Friday, January 4, 2013

Skylanders: Giants - Bigger Does Not Always Equal Better

As is to be expected from a popular title, a sequel is inevitable to be made. After the amazing success of Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure, Activision announced a sequel to the series, Skylanders: Giants, released late last year (this game was one of those Christmas gifts I mentioned earlier). It not only introduced new Skylanders to the mix, but also a new LightCore technology, in which the toy lights up when on or near the Portal of Power peripheral, and the new race of Skylanders called the Giants, which are essentially bigger Skylanders. With the hype made for the new Giants figures before release, the game of course has something to live up to. So the question is, does this new installment to the Spyro (can it still be called that?) franchise deliver?

After the defeat of the evil Kaos in Spyro's Adventure (a name that is not entirely accurate), the game picks up in what is quite possibly one of the most meta plots I have ever encountered. After being reduced to a toy form, Kaos awakens at night. In a toy store. After initial confusion as to his new surroundings, he comes across a few Skylanders on another shelf. In a Skylanders display. In toy form. Complete with detailed, accurate toy poses. Through a TV, Kaos is contacted by his assistant, Glumshanks, while attention is made towards a Portal of Power. In toy form. Using this, Kaos makes his way back to Skylands, unknowingly awakening the ancient Arkeyan Conquertron in the process. Banding together, the Conquertron assists Kaos in his goal for domination of Skylands.

The game continues with the previous game's color palette, which I again find to be a good thing, making things stand out while also appealing to the target audience of children. While it uses darker colors where appropriate, even then you can still tell what's what, which is a good thing for this game's atmosphere. Giants also continues to deliver some good music, even if some of it is recycled from Spyro's Adventure, being either catchy and not annoying to epic when necessary; there's even a halfway-decent song delivered by a singing drill (never thought I would ever type that sentence).

One thing that should be noted about this game is the voice acting, mainly the fact that the Skylanders toys themselves now have more full voice acting as opposed to a catchphrase or two and some grunts. With the toys I got in addition to the Giants Portal Owners Pack, the voice acting seemed pretty good for what it was worth, though I did notice that some Skylanders received a change in voice actor between games (Series 1 Gill Grunt for instance). Also, rather than having a few varied phrases to spout upon a summon, each Skylander now only says one catchphrase (printed on the package of the individual figures), which eventually got grating after a while when I kept switching them out. As for the other, non-toy characters in the game, while it sees the return of some the same voice cast from the first installment, it also sees quite a few new ones, one of the most surprising being Star Trek's George Takei as the Arkeyan Conquertron. Of course, Richard Steven Horvitz continues to keep up the Zim theatrics when voicing Kaos, making him, to me, one of the most enjoyable and funniest characters in the game.

The toy gimmick of Skylanders is taken a step further by making it so there are now, as advertised, over 45 Skylanders to collect, including the aforementioned Giant and LightCore figures. Among these are also some Series 2 figures, in addition to a number of new characters, which are a lot of the popular toys from the first game reposed to represent one of their upgrades (and, of course, to make them look new). I'm not too familiar with the Series 2 figures, since I only own one that I barely used, but from what I've read it seems they get special benefits in-game that Series 1 figures do not (although fortunately, you are able to still use Series 1 figures in Giants and Series 2 figures in Spyro's Adventure). As with the first batch of toys, these new figures are rather gorgeously detailed, which only increases their collectibility. Owning a LightCore figure myself, I can say that the technology that went into them is very impressive, which helps them to stand out from the pack and introduce some variety in the figures (although LightCore is a separate line of figures, meaning you must collect the LightCore version of a character and their normal counterpart). Giants also include this new technology, making them even more impressive for what they are.

However, in order to gain certain achievements in-game, the game essentially forces you to invest in the new toyline. In case you have not seen any pictures or did not pay close attention, Spyro's Adventure (Series 1) figures have a green base (just like the Portal of Power), whereas Giants (Series 2, Giants, LightCore) figures have an orange base. Most Accolades in the game require you to register "Orange Base" figures, which is basically "buy all our playsets and toys" (to quote Homestar Runner) in video game form. Since there's more price points to be found with this new line of figures, you are basically required to spend even more money than you would have with the first game, if you are that much a die-hard collector. (And even with a Series 1, Series 2, Legendary, and Dark variant, Spyro is still a bit player in his own game.)

