Skylanders Giants Review
This game was reviewed on Xbox 360
Last year, Earthlings were introduced to the pint-sized heroes from Skylands, trapped on Earth in frozen forms as children’s toys. Players learned that we are the only Portal Masters left who can bring the Skylanders back to life by using the Portal of Power. And so, we embarked on an adventure to help these Skylanders teleport back to their homeworld to save it from certain doom. These adorable characters somehow fought their way into the hearts of fans both young and old, as their popularity grew in ways that even Activision couldn’t have imagined. Now, Activision has created a direct sequel to Spyro’s Adventure, entitled Skylanders Giants, wherein players are pulled into Skylands once more to help battle the evil KAOS who has escaped his imprisonment and is already cooking up another scheme to take over Skylands. Spyro’s Adventure set the bar pretty high; will this sequel prove to be bigger and better in epic proportions, or will we want to toss it into a Chompy pit? Let’s find out!
For those of you who joined the party late, the Skylanders franchise is quite different from other games on the market, as it brings physical toys into play – and they’re cross-platform to boot! The games are available on Xbox, PlayStation 3, Wii, and 3DS, and the characters’ in-game progress (experience points, skills, and gold), and unique items (such as collectible hats) are stored in the toy’s memory. Players simply place the Skylander toys on the Portal of Power, which then teleports the characters into the game itself. Characters fall into one of eight available elements (Air, Fire, Water, Earth, Magic, Undead, Life, and Technological) and they can access their respective in-game Elemental Gates (which are locked areas that hold more treasures and collectibles). However, players will find that there are technically nine categories, as the Giants create an ‘element’ of their own; there are certain areas that only Giants can enter by performing Feats of Strength (more on this later).
As the game’s title suggests, this time around we have the pleasure of meeting the original Skylanders, the Giants, who lived more than 10,000 years ago. In the first chapter (which also serves as a tutorial level), we relive those ancient days when the Giants were a thriving species. During this history lesson, we learn that back then a giant race of sentient robots called the Arkeyans enslaved the Mabu, forcing their captives to build massive monuments in their name. Even in the face of such adversity, the Skylander Giants rose to the challenge, banding together to fight against the Arkeyans, and to free Skylands. In an epic battle, the Giants managed to sever the Fist from the Arkeyan King Arkus, shutting down the war machines once and for all. Although the Skylanders prevailed, the Fist of Arkus sent the Skylanders to Earth, never to be seen again. Now, with KAOS awakened, a new threat is looming. It’s up to the Portal Masters to bring back these legendary heroes to help defeat KAOS and his dastardly plans once again.
While we progress through the game, two main storylines unfold, twining together to create the bigger story of Skylanders Giants. From the get-go, we witness KAOS breaking out of his frozen state on Earth. Of course, this miniature megalomaniac immediately cooks up another plan to take over Skylands; this time, he’s set his sights on the Fist of Arkus, with hopes of controlling an army of giant war machines. The god-like Master Eon, in all of his omniscient wisdom, enlists the aid of the Earthling Portal Masters (yes, you, my dear readers) to find and bring the Skylander Giants to battle once more.
Players will embark on a long journey with the help of some old friends gained in Spyro’s Adventure: Flynn, Cali, and Hugo. Flynn has upgraded his mode of transportation since Spyro’s Adventure to a flying ship known as the Dreadyacht, which also serves as the game’s Hub (your home base, much like the Ruins in the first game). The ship itself is a bit of a fixer-upper, which will force players to spend the initial chapters of the game flying to new lands just to find parts for the ship. As you move forward through these worlds, your crew will grow, with key characters from each chapter coming onboard. Make sure you explore the ship fully, as many rooms hold surprises like shopkeepers and more. One room in particular holds a new feature: creating a new look for Flynn’s ship. The developers certainly had a lot of fun with this concept, as the collectible Legendary Treasures are actually parts used to customize the ship to your heart’s content. As an added bonus, whatever aesthetic changes you make to the Dreadyacht will transfer to the in-game cutscenes, giving players a chance to further personalize their gameplay experience.
Although the core gameplay mechanics from the previous Skylanders title are still present in Skylanders Giants, the developers added many features to an already-robust formula. First off, players can now choose the difficulty level (whereas in Spyro’s Adventure, we just had one mode to play in) from the Pause menu. This means that if players find the level to be too easy or not challenging enough, they can pause the game and change the difficulty setting mid-game, rather than having to suffer through the level (or worse yet, restart the level). There are three levels of difficulty to choose from: Easy (Chompy Cuddler), Medium (Cyclops Crusher), and Hard (Heavy Hitter). The Easy mode is perfect for younger children who are still developing motor and cognitive skills; rather than giving kids the full range of buttons and thumbsticks to control their Skylanders, they can now just use two buttons and the left thumbstick to move around. Also, players no longer need to rotate the right thumbstick to open treasures or turn keys, but rather mash or tap the Y button when the game tells them to.
