• Presentation
  • Gameplay
  • Concept

Hoping to expand upon (and obviously replicate) the runaway success of its predecessor, Skylanders Giants is a kid-friendly hack-and-slash action RPG that incorporates the clever concept of real-world collectibles used as in-game characters. In a technical display that might as well be pure magic, these figures are instantly transported into the virtual environment by placing them upon the included and colorful Portal of Power. A newly-introduced set of 16 playable Skylanders toys adds to an already-staggering potential cast list of over 45 heroes, each featuring its own unique skills and playstyles. Exclusive to the sequel are the titular Giants, enlarged variations of the typical Skylanders that are required to access certain areas and are just as ultra-powerful as you’d imagine.

With the sinister-yet-silly shamen Kaos (with a “K”, because “C”s simply aren’t cool kool enough) attempting to resurrect an ancient robotic army and dominate all of Skylands, only the Skylanders themselves stand a chance at saving the world. Using your brand new bunch of toys — or an existing accumulated collection from time spent with the previous installment entitled Spyro’s Adventure – you’ll swap out Skylanders to battle through 16 distinct chapters on the quest to keep Kaos from assuming control of such an unspeakable evil. As required in every action RPG of similar design, expect to improve your characters by gaining experience, learning skills, and amassing massive amounts of glorious loot along the way.

Reviewer’s Note: The introductory Starter Pack for Skylanders Giants includes two basic Skylanders and one Giant. Specific sections of in-game content are inaccessible without buying additional figures, yet this review only accounts for the characters included with this bundle. Please consider my impressions with this experience in mind.

The Ideal Presentation

The entirety of Skylanders Giants is completely comparable to beloved Saturday Morning Cartoons in the best of ways (do these still exist?). Vibrant environments come alive with sights that are oh-so-easy on eyes overexposed to dull color palettes so popular in the current generation of triple-A gaming. Differing and downright cool character designs would be more than enough to empower both enemies and friendlies alike with personality, yet it’s the prevalence of voice acting that ties together this attractive package with a beautiful bow. Dialogue is delivered in an exaggerated manner indicative to your favorite animated television programs from childhood — along with a few familiar voices — and it makes the low comedy from stereotypical characters all the more endearing. It’s cheesy writing, sure, but intentionally so, never a result of a low-quality script or poor delivery. Plan to endure liberal uses of elementary school buzzwords like “evil” and “secret”, and smile as you recall cartoons from the past while wishing you grew up with something this well-produced.

The Enjoyable Gameplay

Gameplay is the interactive entity that separates video games from other entertainment media. That said, the fact that Skylanders Giants is just so fun to play is probably the game’s most robust plus. While each level is essentially a linear get-to-the-finish affair, branching paths with the promise of goodies that cannot be ignored strike that inner completionist drive and incite you to explore these roadblocks only passed by solving puzzles or choosing specific character types. Other light puzzling instances also break up the onslaught of baddies with simple and straightforward yet never tedious mental challenges. What could’ve been a total button-mashing extravaganza in the combat department quickly evolves into something more as advanced enemies explore different tactics to try to take you down. Individual Skylanders have three action skills for slaying minions, and all can be further developed by trading found treasures for upgrades between each mission.

Of course, combat continues to keep itself dynamic with the core element of changing characters on the fly. Even the few toys allotted to the Starter Pack are enough to maintain a fresh experience throughout, largely attributed to the brilliant implementation of specialized locations that provide enhancements to Skylanders of a certain element. Given that Skylanders Giants truly is an RPG, eliminating enemies results in acquiring experience points and eventually leveling up to better each character across traditional statistics like armor or speed. These systems always introduce the possibility of requiring a grind but, aside from a few brief spikes, the difficulty remains right where you’d like it to be. If the focused gameplay wasn’t enough for a satisfying experience, side distractions like the easy-to-understand Skystones card game and time trials known as Heroic Challenges are always available with the potential for rewards to ensure you’ll never be bored.

The Undeniable Addiction

Do not let the lighthearted aesthetic trick you into anticipating a casual outing; Skylanders Giants is as addicting as any game designed like a dungeon crawler. Chapters recap with an overview of objectives to showcase what you did and didn’t do to promote multiple playthroughs. Outside these accomplishments, torrents of collectibles both cosmetic and useful are uncovered around every corner. Perhaps taking a tip from Valve’s success with Team Fortress 2, Skylanders hides stat-boosting hats acting as gear at the ends of optional areas for adventurers with extra initiative. The most successful addiction aspect, though, arises away from the in-game temptations with the constant encouragement to purchase more physical Skylanders. Prepare to be confronted with immovable gates to areas only accessible with that Fire-themed character you never bothered to pick up. You’ll even come across skills tailored specifically for Skylanders you do not own as another reminder to take a trip to the store and fill a shopping cart full of them. It’s a self-perpetuating mechanic, really, as anyone invested is sure to spend ample time continuing to purchase more and more toys to justify the expense. In retrospect, it all sounds slightly heinous, though these wise marketing maneuvers won’t keep your mind from wanting to buy every single Skylander out there.

