ones constantly, ranging from vicious little goblins to mages that can imbue other creatures with extra powers to the occasional giants or tanks. Skylanders have two main attacks, triggered with the A and B button, and these vary from one creature to the next. Spyro can shoot fireballs or charge into enemies. Gill Grunt can shoot a water canon or a spear gun.

As you progress through the game you can use gold found throughout the worlds to purchase upgrades; one lets Spyro shoot three fireballs at once, another sends Gill Grunt’s spear through multiple objects and monsters. Past the halfway point you get to choose an upgrade path in which you focus entirely on improving one of the two attacks; this makes sense because I found I would usually have a favorite attack anyway.

The game also offers a variety of simple puzzles. Some involve pushing giant turtles together to make bridges while others involve using crystals to redirect a light beam. There are also fun combination lock puzzles that involve dropping a creature in various directions.

Skylanders is successful in almost every area. Gameplay is fairly easy but endlessly entertaining. The game offers a wealth of hidden areas and collectible items to search for. The upgrade system keeps battles fresh. The game is one of the best-looking games ever made for the Wii, colorful and imaginative, with a variety of attractive locales.

Co-op Play: Easy for Even Non-Gamers

The game is so appealing, in fact, that it even enchanted my non-gamer girlfriend Laurel, who was so intrigued by the Portal of Power that she sat down and played the game with me in co-op mode. Two figurines can fit on the Portal of Power, and Laurel easily dropped into the game. She found learning the controls much easier than the last time she had joined me in a video game (Endless Ocean: Blue World). She really enjoyed the game, comparing it favorably with her frustrating youthful experiences with arcade games. The controls are, in fact, extremely simple; for the most part all you use are two buttons and the analog stick, although occasionally you will be asked to shake or shove the Wii remote.

In co-op, skylanders are tethered together so that they can’t get beyond a certain distance from each other. It creates occasional difficulties, but it also forces players to work together, which I found interesting.

Flaws: Not Many

Flaws in the game are minor. The story sequences are generally tedious and are unlikely to amuse anyone over the age of 8. There are some nice touches, such as a sea creature commenting that “life’s a carp shoot,” but most of the humor is forced and the voice acting, with the exception of the always reliable Patrick Warburton as a balloonist, is sub-par. Halfway through the game I began to simply skip all the story sequences (via the handy “C” button).

I also could have done without the endless boss battles. Perhaps they should really be called boss-ish battles, since instead of facing off against one powerful creature, you fight a series of fairly powerful creature alternating with other forms of attack. These sequences go on too long, and are more annoying than fun.

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Money: How Many Skylanders Do You Need? How Many Can You Afford?

Changing avatars is as simple as replacing one with another on the Portal (I generally would pick one up off my couch and use it to knock the current skylander off the portal before replacing it). There are occasional gameplay reasons to swap characters; one’s grenade launcher allows you to bombard enemies over a low wall, one’s fire attack is especially useful against some monsters, and when one skylander loses all its health you have no choice but to swap it out. But the game has other ways of encouraging players to switch. Each of your skylanders is associated with a certain element (fire, earth, magic) and at times the game will tell you that creatures with one of these elements in stronger in certain areas. The other, more persuasive reason to switch is to access element-keyed gates locking bonus areas of the game.

This means that while you can play the game from beginning to end with only the three starter kit skylanders, you won’t be able to reach certain power ups, collectibles and challenges with just that trio.

The game continually reminds players that they need more skylander figurines. Whenever you near a gate you’re told what elemental you need. A pillar in the game’s hub world can be destroyed to gain treasure, but you need to have the right elementals to do so. You will often discover power ups for skylanders you don’t own, and the game offers a scene showing you what those creatures can do with their new power ups.

This is why I call the game canny. The figurines cost $8 each, and with 8 elements, you need to buy a minimum of five more skylanders to access all the game’s areas. Well, almost all, because there are short quests for each individual character, so if you want to play everything the game has to offer, you need all 32 skylanders (I only played one quest and found it less interesting than the rest of the game). Kotaku estimates that while the game itself sells for $70, experiencing every last little bit of it would cost over $300.

The Portal: Pro and Con Arguments

This makes the Portal of Power a potential goldmine for publisher Activision, but its benefit for gamer are less clear. For kids it might well be more fun to play with little toys, dropping them on a glowing Portal, than simply calling up an onscreen menu of available skylanders, but honestly I would prefer the latter. The Portal is an extra item to keep track of, if I lost my skylanders in my messy apartment I wouldn’t be able to play the game at all, and I had to change the batteries once (contained in one of those annoying battery compartments held closed with a screw).

On the other hand, kids do wind up with toys to play with, and they can bring their skylanders to a friend’s house. Impressively, the toy itself keeps track of its power ups no matter whose console you are using it on. That offers the best argument for figurines over console-homed virtual creatures.

Verdict: A Great Game, Portal or No

While you can argue about whether the Porthole of Power adds much to the game, there is no denying that the game itself is one of the best action adventure games ever made for the Wii, a fun, easygoing, beautifully crafted game that is, as the saying goes, fun for kids of all ages. It’s a game children are likely to love, but as they keep asking for just one more skylander to call their own, parents may begin to think of the Portal of Power as the Sinkhole of Money.


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Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.