QCF: Skylanders Giants

Skylanders Giants is a deceptive game; originally piloted by the notoriety of having Spyro’s name attached to the previous entry, this latest installment has made a name for itself within a little over 12 months. Say what you will, but Skylanders Giants is still a game and not just some commercial. To be fair, there’s no doubt that it cleverly implements an ulterior layer of marketing that would make most micro-transaction models found in any shameless MMO blush. Nevertheless what may be viewed as a string of money-hats is something that is, in reality, so much more. Underneath all the coy marketing lies a game that utilizes these initially unscrupulous concepts and turns them into one of the most charming pastimes in games today.

The Legendary Skylands is visited by the legendary elemental elders of old times, the Giants. Other events in the background also place the fabled domain under attack again from the comical villain, Kaos, which then summons the familiar presence of Skyland’s most prominent disembodied head, Eon, the Viking hero, to ask for the aid of the Skylanders once again with your help as the portal master. Within minutes the game focuses on painting the light-hearted conflict that fuels the drive to send the pint-sized champions into battle and does so in such a manner that it doesn’t pander to the younger demographic it wishes to appeal to. So much so it casts a charm that’s akin to that of an animated Dreamworks film;  a premise that doesn’t demean any adult who decides to see what all the fuss is about, or better yet, discourage a possible family play session. The layout for play choice is fairly streamlined, giving an option of the main mode, the Story, or you can head into battle with another local player. Unfortunately, Toys For Bob chose to ditch online multiplayer yet again, even after the lack of an online mode from the previous entry, and where the first time around may have been an oversight due to the fresh tech involved, it's inexcusable to ignore it the second time around.  

Combat has been refined in this outing. Gone is the spotty hit detection and sluggish movement within the top-down dungeon-crawling eque venture as Giants plays out much smoother. The inclusion of the Giants is a welcome addition and substantiates itself as more than simply being another play at figurine revenue. Giants possess a strength that lends itself both to contextual areas of interest like a heavy rock that can only be lifted by the whimsical colossi, bursting through walls that would make the Kool-aid man blush or high vantage points that provide the height required to reach the needed velocity for stage-expanding body slam. Though simple in practice, there's a distinct advantage to just being able to walk over hordes of annoying enemies that would normally be a serious threat when swarming that are now merely an annoyance when piloting a Giant on the portal. Simply interacting with the stage in a significant manner outside of the dynamic of trying to meet some required element with a different figure for the area is a breath of fresh air over the previous title’s shallow stage design. The addition of a new minigame that you encounter aptly titled “Skystones” is nothing more than a superficial combinations of concepts taken from Tic-Tac-Toe and Pogs, which can change up the droning movement of fighting and exploring, is ultimately forgettable in the scope of Giant’s grand design. The expanded character growth system is where the allure of Skylanders Giants truly shines as it works to enhance all of the facets that make up the investment the experience demands from its user. The result is surprisingly more rewarding in practice than it already was in theory.

The Skill tree abilities and stats can now be developed more intricately with branches that the player can choose to make when a certain point is reached; meaning that any attachment to a certain Skylander character is just as fruitful as it is personally satisfying. The Skill trees aren’t the most complex by any means, but they serve their purpose seamlessly with each hero and the feature that allows you to switch between branching paths of progression takes away any apprehension towards the commitment of one figure being purposed for one particular strategy. There’s also the addition of mini quests for the particular Skylander to fulfill which will increase its rank and overall stats. Finally, you can also develop more stats through Heroic Challenges (more on that a bit later).  Re-purchasing the same statutes the second time around is a much easier expenditure to swallow because of the intricacy that’s allowed with them. The act of playing and collecting gradually becomes more and more validating just for just the sheer option of playing ONE particular character. The open nature of advancement between all of the toys definitely builds up a drive to invest along with the addition of the skill trees and ranks that can be gathered and earned. The concept of trading figures for other figures is a lot less superficial and works to a more gratifying end where the game is concerned, instead of simply collecting the toy line. That's not to say that there isn’t an obnoxious amount to choose from though.

Giants is compatible with all of the original character models from the original line and returns all of them in a reposed fashion in a “Series 2” line. Finally, Skylanders both old and new will also have a “Lightcore” version of themselves. This new line  is not only reposed in another stance that sets it apart from Series 1 or 2, but they also possess the ability to light up in areas once they're engaged anywhere near the Portal of Power. The character luminously shines in a bright glow that’s ever changing from the varying spectrum of colors emitted from the portal, the figures are undeniably enjoyable to use when they’re  tagged in, no matter what age group you fall into. Lightcore characters also have additional abilities none of the alternative version possesses and do more for your collection than simply bringing a vapid value to your army of soldiers. The game far from breaks the mold but it embellishes the mechanics of character growth just enough to keep you playing.

The stages feature hidden items that provide completion stats but also provide additional perks that will make playing easier. Such items allow for discounts towards the purchase of ability upgrades or passive perks that can be swapped in between stages within the HUB world. The stages themselves will demand different types of Skylanders that align with a particular element; those being Life, Undead, Air, Water, Earth, Magic, and Tech. In fact, you won’t even be able access certain parts of the stage at all unless you have the appropriate element on the Portal base, meaning large parts of the game will be missed out on if you stick with the starter set, even though it doesn’t affect the completion of the main game. Aside from the stages, you’ll be given Heroic challenges that can be done within the HUB area of the game. These Heroic Challenges will contain different objectives that wildly differ from one another and generally have some sort of association with the Skylander that helped unlocked it. Yeah, that’s right, another integral reason you’ll NEED to gather additional Skylanders: doing so will earn more challenges. Notice a pattern?

The insipid undertones of product promotion leaves a bit of a bad taste in your mouth the further you dive in. This isn’t to say that surprising level of depth isn’t engrossing and fulfilling, but the clear signs of a corporate agenda being subliminally pushed (very good at being subliminal at that) can sour the experience at times. There are already an ample amount of reasons to collect more Skylanders simply due to the gratification granted from the core mechanics of the game but the it doesn’t just settle there. It continues to pander the idea of getting as many of the toys as you can with strategies like bold and repetitive name dropping of Skylander names and places or the dreaded Soul Tokens. Soul Tokens are essentially a campaign to visit the nearest store and grab the prize that it’s dangling in front of you. An item that’s character specific and provides an exclusive ability to that one character that cannot be obtained anywhere else! Along with said booster for the character is an optional vignette of what the character can do, the result is BLATANT ADVERTISMENT! It can downright hamper the experience at times and does the title no favors in escaping from the stigma of being a cash-cow gimmick, especially when the title is so much more than that.

Skylanders Giants is a different experience in peripheral gaming, one with a competent combat system that liberally takes elements from Pokémon’s formula and makes it feel refreshing again, even if it’s with a new roster of critters. The lack of online multiplayer and shifty market engineering do hold the game back from reaching its full potential but the overall experience is more than simply novel. It legitimately changes the landscape of family gaming and even shows the potential of table-top RPG games successfully fusing within the video game format in ways that revolutionize the medium.

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