The Skylanders are back and this time they brought backup into a whole new adventure…Big Backup! Last year, families and gamers alike got their first taste of one of the most lucrative and inventive games since Guitar Hero with Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure. It’s been a year since that release and now the great Skylanders craze is back with the release of Skylanders: Giants for the Xbox 360. I was a huge advocator of the original game and now once again I got to dive in with Skylanders and am happy to report that this one is better in pretty much every way possible.
The story this time around features the evil Kaos once again as he is banished to the real world and in a bit of 4th wall humor ends up in a toy store. It’s here where he finds some of the very same Skylanders that are printed on your copy of the original title in a display case. He is soon contacted via a Skylanders Portal display by his green skinned-minion. He then jumps into an active Portal of Power despite objections from the minion and is transported back into the game. It’s not before you are given a history lesson about a once powerful bunch of robotic rulers known as the Arkayans and the special breed of Skylanders known as Giants. It’s up to you and your new found friends to stop Kaos once again.
I originally played Skylanders on the PC with a mixture of control options. Skylanders Giants on the 360 actually handle pretty much exactly the same with perhaps a little tweaking for finer tuned controls with a controller. Skylanders for the newest adventurers out there works with the use of USB powered Portal of Power and incredibly detailed real-world miniature figurines. By placing a figurine on the portal, they are near instantly virtualized into the world.
Now I’m sure there will be some confusion on the figurines this year with the release of a new generation of characters. Certain characters return in an all new Series 2 versions such as Cynder, Stealth Elf and Sonic Boom. These new version featuring new poses (to tell them apart) come with new Wow-Pow attacks to be purchased like your normal ones. Some of them are quite deadly like Cynder’s air born lightning attack. New to this year’s release are Lightcore™ figurines which are usually altered versions of new or previously released characters. The cool thing is that these figurines light up when placed on the portal. So be sure to look out for these figurines in stores like Lightcore™ Chill, who is a personal favorite of mine. The biggest thing to remember is that all of the new core and Giants figurines will not work in the original game. The newly posed Series 2 figurines will work in the original game though. You can also use all of the 32 original figurines in Skylanders: Giants with an increased level cap of 15.
The meat and potatoes and the namesake of this new Skylanders tale however are the Giants. These are larger than life Skylanders that can interact with the world like never before. There is a Giant for every element: Magic, Life, Earth, Air, Water, Fire, Tech and Death to collect. As of this review I’ve had the opportunity to experience with 4 of them. The biggest difference with these Giants is that they can remove large boulders, interact with special trigger spots and are able to show off their immense might in Feats of Strength moments that would make any normal Skylander pale in comparison. These figurines much like the Lightcore™ versions light up when placed on the portal. These characters are also great for eliminating blocked pathways that would normally require normal Skylanders to use bombs to destroy.
Gameplay in Skylanders: Giants is greatly improved on all fronts this time around. For starters, the combat is actually a bit tougher this time. Unlike the original going though the chapters and walking away with that “no lives lost” checkmark. There are 4 levels of difficulty this time around including a Nightmare mode that will give you a nice run for your money. There are also even more hidden treasures like Luck-O-Tron Wheel pieces to find and finding them and all the returning treasures are a lot harder this time. Even the levels are bigger this time around and this is ever more noticeable with the element-specific areas. Like with the original there are areas in the maze like levels that certain elements are more powerful in so switching out your figurines often are a sure bet.
Switching up your characters pretty often brings up one of the things that make this adventure remotely harder. It became apparently clear earlier on in my playthrough that gold/treasure doesn’t amass as fast as it did in the original. This means that purchasing abilities and items requires multiple playthroughs of the chapters to amass enough gold. There are a few things that can help make things a little easier on you though. For starters, the Luck-O-Tron Wheels can alter your max health, chance of finding more treasure or other useful perks. I only had use to two of the four slots starting out but you can unlock the other later on. There are also Charms and Soul Gems that you can find that unlock attacks and passive skills such as lifting boulders faster.
I have to admit that Skylanders: Giants features a pretty solid visual experience. Most of the game is bright and cheerful except for the dark yet cartoonish evil moments. The finely detailed characters are identical to their physical miniatures even more than before and their animations are fluid. I have to say that while the first game was good visually it’s even better this time around. The first adventure featured little details like changing torch colors. This time I noticed nice details like each Skylander’s element flowing underneath their feet and real time reflections of your Skylanders and the cast in water puddles.
The score for Skylanders is quite charming and blends perfectly with the visuals and sound effects. I love the voice acting for Skylanders especially with the recognizable voice talent of Patrick Warburton (Hoodwinked) as the returning comedic role of Flynn, ace balloon pilot extraordinaire. While he’s still a constant presence, all the Skylanders this time around talk especially those that come aboard the Dread-yacht. There’s even this little music player that all the playable characters interact with when the music plays which is cool.
There is plenty to do in Skylanders: Giants as I mentioned with the added items to find, but there is even more fun to be had. Battle mode returns where two people can face off against each other as well as the ability to play the entire game co-op with a mixture of Giants and core figurines. One of the more unique additions is a little mini-game called Skystones. After you get a few chapters into your adventure you have to learn this painted stone based game. You get a few tiles to start and each one features a character that is native to the Skylands. Some of the tiles feature elemental status and can affect the game field. Most of the games I did featured a 3x3 grid similar to a tic-tac-toe board. The objective is to simply have more stones of your color on the board at the end of the game. The trick however is that you or the other opponent can take control of your stones if either person has enough tiles on the outer edges of the grid. It’s a pretty neat addition to the game and is occasionally an alternative method to get things rolling in the story.
Going into Skylanders: Giants, I only had a small idea of what I was getting myself into after having played the original. After playing it for the past week I have to say that it far exceeded what I had hoped for. The new cast of characters and returning favorites as well as the Giants makes the Skylands even more enticing. It wasn’t until I had the chance to travel down a dammed river riding atop a gigantic robot and firing elemental shots and pancaking anything standing in my way that the experience got even better. Skylanders: Giants looks, sounds and play better than ever before and I absolutely picking this title up this holiday season. Grab your copy and a few new figurines while you can, things are about to get huge.