Many years ago, back when I worked for a certain giraffe-fronted toy shop, I could name you all 151 Pokemon. On a good day, in order. That was at the height of Pikachu’s success as every aisle seemed to contain bikes, cards, balls and plushies dedicated to the tubby, electric rat. There was so much tat that I once said in jest “the only thing they’re missing is being able to drop your actual toys into the game.”
Fast forward to the modern day and I like to think that somehow Activision were listening. That butterfly of a comment has flapped it wings across time and space and created Skylanders. Though probably not the “storm” that Edward Lorenz had envisioned, Nintendo must surely be looking at the concept and be kicking themselves.
No matter the platform, each version of the game comes with a portal: a glowing pedestal of plastic that hooks up to your console. Place a plastic Spyro on this dais and it will smoulder purple, throbbing as the elemental forces run through it, before ultimately summoning the well known dragon into your game, ableto run free and spit fireballs. Fancy a change? Maybe a water Skylander? Then simply depose Spyro from his lofty position and pop your Gil Grunt figurine there instead. Lo and behold there he appears on your telly, harpoon and all.
There may not be anything magical about the ability to scan the chip hidden within each character’s base and nothing that an old fashion menu couldn’t replicate, but the tactile nature of the experience is strangely compelling. Sat playing, with your portal lit up by your side and flanked by a team of Skylanders, there’s more than a touch of sport to it. It is as though you are the manager of a fantastical mixed martial arts group, throwing one after another into the ring when conditions dictate. It’s a scene to which punching the pause button and scrolling reams of text to substitute in a more suitable combatant compares poorly.
Technology aside, the game itself is surprisingly a dungeon crawler. Spyro’s home has been devastated by an evil Portal Master known as Kaos. The only means of stopping him is by travelling the floating isles that make up Skyland and bringing together the mystical components that form the legendary Core of Light and turning it on Kaos.
Each part of the Core lies at the end of a fair sized level that’s filled with Kaos’ minions and traps, forcing your merry band of toys to fight and claw their way through to their treasure. Given Spyro’s platforming roots it is a little surprising that his new adventures have moved in the direction of an isometric adventure – that could in a certain light be mistaken for a children’s version of Torchlight – but his transition is nothing if not solid with an ample helping of combat, XP and loot.
Each Skylander starts out with two basic attacks, typically one short- and one long-range. As enemy imps, warlocks and monsters are defeated, these can be upgraded and improved by a mix of levelling up and purchasing extra talents. Water-based Gil Grunt may start with a small harpoon and a water pistol, but by the time he has reached level 10 his pistol is now a high pressured, limitless fire hose that sprays exploding star fish, whereas his harpoon is now the size of an ocean liner’s anchor.
Bonuses are awarded for using specific types of Skylanders in certain regions, handing them combat boosts. Through these shifts the game persuades you to continually rotate the character in play and at the same time see just how varied each of the thirty-plus Skylanders are. There are rock elementals that place down prisms before firing lasers through them; undead mages calling down magical air strikes; and stealthy elves which turn invisible before revealing themselves for a fatal stab with their blades. The nature and variety on offer is sure to tend players to use some Skylanders over others, and also brings to life a personality in combat that the comparatively static likes of Pokemon has been lacking for some time.
Disappointingly most of the dungeon’s inhabitants possess very little to bother a capable or even moderately levelled hero. Though this could be explained away by the game’s focus on younger players, there are few adversaries that can’t be defeated by sheer brute force. Even when the odd exception to this rule does crop up, attrition is still likely to win out eventually.
Thankfully there are areas tucked away that prove a worthy test. With every Skylander comes a challenge level, there to unlock bonus skills and provide a sneaky way to grind XP. From timed dungeon runs through to taking on vast numbers of foes, it all feels as though Activision knew what they were doing and hid this grownup, testing treat away to one side. Like the After Eight mints your mother bought but hid on that shelf just out of reach. Even the faux Mortal Kombat voiceover speaks that it was surely targeted as an arcade addition to an otherwise lengthy yet straightforward campaign.
Multiplayer options extend play a little further, too. Co-op is available throughout whilst a few throwaway battle arenas hide in the opening menu, including a very novel take on American Football that could never be accused of taking itself seriously. Spike pits and bounce pads turn it into a frenetic few minutes as players chase the ball, each other and, at times, shadows, in a bid to score more touchdowns than their rival.
Whether you dig deep enough to find and dabble with many of these extras however will come down to whether or not you have bought into the concept of Skylanders. On one level it’s a competent if not exceptional dungeon crawler for kids that sees much of its content locked out unless you purchase physical DLC (i.e. extra Skylanders). The lands are well realised, combat fun and the characters interesting but at times it all feels fairly generic.
Conversely, the very physical nature of the roster of heroes you take with you on a journey can be a strangely powerful draw. Personalise your Skylanders with their own unique name and a natty hat and all of sudden that is your own exclusive and exceptional elf or dragon. Capable of being transferred across platforms, from 3DS to Xbox and back again, you raise them to be a force to be reckoned with.
It tugs at the completionist within you, offering you a feast of challenges, collectible figures and hidden treasures that the nagging voice inside your head won’t let you ignore. The only way to appease it is to catch ‘em all.