Review | 10/27/2011 at 1:56 PM

Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure Co-Op Review

The sound of parents' wallets screaming

Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure is one of the most unusual games I’ve ever played. It is much more than just a game; it is a media juggernaut including a toyline, an adventure game on Xbox 360, Playstation 3, and Wii, a platformer for the 3DS, and even a light MMO on the PC or Mac. The various components work together seamlessly due to the innovative design of the toys themselves. It is incredibly polished, and it’s clear that careful thought was given to even the smallest details.

The most likely entry point into Skylanders is picking up a Starter Pack for the system of your choice. I chose the Xbox 360 version, which comes with the game itself, three non-random Skylander figures, and the Portal of Power. This latter piece of hardware is a dongle that plugs into the USB port of the Xbox 360. (Other versions include a wireless Portal.) Once plugged in, the Portal lights up in an impressive rainbow of colors. As the game starts up, you are asked to place a Skylander figure on the Portal. When you do so, a detailed animation of the Skylander being summoned is displayed, and it pops up in the game. At any point, you can swap to a new Skylander in game by replacing the figure on the Portal of Power. Seeing an actual toy come to life in a video game is quite satisfying, and kids of all ages will love it.

A second player can join in at any time throughout the adventure. Simply turn on a controller, place a Skylander on the portal, and within seconds, P2 is up and running. Dropping out is just as simple. The campaign itself is a 3rd person action adventure, very much like Gauntlet Legends. There is a hub world, from which players can journey to other lands via balloon, pirate ship, or even by climbing a giant beanstalk. Skylanders earn experience throughout their adventure, with light RPG elements like unlocking upgrades and equipment are included. Simple puzzles and mini-games are sprinkled throughout the campaign, which can help break up action sequences that are at times, a bit too easy.

In addition to the 20 level campaign, a character in the hub world allows single characters to take on Heroic Challenges. There is a specific challenge for each Skylander, but you can change to a different Skylander to complete a tough challenge if you wish. And you just might want to do that, because the timed Heroic Challenges are pretty difficult, even for adults. I attempted a couple of them four or five times each with no luck. Overcoming challenges unlocks unique upgrades for the characters, helping make these Heroic Challenges a nice contrast to the rather simple campaign mode.

On to the toys themselves, which are a large part of Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure’s’ appeal. The starter pack includes only three figures, including Spyro himself. You can certainly play through the entire campaign with just these three toys, but the game is obviously more fun with additional Skylanders. Each Skylander is attuned to a particular element; Spyro is magic, Gill Grunt is water, etc. Some areas scattered through the game require a particular element to unlock. In order to proceed, you must swap in a corresponding Skylander. As there are eight different elements, you’ll need to purchase five more Skylanders in order to see everything in the campaign. These unlockable areas never block your progress through the level, but are more like the optional coin levels in Super Mario Bros. They are typically fairly short, and might include extra treasure or a special item.

In my opinion, a few coins and a new hat aren’t enough to justify purchasing five more figures at $8 a pop. The figures are available alone, or in three packs, which save you a little bit over individual purchases, but it’s still expensive. In essence, Skylanders takes the “unlockable DLC already on the disc” concept to a whole new level. There are Skylanders that come packed with other figures that unlock entire new levels and powerful items, which are pretty clearly attempts at getting more money. I think the game is quite fun and totally playable even with the starter pack figures, but it’s obvious that in order to maximize your gameplay, you need to buy more Skylanders. This expense could be a deal breaker for some potential buyers.

That said, the real appeal of having more Skylanders is that, well, you have more Skylanders! The characters themselves are cute, quirky, and likable. You’ve got fish men, several dragons, a walking tree, a dynamite-throwing goblin, and many more. My personal favorite is the crystalline golem Prism Break, an earth-attuned Skylander that shoots lasers from his fists. He looks particularly cool in an absurd hat I picked up that made entirely of fruit. Thirty-two different Skylanders are available: four of each element. The toys are well crafted, with lots of detail, and my ten year old son absolutely loves them. Even the most hard-hearted of gamers will find them cute. Each Skylander looks and plays much differently than the others, too; there’s no straight pallette swapping going on here. My only complaint about the toys themselves is that they are not articulated at all, so you can’t put them in different poses.

The game itself does a good job of convincing you to get more Skylanders. Each campaign zone has a “featured” element, and figures of that element do more damage. Also, having additional Skylanders in your collection adds a small amount of power to that stats of each one. The most blatant attempt at selling you more Skylanders are what amount to in-game commercials. You’ll often find items that unlock abilities on certain figures, and the game helpfully gives you the option of seeing a preview of how awesome that new Skylander is. The whole system is designed to incite a furious shopping session, and I realize that some gamers will dislike this. I found the whole racket to be so much fun, I can’t complain about it too much.

We’ve talked about the game itself, and the toys, and now we move on to what I feel is the most impressive part of Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure: the interconnectivity. There are many ways to use your Skylanders besides just playing through the console game itself. The Portal of Power can be connected to a computer, and your figures then imported into the Skylanders: Spyro’s Universe web-based game. This is a combination of a social network and a minigame collection. Players can customize their own personal floating island, with the help of the Skylanders. By visiting the mainland, other players can be met, befriended, and their home islands can be visited. Mini games, one of which is quite similar to Angry Birds, are also available to play, though I was unable to find one that supported co-op in my brief time online.

You can take your Skylanders to a friend’s console and play with no problems at all. Levels, equipment, money, and other stats are saved onto the figure itself. Just drop your level 8 Spyro onto your friend’s Portal of Power, and he’ll pop right in, cowboy hat and all. Incredibly, this works across platforms: your Skylanders won’t care whether you use them on Wii, PS3, or 360. You can even use your Skylanders in the 3DS version of the game, which is totally different than the console versions. This cross-platform compatibility is a brilliant piece of engineering, far different than the norm in this era of timed exclusives and console-specific DLC packs. It’s a natural extension of the drop-in/drop-out co-op we all know and love. I am not aware of any other game that supports cross-platform co-op like this. Using your Skylanders in all these different ways is by far the best part of the entire Skylanders experience.

Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure is excellent. The Skylanders are fun to play with in and out of game. Being able to use them online, in a friend’s game, or even on the go with the 3DS version is quite impressive. Co-op across systems is unheard of, and here, it is handled flawlessly. It’s a great product, and I suspect it will be an enormous hit with young players and their parents. It is probably the best "kid game" I've ever played, with the possible exception of the Pokemon franchise it was undoubtedly modelled on. If you have young gamer in your life, I recommend picking it up. The youngsters will love it, and you will too.

This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game.