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 in to 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. There is some bad stuff happening in their world thanks to a little dorky guy named Kaos (voiced by Invader Zim himself), who ejected the Skylanders into our world where they are trapped as frozen figures. As Portal Master, you are able to seamlessly transport them from our world into theirs through the wireless Power Portal just by placing a figurine on it — up to two character figurines can be summoned simultaneously for co-operative play. The switch is nigh-instant and possible everywhere, which makes it all the more fun to do.
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 Wii version and a friend has the PS3 or Xbox 360 version you’re still able to summon your custom Skylander into their game, and all stat gains and gold collected elsewhere carry over back to your platform of choice when you return. Story mode progression does not carry over, however. The game's RPG elements are more deep than they let on at first: what occurs as simple character leveling quickly turns into hours lost collecting gold to buy offensive upgrades, collecting orbs from defeated enemies to gain levels and conquering side challenges improves attributes like strength and speed. Like all good stat systems, it's easy to get sidetracked improving your Skylanders.
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 will 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 Wii version comes with Spyro, Gill Grunt and Trigger Happy. Each of the 30+ Skylanders has their own special attacks, vital statistics and elemental type, so the Wii pack starts you off with a Magic, Water and Tech elemental, respectively. These initial three are enough to get you through the main story mode and explore areas that are only available to Skylanders of these elemental affinities, but if you want to enter a Fire or Undead area, for instance, you’ll have to buy a Fire or Undead Skylander toy. It 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 entire campaign can be tackled either solo or in a much more agreeable co-operative fashion, and the lengthy stages include multiple goals that you in all likelihood won’t be able to tackle in the first go through. In addition, the affair is peppered with bonus challenges and explorative extras, giving the sense that there is always something else left to do — even if that something else is squaring off your Skylander against a friend’s in a competitive battle.
There isn’t much strategy to combat, however, as character’s movesets are limited to a handful of attacks and special abilities. The Wii Remote and Nunchuk attachment feel nigh-on under-used as just about three buttons do anything of significance, none of them letting you jump or dash as is standard in the 3DS version. The game's pace is also a bit pedestrian — not pac_ing_, mind you, that's fine, but it all moves a bit slow, even when you put time into boosting speed stats. 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 colorful 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. The Power Portal offers a unique and quite fun dynamic that comes off as a seamless addition, helping cement Skylanders as an innovator in the toy field. Something tells us this isn't the last we'll see of the little critters.