If you try thinking back to your childhood, do you not remember your gaming experiences vividly? We remember them like it was yesterday. We would spend hours on end on our PlayStation with the little purple dragon named Spyro. There was nothing better than to go on an epic adventure with him. To explore foreign lands and defeat enemies. It gave us memories dear to our hearts that are difficult to put into words. As a gamer you probably have some similar memory, so you know what we're on about. This feeling made itself felt as we listed to Guha Bala talk about the fifth installment of the Skylanders franchise. He used the word "epic" to describe this new game and if the development-team really follows through on all of their ambitions, we have the feeling that many children will walk away as strong memories as Spyro once gave us.
We've been invited to Vicarious Visions headquarter in Albany, New York to get a better idea of what we can expect from Skylanders Superchargers. There seems to be no doubt that Guha Bala and his team have gone all in with the project.
Let's start with what the game is actually known for. Skylanders is based on the pretty magical toys-to-life concept where a piece of physical toy come alive in the game world thanks to a portal. As you'd expect with anything toy-related the target audience is kids and the vibrant colours do their part to lure them in. However, while kids is the primary audience, there's also an understanding that adults will also take part (whether on their own or with a kid by their side). The story and humour elements are therefore presented according to the Pixar model. The right amount of "scratching-the-butt" jokes are complemented by more abstract themes and concepts.
Something else we already know about the franchise is that whenever there's a new game coming a whole bunch of new figurines follows right after. This is also the case with Superchargers, but what's new is that these figurines come with vehicles. That means that the 20 new figurines designed for this game have their own specially designed cars, boats or planes. At the press meeting in Albany, we had the pleasure of meeting two of the new additions to the roster of figurines.
First is the popular character Pop Fizz who has been redesigned. With new attacks, a new look and his new boat Soda Skimmer he's sure to delight fans of his. The other figure we were introduced to was Splat - a female, pink faun who is radiating mischief who carries paint slinging gun. Her boat is called Splatter Splasher and just like Splat herself it loves speed and mischief. It's not all about the new characters and as you'd expect the game is fully compatible with old figurines who will be able to use all of the new vehicles. Even the giants! And if that looks anything like how Guha Bala acted it out it'll be a sight for sore eyes.
If you want to take a break from video gaming you can actually take the vehicles off the portal and play as you would with normal toy cars or toy helicopters. It was very important for the development team that these new vehicles would function properly. As Guha Bala put it: "What is a toy car without spinning wheels? And what is a helicopter without spinning propellers?" Let's just say that the cars rolled around more than once during the day - and no, there weren't any children present. Just fully grown up game journalists. Bala continued revealed that they have been waiting for the right time to introduce cars to this universe for quite some time. And because of the vehicles the game also introduces a bunch of new modes. There's the online multiplayer where you can race against other people as well as your friends. You can play co-op where one player controls the car and the other shoots. Or you could complete in the special quests these vehicles unlock.
All the journalists present got the opportunity to race against each other in the game to win a grand trophy. And that did not go down quietly. The room was filled with yells, cheers and a thick excitement while the finalists were decided. One of the other journalists even told me that her heart rate monitor watch couldn't even read her pulse while she was racing. A bunch of grown ups fighting with everything they had to win a trophy. We could certainly feel the tension as we picked up the controller, but sadly after a few races we were knocked out and had to go home empty handed.
But we'd already heard a lot about the vehicles before (read up on our preview from when it was announced), and surely this wasn't all that was in store for us when invited to Vicarious Visions. Surely there had to be something more.
True enough Vicarious Visions had been holding something rather fascinating back. It became evident that the team wanted to bring a darker and more interesting edge to the otherwise soft and colourful universe. This is expressed in a number of ways. The lighting and shadows have been upgraded in order to give the burning exhausts of the the vehicles more realistic and richer glow as the shadows are denser. The next thing affected is the story where the team has sought to create a much deeper narrative.
Thus far we've run into Skylanders' chief villain Chaos more than once. He really, really, really wants to make all of Skylands his own. And that's really all he's about. This time around he's teamed up with The Darkness (not the band) in order to achieve his ambition. His latest horrible contraption - the Skyeater - is eating its way towards our favourite Skylanders one floating island at a time. As a portalmaster you'll have to gather all your skills and knowledge to win this fight. There's a lot riding on you, and in order to set the stage Vicarious Visions are putting out a special edition of the Skylanders comic book to explain the events leading up to the game. Perhaps this newfound focus on narrative is most clearly evident by the fact that for the first time in franchise history a cinematic trailer has been cooked up for the game. The trailer that will go public on September 14 really does a good job of capturing the depth of the story and mood of the game.
The team has also focussed on the dialogues. First of all they've hired professional voice actors to capture the personality behind the various Skylanders figurines. Second they still know that they're creating a game for children who just are just looking for a quick fix of action. Therefore, they've tried to hit that perfect balance of depth and action. Like the lead cinematics animator at Vicarious Visions, John Paul Rhinemiller, explains: "We wanted to put you in the hot seat right from the start. You know those rollercoasters where you get in, and they just fly out of there right from the start? That's the feeling we were going for."
So there's a lot going on here. There's a new, deeper plot, a bunch of new racing quests and even online racing. But it doesn't stop there. You'll also get to play the Skystones-cardgame we last encountered in Skylanders Giants - and now with a bunch of new cards. You can also get the legendary treasures or test yourself with the new and updated version of heroic challenges that's been missing since Skylanders Giants.
Our only concern is whether it's simply too much. You can really feel how the team has been sizzling with new ideas and ambitions, but if these ideas don't come together you'll just end up with a mishmash of game elements of story lacking a red thread. It might not be something that every kid will notice but we have our worries. Therefore, we asked John Paul Rhinemiller who had a big influence on the development of the story what his thoughts were. He said: "I worked closely with the writer to figure out what narrative we had at the core level of the game. We constructed 5 or 6 overarching stories that all tied together and told the narrative. We worked from those overarching stories and always kept them in mind whilst working on smaller levels." Words of reassurance.
Even if we no longer belong to the target audience, we're excited to see how the team will tie together all these ambitions into one cohessive game. We've got the feeling that there's an opportunity here to take the franchise to the next level - without forgetting what Skylanders is about and who the game is made for. Surely the game and all of its figurines will find their way onto many a Christmas wishlist. And it looks like it's the kid of game that will entertain kids and adults alike.
We caught up with Vicarious Visions' Guha Bala during Gamescom and the conversation mainly focused on the new online multiplayer that is being introduced for the first time in a Skylanders title.