Skylanders Giants: Innovator or money-spinner?

Creative characters, ground-breaking design and 48 toys to collect, but does Skylanders Giants represent value for money this Christmas? Andy Robertson investigates.
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‘But mum I need Stumpsmash.’ It’s a refrain heard in toy shops up and down the country. Replace Stumpsmash with your child’s (or inner child-like gamer’s) Skylander monster of choice and you have the making of a hunt that spans supermarkets, big shed retailers and local toy stores.

Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure was unique in its ability to store progress in the toy figures that came with the game via Near Field type technology much like that now included in the Wii U GamePad. Skylanders Giants looks set to follow up the success of the first game by extending the range of toy figures and introducing new gameplay elements.

Just back from visiting Toys for Bob, the developer behind Skylanders, and the complexity of the new game has my head spinning. Not that it has become more difficult to play, but its attempts to be both forward and backwardly compatible have created a web of information that would make a military institution proud.

However, with all this it would be easy to gloss over the game’s reliance on filling our homes with plastic toy figures. While it is true that you can finish Skylanders Giants on just the starter pack, you can only access particular in-game characters and areas when you have purchased the related toy figures.

The biggest controversy of the first game was the in game ‘Soul Gem’ videos that advertised the new toys you could buy. Some parents complained that this was simply too much of a hard sell and didn’t make it clear enough that these were optional purchases. Although there are still Soul Gems in Giants, it’s good to see that they are kept to just the new 16 characters rather than the full pantheon of 48 Skylanders toys.

Paul Reiche, studio head at Toys for Bob, explained their thinking here. ‘We put [the Soul Gem videos] in there hoping that they would generate interested and motivate awareness, but in a way they become more powerful than we had thought. We are very aware of trying to be reasonable and don’t require kids go out and buy a lot of toys this time around. I think that’s what’s different about the sequel is that you really can play the game with your old collection.’

Then there were the low stock levels that caused prices to soar. It seemed that Activision weren’t prepared for how much of a success the game would be. This led to shortages of the toys at retail with parents camping out at stores when stock was due to arrive – which in turn led to hugely inflated prices on eBay and other second hand retail sites.

The controversy for Giants may be its reissuing of existing figures in new poses. These Series 2-returning Skylanders present a conundrum to those who have invested in a large set of figures for Spyro’s Adventure. Those original figures work in Giants and get a level cap bump (from 10 to 15) but don’t get the ability to switch upgrade path, nor receive the special Wow-pow super power of these reposed versions.

‘We wanted to offer the toys that were favourites,’ says Reich. ‘We also wanted to make a reason why if you paid the extra money you got something. We decided to make the Series 2 toys to be all about upgrades.’

Many of these tensions would be enough to sink lesser brands, but Activision hope they hold a trump card in the form of character-come-toy-designer I-Wei Huang. Along with his team he has pushed for a set of toy characters that are not only well realised (and not all male) but also look better that most other toys around the same price.

Combine this with the simplicity of technology that enables you to access and save progress by simply placing the figure on the portal peripheral and the promise that this year stock will be plentiful, and the Skylanders franchise looks set for another bumper Christmas. It will be interesting to see if the kids agree.

Skylanders Giants is available from 19 October 2012 for PS3, Xbox 360, 3DS, Wii, Wii U, Mac and PC.

By Andy Robertson