Aside from controlling the Skylanders, players are sometimes given the chance to handle guns or ride giant robots, using the left thumbstick to move the reticule and the A button to shoot. Returning fans will be happy to learn that piloting the robots is much smoother in Skylanders Giants. Some of you may remember struggling with the Arkeyan War Machine’s stiff controls in Spyro’s Adventure; now, the targeting function’s sensitivity has been heightened, so the merest nudge of the left thumbstick has the reticule flying across the screen. The targeting is no longer limited to one area as it was in the last game, making it much easier to aim and fire (or punch) enemies coming at you from all directions. When you fight enemies, you’ll find that your defeated foes will disintegrate into a shower of colourful balls of light, which you will then need to collect, as they are experience points that help you level up. A little issue you may run into here is that you need to be almost on top of these glowing orbs for them to fly to you, and you can’t collect them otherwise. This becomes slightly cumbersome when you’re battling your way through a slew of enemies, as you may find that you often have to backtrack to pick up the miniature globes of light.
In addition to levelling up, you can improve your Skylanders stats and skills by visiting Cali and Persephone respectively. Cali, your personal trainer, offers a variety of Heroic Challenges to help improve certain stats. These challenges have objectives that must be cleared within a specified amount of time, such as finding and eliminating all the monsters in a dungeon, or freeing a bunch of singing geckos from captivity. Beware though, while most of these Heroic Challenges are only a couple of minutes in length, you might find yourself spending a lot more time in these levels striving to beat the ticking clock. They’re called challenges for a reason, you know! You can also purchase skill upgrades from the fairy Persephone, who has her own cabin on the Dreadyacht. Make sure you keep an eye out for Winged Sapphires (a new collectible that’s scattered throughout the game), as they give you discounts for skill upgrades.
The level designs have also been given an upgrade, with the developers opening up many new areas for you to discover. Where in the previous game houses were typically just set pieces, now, these areas hold treasures, NPCs, and destructibles aplenty. The developers have even added purple arrows that gesture rather insistently at the entryways, demanding that you go investigate what’s inside. You’ll typically find puzzle locks as well as quest objects in these areas. Other returning puzzles include the movable blocks and laser crystals. In certain areas, players will have to move blocks to help create a pathway. Alternatively, players will often need to shift crystals that direct a laser beam to open up an entryway, melt obstacles, or trigger switches in order to progress through the chapter.
Within each level, players will come across Elemental Gates which can only be accessed by the corresponding elemental’s characters. Once the area is unlocked, you can switch out your character if you wish. Also (as mentioned previously), the Giants serve as their own ‘element’ in that there are places that are marked with a Giants symbol, and only the Giants can get to them by performing a Feat of Strength. These can include picking up and throwing boulders (often marked by fractured, glowing green lines), smashing through barriers, knocking down walls, creating bridges, or pulling tethered floating islands towards you. Like any elemental area, these places typically hold collectibles like the Legendary Treasure, treasure chests, hats or even Winged Sapphires, so be sure to keep an eye out for anything that has the Giants’ symbol!
At the end of some levels (like the very first one), you may find yourself fighting for your life in Battle Arenas. Once you have beaten a particular battle, you can then access and replay that battle anytime you like by visiting Brock on the Dreadyacht. There are seven arenas in total and each come with their own obstacles (such as an open stage that you can fall off of) and a bevy of enemies. This is a great way to level up and test your mettle against a variety of foes – not to mention a quick way to earn gold coins!
When players first set off on their heroic journey, they run into NPCs who allude to a game called Skystones, and it’s not until you meet the Pirates in Cutthroat Carnival that the game is explained to you. Instead of the simple Memory Matching Card game you may remember from Spyro’s Adventure, Skystones is a new mini-game where you and your opponent must fill a 3×3 board with Skystones, battling to take over each other’s stones. Whoever has the most Skystones on the board at the end of the round, wins. Although simple in nature (somewhat like Tic Tac Toe), this mini-game requires some strategizing to win. Each player holds a hand of five Skystones. On these Skystones are blades, which vary in the number per side on the stone. The objective is to place the Skystones with more blades next to your opponents’ stones that have lesser blades. When you do this, the opponent’s stone switches its allegiance, and becomes yours. For example, if your stone has three blades and you see that your opponent has a stone with only two blades (or none at all), placing your stone adjacent to his will transform his stone into one of yours. However, if you place a stone with more blades before your opponent places one with lesser blades next to yours, his stone will be safe from being taken over by the stone you previously laid. If two stones have the same amount of blades, nothing happens as they cancel each other out. When you win a round, you are rewarded with a new Skystone (often your opponent’s best stone) to add to your collection. Oftentimes, in order to complete a mission objective, you will encounter these NPCs who are willing to trade information or favours… in exchange for a game of Skystones.