On the subject of toys, remember my earlier statement about living up to hype? Well, in this case, I am referring to the titular Giants. There was a lot of hype for these figures before release, including a pre-release trailer that showcased the Giant Tree Rex (which comes with either Starter Pack), which made these new toys look epic. Even if one didn't see the trailer(s), one would assume that the hype would have to pay off somehow. It does not. Aside from a few mentions of finding (read: buying) the Giants, they are treated as though they are regular Skylanders, as if they had been there the entire time (which they have in-universe). There are certain things that only a Giant can do, such as lifting certain boulders, jumping into cracked ground, being able to smash blockades, and performing Feats of Strength, but aside from that, the game doesn't do much to make the Giants feel all that special, which to an adult player can be rather disappointing, though I can't say the same for a child player.

As a final thought on this, I would like to mention one thing that could be of use to loyal Skylanders players. Remember all those Adventure Packs you got that came with a new environment and a couple of extra items to add to your experience? Good news, you can can still use them here! In fact, from the figures I remembered to use, it seems that there are also some improvements, such as the Healing Elixer being able to heal you faster, and the Hidden Treasure not making any annoying sound. Not only can the Adventure Pack locale figures still unlock the same levels, they also unlock new Battle Arenas for local multiplayer. Fortunately, for those who do not own any Spyro's Adventure toys, you can still purchase equivalents of some of the special items through the money-obsessed Auric (voiced by Steve Blum).

As with other sequels such as Devil May Cry 2 (ugh), the environments in Giants are much larger than in Spyro's Adventure, including a number of areas that can be unlocked using figures of certain Elements. As such, there are much more collectibles to find and more of a level to explore, though at times it makes them seem to drag on. Regardless, the added collectibles for each stage ramp up the replay value, in addition to all the new toys to buy, which I find to be an overall good thing.

One last item of note is the introduction of a new minigame within the main game called Skystones, in which you use stones representing enemies from the game against an in-game opponent. Often this is to achieve some sort of goal, such as opening a gate, but it is more often just an NPC seeking a little entertainment. If you win each encounter, you also get a new Skystone from them in order to further customize your 5 stone setup; you can also buy new stones from Auric during each stage. The game is simple and easy to grasp and, though I played on the Easy difficulty, I actually did run into some trouble with a couple of later boards. It wasn't exactly addicting for me, but it at least does provide some replay value, as well as some bragging rights about whatever Skystones you may have.

As with the first game, there is no jump button, but at least items are now much easier to grab and don't require any sort of complex maneuver to get ones that are just out of reach. Before, it was possible for an item to be lost forever when something was broken or opened, but developer Toys for Bob did the smart thing and added invisible walls that would prevent them from going outside the playable area. Even though the same Portal of Power is used between games, I've noticed that the peripheral was somehow less finicky that it was before, but that doesn't mean I didn't run into a few questionable moments, such as it registering a Skylander after I had already been playing with it for a while. Aside from this, the Portal still works fine, and at least you don't have to buy a new one in order to play the new game.

As I had been playing the PS3 version again, I noticed that it's still designed to be Wii/Wii U friendly, which I am not complaining about since it makes the game easier to port. Although special actions requiring an analog stick are now moved to the Triangle button, which makes the experience a little less awkward, they could have at least changed one hint that still mentions the need to "shake to escape" something. As with before, this is just observation on my part and not an actual complaint.

Skylanders: Giants attempts to break new ground by introducing newer and shinier figures to use within the game, but it doesn't do enough to make them seem all that special. While this may be the case in the eyes of more grown-up players, this game is still something that is perfect for any child fan of Skylanders, as they are the target audience and will most likely get more entertainment out of it. It does cost a bit more to get the full experience, but on the bright side the toys are still very well-crafted and might be something nice to display on your dresser. Despite the drawbacks of this title, I still have a desire to collect more of the toys over time so I may expand my repertoire and get my full money's worth.

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