The Precious Skylander Level-Ups. We Wants Them.
From the outside, everything about Skylanders Giants shouldn't work. While I was playing it, when people asked me what I was playing, I told them it was like Pokémon, but they should imagine having to buy each Pokémon for ten dollars. Not just because of the act of collecting as a feature of the game, but also because it's just so damn addictive.
At E3 I had a brief chance to talk to developers about Skylanders Giants, but when I mentioned the 3DS version, they told me it was a different game. The plot involves the Skylanders thwarting an attempt of a nefarious Pirate, Frightbeard, to free his pirate brethren from their thousands of years of captivity From the Chest of Exile.
The 3DS version works slightly differently from its console-bound brothers. It has to be portable, so the Portal is only used from a ship hub between missions in the game, allowing the player to store two Skylanders at a time to be switched to at any time during the game.
The portal connects through the 3DS's infrared transceiver on the back and shuts off automatically when not connected. This allows the user to cart around their Skylander figures and portable portal, which runs on several AAA batteries, and play on the go without it always having to be connected to the 3DS.
As with Skylanders on consoles, one of the main feature of the game is the ability to switch out the playable characters but have their experience travel with the toy placed on the portal. In the case of the 3DS version, since the characters level up outside of contact with the portal, they need to be synced before those levels show up elsewhere.
Skylanders Giants on the 3DS is a light action platformer. It's not particularly difficult; for instance, falling off of one of the Skylands nets you some health loss but is not immediately fatal. The game's action is light, with a mix of ranged and melee attacks, and enemies dropping health power-ups in the form of fruit whenever the Skylander's health gets appreciably low.
The only real challenge is in the final battle with Frightbeard himself, who charges around quickly and throws his lightning-shooting sword. It's quite a jump in difficulty, especially considering the ease with which I was able to level up my figurines to level 11 with a fairly breezy pacing, only to find that I probably needed maxed out stats on someone to have as easy a play experience for the boss
However, Skylanders Giants may be one of the only games I can imagine where the value may not be in the plot or gameplay. The value is in the ability to level up your Skylanders and watch their abilities shift and their attacks become cooler. I couldn't care less about the plot or gameplay, but I sure want to see if I'm going to get new attacks when my Tree Rex reaches level 15!
This is both the blessing and curse of Skylanders Giants. It has the potential to keep the player playing for as long as they have an interest in seeing their Skylanders develop, but the gameplay is bland, boring, and the presentation feels cheap. The difficulty for much of the game is so lacking that even trying to dodge enemy attacks seems unnecessary. This wouldn't be bad if the game were more charming, but it's also a bit of a visual lump.
Skylanders Giants on 3DS looks like a middle-of-the-road PS2 game with a generic cartoony look. Additionally, the characters are often framed as if they were on a much larger screen, making them look tiny (even the Giants), which can make it hard to pick up collectibles in the levels. The cinematic scenes don't fare too well either.
It's a good thing that the marketing genius in the Skylanders franchise is so effective. An uninteresting game may actually serve the purpose of of the franchise, since it allows people to level up their figures relatively quickly, prompting them to buy a new figure and start over again at square one. Also, since Skylanders figures can be taken from console to 3DS back to console and continue to gain experience, the 3DS version may be just the accessory that fans of franchise will want, even if the game itself is boring and bland.