Throughout the game, players can explore new lands, and slowly come to realize just how big the in-game world is. At the beginning of each level, the camera will fly around the island to show you the course you need to take. Each chapter introduces a new island, which has its own unique sense of character. From Cutthroat Carnival (a festival town taken over by pirates), to a weird island called Wilikin Village (populated with wooden toys and props that can be brought to life by a machine), to islands covered in ice or deserts, Activision has expanded on the Skylanders’ universe, inviting players to immerse themselves in this marvellous, cartoon-like world. Wilikin Village is a perfect example of how much effort has been put into Skylanders Giants; in just one island, you have two different environments to explore, as you need to bring the village to life or put it back to sleep depending on the obstacles. When the village is asleep in its still and wooden dreamland, you seem to walk into a ghost town where the colours are washed out, wooden people are slumped over like puppets with their strings cut, and the ‘houses’ appear to be stage props (i.e. a picture of the front of the house being propped up by wooden beams). Alive, the level is just as vibrant as any other, with Pinocchio-type village folk walking, skipping, playing, and talking in stunted sentences. Be sure to peek into every nook and cranny as you’ll find different treasures when the village is asleep than when it is alive and the houses are actual built structures.
Although the graphics of the first Skylanders game were truly amazing, the developers have made many enhancements to the visuals in Giants, bringing the quality to a whole new level. While still cartoony, the animations and cutscenes look more sophisticated than before. Some textures look extremely realistic, with an almost touchable quality to them. For example, just looking at the materials that make up Flynn’s ship you can almost believe that if you were to reach out and touch the metals, they’d feel cool and smooth. When the Skylanders visit the winter wonderland that is Glacier Gully, they glide across icy patches so believable that you might want to join them skating. However, we encountered some minor graphical glitches, like coins stuck in the air – way out of your reach, or character animations stuttering in co-op mode once they hit the end of the tether joining the two players, which can completely detract from the realistic effect.
Players will find that many of these graphical changes help to add to the mysticism that surrounds the Skylanders. One of the biggest visual additions is to the Elemental areas. These no longer look like regular areas merely blocked off with an elemental symbol, and instead have upgraded animations to give them a more magical ‘oomph.’ When you approach these gated areas, you’ll notice the entire environment changes. On arrival at the Life gates, leafy plants sprout up in front of you; with Undead zones, the skies grow darker, and a gate made of bones rises from the ground to bar your entry; Air areas give you the feeling of walking onto a cloud with a gentle breeze blowing softly in your face – and these are only a few of the Elemental areas you will get to explore on your journey! Additionally, you’ll find small aesthetic changes to your Skylanders footprints in these elemental sections. For example, Life Skylanders have greenery and flowers blooming with each step, Undead Skylanders leave wispy white spirits in their wake, and Air Skylanders create mini swirls of wind as they run around, etc. Whether the aesthetic changes are large and in-your-face or extremely subtle, they truly give you a more in-depth feel to every new area you find yourself in.
Activision also went to great lengths to making the Giants more realistic, which is evident in the animations. Giants have a much slower, lumbering walk than their smaller counterparts. Destructibles in the environment will bounce and quake when the Giants walk by, and with each step, the Giants leave small craters behind to show how heavy and powerful they are. It’s fun playing a Giant, as you’ll often see the smaller enemies just disintegrating when the Giant bumps or walks into them – a testament to their great strength.
To complement the gorgeous graphics is an equally impressive and expanded audio selection, with high-calibre voice acting, realistic sound effects, and a cheerful soundtrack. Players will notice that there are many more characters with voices in Skylanders Giants, injecting personality and appropriate emotions to any given situation. Some of the characters’ voices will perk your ears, creating a sense of “Hey, is that ___?”, with A-listers like Star Trek’s George Takei voicing the Arkeyan Conquertron and Hercules’ Kevin Sorbo as Crusher the Giant. Let’s not forget our returning actors, including Patrick Warburton (Flynn), Sumalee Montano (Cali), and Daniel Hagan (Master Eon), who bring their characters to life yet again. You can tell that the actors really enjoyed their parts, enthusiastically lending their voices to their respective characters, ranging from pirates to robots, Mabu to evil wizened wizards, and more. Some of the most entertaining scenes are with Flynn and Cali, where you can hear the all-brawn-and-no-brain aspect in Flynn’s egotistical voice, and Cali’s eye-rolling is unmistakable in her sardonic responses to him. Even passing characters that you meet throughout the game have believable voice-acting, further drawing players into the game’s storyline.
