There's something magical about a good toy. Be it an action figure, doll, transforming truck, projectile-spitting dragon or a wooden block, it doesn't matter how many removable parts or points of articulation they have once burrowed into your imagination and destined for Great Adventure along with the rest of the toy chest. Your world becomes their illustrious domain: defying the mountainous bookshelf, crashing through the man-eating garden.
Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure taps into that spirit of excitement and all-powerful god role thanks to its unique hook that makes immobile figurines on the table spring to life and personality on your gaming platform of choice. Is it all just an elaborate ploy to get parents to spend hundreds of dollars? Well yes, of course it is, but so are Transformers, Barbie and G.I. Joe. And that doesn't stop them, or Skylanders, from being plenty of good fun.
When talking about Skylanders it's difficult to say where one part ends and another begins seeing as the physical and digital are so intricately woven together and dependent on each other. The premise of the whole soirée puts you in the role of Portal Master, able to summon the titular creatures into their world by placing their plastic figure on the wireless Power Portal. The 3DS version is actually a separate adventure altogether, with a new antagonist named Hektor intent on blanketing the Radiant Isles with his darkness, and a shift away from roaming action-RPG to a platforming one.
Skylanders on 3DS plays a lot like PlayStation platformers of yore, evoking a strong Crash Bandicoot feel to the linear and secret-filled stages. Each stage has a number of challenges that each earn a crystal, and once you fulfill the criteria of one you're hit with an ominous "Hektor is coming!" and a countdown timer starts, giving you until it ends to exit the stage. More time can be added by picking up clocks scattered around the stage or dropped by enemies, and as the timer approaches zero Hektor gets more and more aggressive, flinging damaging lightning bolts at you from above. You can continue to complete challenges once Hektor begins his approach, which gives a sometimes fun extra edge to completing stages. Character levelling is also different in the portable version: collecting Radiance littered about stages boosts your bar at the end of the stage, unlike collecting orbs from defeated enemies on Wii, and daily elemental bonuses encourage using the appropriate Skylander type for Radiance boosts. The attacks you start out with are different as well, making low-level play with the same Skylander feel different between the 3DS and console games.
As Portal Master, you're able to seamlessly transport Skylanders from our world, where they are frozen, into theirs, where they come alive, by lining up the IR sensors on the 3DS and Power Portal, placing a figurine on the portal and summoning them in the overworld hub. The switch is nigh-instant and allows you to hold two summoned Skylanders who stick around until switched out, letting you leave the Power Portal at home and play elsewhere.
What’s neat about the toys is that your character’s statistics save to the toys themselves via the Power Portal and can be dropped in to any other Skylander game across all platforms — if you have the 3DS version and a friend has the Wii, PS3 or Xbox 360 version you’re able to summon your custom Skylander into their game, and all stat gains made elsewhere carry over back to your platform of choice when you return. Besides new characters, figurines can also add new areas and magic items, but those you will have to buy separately. It works very well and it'll be interesting to see where this technology goes in the future, especially considering publisher Activision's grip on the Transformers, Spider-Man and X-Men licenses.
A starter pack of three Skylanders comes with each copy of the game, and the characters vary depending on which platform you get: the 3DS version comes with Dark Spyro, Stealth Elf and Ignitor. Each of the 30+ Skylanders has their own special attacks, vital statistics and elemental type, so the 3DS pack starts you off with a Magic, Life and Fire elemental, respectively. These initial three are enough to get you through the main story mode and take on challenges that are only available to Skylanders of these elemental affinities, but if you want to enter a Water or Tech challenge, for instance, you’ll have to buy a Water or Tech Skylander toy. Since you are unable to swap Skylanders at will like on console, stages helpfully let you know which elemental types are useful before venturing in to let you plan accordingly. It all comes across as glorified downloadable content and the game strongly nudges you to pick up more Skylanders, but unlike buying drab megabytes you get a neat little toy with some neat little chips inside.
Whether you buy in to more figures or not, there’s still a good amount of content in the base set up — and falling down that rabbit hole opens up a slew of extra content. The campaign is unfortunately single-player only, but the lengthy stages and their multiple goals that you in all likelihood won’t be able to tackle in the first go through help give a nice and meaty feel to it. In addition, the affair is peppered with bonus challenges and explorative extras, giving the sense that there is always something else left to do.
There isn’t much strategy to combat, however, as character’s movesets are limited to a handful of attacks and special abilities, although the addition of double-jumps and dashing as standard brings a welcome sense of speed and agility compared to the console versions. Combat is simple but fun in a Gauntlet kind of way: easy enough for younger players to feel competent and diverse enough to keep the attention of a more experienced crowd. Challenge ramps up gently but noticeably, and the overall world is delightfully colourful and bouncy, marinated in a suitably goofy sense of humor.
Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure is a near-perfect conceptual marriage of toys and video games. While wallets may shudder at the thought of throwing down potentially lots and lots of money for the complete experience, what you get out of the box is a well-crafted adventure and world that kids of all ages can be excited about. Being a completely different game helps the 3DS version from being overlooked by those falling in to the world of Skylanders, and some may even prefer the portable's platforming over the roaming console version. The Power Portal is not used quite as intuitively here as on consoles, but for all intents and purposes makes the best of the situation. Something tells us this isn't the last we'll see of the Skylanders.