Is your inner child dead inside?
Skylanders Giants makes me feel old. Apparently, the first Skylanders sold enough copies and figurines to become one of the most profitable toy brands in the last year, selling over 30 million figurines worldwide—and I was oblivious. Inside my bubble, as a critic and an adult without kids, I naturally dismissed most news regarding what I deemed as yet another children's fad. I had distanced myself from the days when I would collect hundreds of Magic: The Gathering cards and then Pokémon cards, sorting and cataloguing them in binders. Skylanders Giants made me recall those memories, and so in this sense, it also made me feel young again.
The innovation of the Skylanders franchise is the Portal of Power, a peripheral powered by USB connection to the console, that serves as the conduit for each figurine. Place a Skylander on the portal and it appears as the main character on screen; swap it with another Skylander at any time and it's replaced. Any experience and gold earned is recorded on the chip embedded in the bottom of the figurine, so that it can be placed on a friend's Portal of Power and retain all of its abilities and stats.
This idea of digital materialization isn't new to anyone who has watched Yu-Gi-Oh! or has tinkered with any number of PlayStation Eye games, but Skylanders is the first franchise to make this magical. Seeing the figurine come to life in a fantastical action brawler with bright colors and happy-go-lucky music is something that appeals to the inner child in all of us. In fact, it wouldn't be surprising if Nintendo borrowed this concept for a new Pokémon title on their upcoming Wii U console.
This Skylanders Giants sequel takes the original concept one step further by manifesting that young boy's dream of transforming into a strong, unstoppable force. As the title implies, eight new giant figurines have been introduced into the fold, bringing the total number of figurines to a whopping 48 (more of you're counting different editions), 8 Skylanders for each elemental type. My favorite giant and favorite Skylander is Swarm. I mean, how can I not be fond of a speedy, gigantic Italian bee?
Compared to their smaller brethren, giants can perform extraordinary feats of strength like hurling boulders and smashing through walls with a single swipe. Given their high power and armor ratings, they're an essential addition to the group. As figurines, they have the same incredible paint job as the smaller Skylanders and light up like the Lightcore figurines whenever they are placed on the Portal of Power.
However, since each figurine costs around $15 to $30 at retail, the nagging question (mainly for parents) is how much Skylanders Giants will ultimately cost in the long run. All of the original Skylanders figurines are compatible with this installment, though they will be getting upgrades in the form of Series 2 figurines that have added abilities and stat upgrades. Certainly, there's nothing wrong with playing as the original cast of characters, and they will be able to earn experience to the new level cap advanced from 10 to 15.
As a game marketed for children, Skylanders Giants isn't complicated. Kaos returns once more to wreak havoc on the Skylanders in his attempt at conquest, and his newfound discovery of an ancient Arkeyan robot (voiced by George Takei, humorously) prompts the return of the likewise ancient Skylanders giants to save the day. Whichever Skylander you choose, you still need to go through each chapter ridding the world of baddies with various attacks, breaking barrels for coin, and finding parts for Captain Flynn's ship which serves as a hub between chapters. Getting through normal difficulty shouldn't be demanding for anyone who is accustomed to games; otherwise, it serves as a perfect introduction to gaming in general.
Outside of the basic beat-'em-up action, there's plenty to keep you—and especially kids—occupied. Apart from accumulating gold to purchase upgrades in a fairly linear skill tree and various items in the shop, you can enter Heroic Challenges and Arena Challenges for additional rewards like permanent stat boosts. One Arena Challenge toward the end that asks you to evade every attack will be a test for all players. In fact, there's an Achievement/Trophy to finish the game on the new Nightmare mode, which was added due to feedback by some parents who played with their sons and daughters cooperatively but wanted a more difficult challenge for themselves.
On top of that, each level can be replayed for additional stars, earned by collecting all of the treasures in that level or by accomplishing various goals like completing it under a specific time limit. The game's fifteen chapters are already quite expansive for a kids title, so getting all of the stars and leveling up all of the Skylanders will take at least a month of continuous play. That's not even mentioning a bevy of multiplayer PvP options and the addition of a mini-game called Skystones, which is essentially a simpler version of Triple Triad from Final Fantasy VIII. Simply put, if you want kids to leave you alone for a while, Skylanders Giants is the perfect distraction.
That said, the in-game incentive to purchase additional figurines is obvious. Along with environments that grant health regeneration and overall stat boosts to Skylanders of a specific element, there are numerous sections of a level that are completely zoned off unless you switch out to that elemental Skylander. Hidden within these sections are usually treasure chests, additional hats, and other collectibles, all of which are required if you want to earn the perfect 3-star rating for each level and to experience the game in its entirety. Collecting Skylanders also awards you Accolades which increase the rate of XP earned. Altogether, it may be enough to convince this jaded critic to purchase Ignitor and Bash just to have a fire and earth elemental in my collection.
Paying upwards of $200 for the full Skylanders Giants experience is a hard sell, but the $75 starter pack which include the game and three figurines (one giant, two regular) is a good jumping point for both kids and parents. I don't particularly care whether Skylanders Giants is age-appropriate for me or not; it's fun for everyone and that's what the best family games should be about. Just don't feel pressured to catch them all, if you know what I mean.