Whatever level you decide to explore, the developers bring environmental sounds as well as fitting theme music to life, further adding to the realism of the game. If you’re in the glades, you’ll hear sheep bleating and birds happily chirping, or frogs croaking by the ponds. In the ancient mines or construction sites, you’ll hear the rhythmic clink-clink-clink of Mabu slaves hammering away. Music accompanies each level with unique tracks that perfectly complement the sound effects, and really help to build the atmosphere, letting you immerse yourself fully in the world around you. For example, in Cutthroat Carnival, a lively jig plays in the background, similar to those you’d hear sea-faring folk or pirates playing in the movies. In Glacier Gully, stringed instruments and a choir create an ethereal audio backdrop as your character slides around in the huge ice bowls. Players will find the soundtrack manages to build the mood, whether with an upbeat, pounding rhythm while you’re battling enemies, or the cheery playfulness of spring, merrily bouncing from one note to the next while you are gallivanting around the countryside.
The graphics and audio create a perfect package for players of all ages. Even small children who may be too young to play can sit and watch, since the game is interspersed with enough cutscenes and entertaining movies that a child can enjoy the story without ever having to pick up a controller. And during gameplay, the Skylanders’ unique personalities and skills, along with the vast areas you can explore, will keep observers amused and draw them into the game. The script is written in such a way that adults can appreciate any tongue-in-cheek lines – while children can giggle at the silliness of the characters. One thing that I’ve always liked is that there are also subtitles for the cutscenes and movies, so children can learn words as they watch the story unfold. Unfortunately, this feature isn’t very consistent in Skylanders Giants, but thankfully the movies that are without subtitles are few and far between.
As you can see, there’s a lot that’s been packed into this new Skylanders game. To further entice players – especially the completionists out there – Activision has added more collectibles, player goals, and even new character objectives. Each level has certain goals outside of the main objective, such as completing the chapter in x-amount of time, finding all of the collectibles (treasure chests, Legendary Treasure, hats, Winged Sapphires, etc.), and finding all the areas (including those that are locked behind Elemental Gates). Of course, in order to explore all of the areas, you have to own at least nine different characters – one of each elemental, plus a Giant.
This brings us to the new player objectives, which can be viewed in the Collections Menu. There are six categories: Skylanders (to view those that you own), Story Scrolls, Skystones (to view your deck), Accolades, Charms (earned in Arena Challenges), and Movies (where you can review the mini-movies that you’ve seen up to your progress point). There are 16 Accolades to receive, all of which are rewarded by owning certain groups of Skylanders (e.g. owning the three starter characters from Spyro’s Adventure, owning all the characters within one colour base or elemental type, etc.). There is so much more to do in the game that time will run away on you!
A big part of Skylanders is owning the toys. Fans will be happy to know that the Series 1 Skylander toys from Spyro’s Adventure are forward-compatible with Skylanders Giants. These characters will also receive an extension to their level cap from 10 to 15. The old Portal of Power can be used with the sequel as well, which is why there’s a Portal Owners’ package of the game (which includes the game as well as the Giant Tree Rex). However, note that some of the newer characters can’t be used on the old Portal of Power, so take extra care when purchasing the toys; the packaging indicates which game the toy is compatible with. Apart from the Skylander Giants toys that tower over the regular ones, there are also new types of toys, like the Series 2 toys (revamped iterations of existing models), and Lightcore Skylanders that light up on the Portal of Power and have a special bomb attack when they are introduced in a level. With 40 new characters being released, you’re bound to find at least one extra Skylander that appeals to you or your loved ones.
At the end of the day, it’s evident that a lot of care has been put into creating another entertaining Skylanders game. Activision spent a lot of time enhancing features and making enough additions to Skylanders Giants to appeal to a wider audience. Despite a few minor issues, players both young and old can sit down and enjoy the unfolding adventure as they strive to save Skylands from the egomaniacal KAOS. Returning fans will definitely be pleased, while newer audiences will soon understand what the hype was all about. Whether you choose to buy the bare minimum package to play the game or you’re an avid collector of all things Skylanders, this game is a must-have for the holiday season!
Final score: 4.25/5.0
***CONTEST ALERT*** – Looking forward to pick up your own copy of Skylanders? Well look no further! Gamer Living will be giving away a Skylanders Giants Starter Pack for the Xbox 360 this week! Head on over to our Facebook page and Like us to enter. Contest limited to continental United States and Canada residents only (sorry overseas peoples, shipping is expensive!).
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