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The Shallow Story

Maybe kids don’t care about a compelling story, or maybe I’m just impossible to please, but I found the Skylanders narrative to be incredibly shallow. Kaos is searching for the Iron Fist of Arkus to automatically control hordes of hulking war machines to do his bidding and, in turn, you are searching for him. That sentence isn’t a story, or the introductory story, but the entire story. All of it. From Level One to Final Boss, it’s all about catching Kaos, and the purpose wears thin quite quickly as there aren’t any other attempts for deeper development. As a setup to these escapades, historical robotic dominance of Skylands by the Arkeyans is explained in a short opening mission, showing that the Giants mysteriously disappeared after ultimately destroying them…Until now, and we never know why. Nobody questions the sudden return of Giants to Skylands, and this “I’m Oblivious and Okay With It” mantra is apparent throughout the tale. For instance, non-player characters refer to you simply as a singular ‘Skylander.’ An understandable label, but what about after you swap out for another character? Do so, and NPCs don’t seem to notice that a gigantic tree creature is now towering where an undead dragon once stood. It’s bizarre, and forces you to suspend your disbelief a little too much for my liking. Again, the lack of a spectacular story might not matter to you in a children’s game, and especially within this genre, but the lackluster effort is worth mentioning nonetheless.

The Troublesome Giants

When the primary talking point of a sequel even sneaks its existence into the title, its implementation better be a worthy one. Unfortunately, the Giants fail to serve a substantial, meaningful purpose. Impeding progress to optional locales with obstructions only movable by Giants leaves these standout Skylanders as nothing more than a replacement for keys. That said, you’ll likely find little reason to ever use another character that isn’t a Giant when so many secrets require their heavy-lifting. This issue is compounded by the fact that they’re so overpowered, clearing swarms of enemies with more efficiency than even a higher-leveled regular Skylander. At the same time, speed isn’t even a compromise for this power. On the contrary, Tree Rex, the Giant included with the Starter Pack, has a charge attack that arguably allows him to traverse the worlds even faster than his smaller counterparts. While it’s initially fun to feel unstoppably awesome, entering the endgame with underleveled characters which were ignored earlier for a Giant can and will cause unnecessary frustrations from frequent deaths. From here, it’s grind or endure. You won’t enjoy either option whatsoever, so plan accordingly to avoid these troubles.

The Design Limitations 

Admittedly, Story- and Giant-related irks are minor, yet this final Miss is rather significant: an all-encompassing issue — the latter tale of a true love/hate relationship — with the Skylanders concept. In other words, every qualm comes back to the necessity for toys. For every opportunity provided by this novel approach to gameplay, a limitation or two arises alongside it. For one, it is impossible to reference any characters beyond the one in play. As gold and experience isn’t shared, expect to swap at a ridiculous rate in certain instances. But this a mere annoyance; the true issue is much more profound. Without a doubt, the game punishes the player for not purchasing additional figures. Combat can become repetitive between three characters after a while, but all is solved if I were to visit the local toy store. Death itself is particularly bothersome as well. With no in-game potions or extra lives, each Skylander acts as another health bar to help you through. Therefore, owning only three characters translates to only having three lives to complete any individual chapter. If you want more, you buy more. With real money. Same goes for the closed-off content accessible to specific elemental types. In a way, it’s the worst offenses from free-to-win game design brought to a retail box copy, requiring the player to pay to live longer or experience all of the on-disc content. While there is no need to lay down even a dollar to enjoy the Skylanders Giants story, you will nonetheless receive an incomplete and imperfect playthrough in the process.

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My no-longer-childlike eyes still lit up with imaginative amazement as my first Skylander was sucked from my floor into the magical world, and right then I knew that Skylanders Giants would be a wonder. With a presentation that rivals even the best action cartoons and gameplay that will leave you just as addicted as any “hardcore” PC RPG, Skylanders slips from being the absolute best upcoming Christmas present only because of the absurd expense required to keep having a good time. Still, there’s more than enough enjoyment buried within the basic package to recommend this game to any fan the genre, regardless of his or her status as a 3rd grader or 30-year-old. The citizens of Skylands are calling, and only you can put an end to the Kaos.

Review Platform: PlayStation 3