It's easy to forget, but long before the talented developers at Insomniac Games got involved with Ratchet & Clank and Resistance, they were best known for the Spyro series - the closest thing the original Playstation had to a proper Mario 64 challenger. Insomniac left the series to its own devices after that generation and ever since the series has gone from bad to worse. Naturally I didn't have massive expectations for Skylanders Spyro's Adventure, and I had the feeling it would be another round of wasted platform hoping with an additional gimmick.
The big feature this is not promises of more levels and better visuals, no it's the so called "Portal of Power" a sort of plastic shrine that plugs into your console and lights up in various colours and the three plastic figures that come included with the game. The characters in the start pack are Spyro, Gill Grunt and Trigger Happy, and each can be placed on the portal, and after a couple of seconds they appear on screen as a playable character.
The three characters each represent their own element, and there are eight elements in total, each with strengths and weaknesses you need to conquer in order to safe the Skylander universe from the evil Portal master Kaos. It's the kind of plot we've gotten used to in numerous platformers, but this is the first time the game surprises me as there aren't a whole lot of platforms to jump on.
Instead, Spyro and his friends have thrown themselves into a genre popularly referred to as "dungeon crawlers", which means there are monsters to kill, experience and money to gather, magical equipment to pick up, and new abilities to learn. It's something of a surprise to me, but the concept works really as the developer has toyed around with the formula and taken their idea all the way.
The levels combine some of the best elements from previous platform titles with experience points, and if you explore the levels you will get rewarded with secrets and access to bonus levels. If you clear these you usually get a unique hat or piece of clothing you can use with your hero, and in turn these garments may also give you more health, a better chance of scoring critical hits or similar bonus stats we see in most every RPG out there.
The developer Toys for Bob haven't neglected the fact that the plastic figures and the portal are the true killer apps with Skylanders, and every level has secrets and reason to use all of the characters. Each level is divided into zones where characters of a certain element are stronger than others, which despite the overall low difficulty level of the game makes things even easier. It's also a smart move to add bonus levels that only characters of a certain element can reach as it gives you plenty of reason to go back at a later time.
However, recruiting new characters is not a case of defeating enemies or completing levels in Skylanders, no instead you have to buy the physical product in your gaming store. The packs contain three characters and go for around £17 each, a bit expensive, but the game does a nice job of constantly teasing you with secrets you only gain access to with the correct character. And given that there is a total of 32 characters to collect - there is a lot of adventuring to be had.
It should also be noted that a lot of effort has been spent of the plastic figures, the quality and detail is a lot higher than what one would be tempted to expect. The coolest feature by far is however, the chip each figure has that saves your upgrades, your level, and saves them in the actual figure. If you want to use your character at a friend's house you just need to bring your plastic figure, import him into the game with the portal and play a bit of co-op. And what makes it even better is that it works cross platform, so you can start your game on Xbox 360 and still use your characters with the Playstation 3, Wii, PC and even the Nintendo 3DS version.
There is no doubt that the score for Skylanders Spyro's Adventure would have been lower without the portal and plastic figures. The basic game is simple and offers nothing that we haven't seen many times, and the story is completely forgettable, even with good voice acting. But the manner in which the developer has worked to integrate all the various characters into the game, makes for a surprisingly positive experience. It may not be the rebirth of Spyro old timers were hoping for, but it's a brave new direction that actually works.