For last year's Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure, developer Toys for Bob wonderfully grafted a button-mashing arcade formula onto the loot fests found in Diablo. Now they return with the carbon-copy sequel, Skylanders Giants, which designs its platformer, puzzle, and RPG elements around the collectable plastic figures available in stores. The collectable ecosystem behind the Skylanders series is a sweet-and-sour mélange; from an outsider's perspective, these games can appear to be both money-grubbing business schemes and well-made interactive cartoons for the entire family.
The Starter Kit comes with two regular-sized figures and one of the new titular Giants. Also, the "Portal of Power" thankfully receives a much-needed upgrade: It now connects to your console, whereas the first version of the peripheral ate batteries like a ravenous beast. When you place one of these plastic figures on to the Portal they materialize in the game via an unavoidable intro. It's an instantly gratifying concept that works well for the eight elemental-based character classes. Here's the catch: As the eight-hour game progresses, upgrade tokens and special areas will only be unlocked by purchasing figures that wield the other five elemental powers. (You start with Air, Life, and Undead characters.) The Giants somewhat serve as a ninth elemental class because some boulders or holes in the ground can't be smashed without wielding a hulking beast such as Tree Rex. The tantalizing carrot of purchasing new figures is dangled in front of the player quite a bit. Furthermore, the in-game preview videos for new characters sometimes come off as tactless commercialism, mostly serving as another intriguing wrinkle in Toys for Bob's rather simple game formula.
Pushing retail ploys aside, the game's true joy stems from its fun Saturday-morning-cartoon-esque storyline, wherein the diabolical (and often droll) antagonist Kaos plans to overthrow Skylands by awakening the latent robot vanquishers the Arkeyans. The Lost City of Arkus is an amusing MacGuffin that will propel kids and adults along the linear through line; lock puzzles, jump pads, battle arenas, and a fairly deep upgrade system all return from Spyro's Adventure. Despite its straightforwardness, Skylanders Giants can be diabolically hard during its later levels. It's entirely possible to complete the game using only the three characters from the Starter Kit, but the last few levels will be quite a grind since the difficulty is ramped up on purpose. Once all your available Skylanders perish, your only option is to restart the current level. It's a small frustration throughout a rather enjoyable game, though players who purchase more Skylanders won't run into this problem.
A few formulaic levels can mitigate the storyline's fun factor. It's refreshing when the game tosses in some top-down shooter, on-rail flight, or giant robot segments, but enemy types, puzzles, and platforming segments are also recycled. That being said, the game's undernourished levels are meant to be repeatedly explored with various characters as they individually level up. The central conceit of leveling and collecting Skylanders takes precedence over combat or puzzle encounters. One exception is the addition of an addictive card game called Skystones, which revolves around filling a board with blade-filled stones, and ultimately having more of them on the board than your opponent. Like Skylanders Giants itself, Skystones begins as an undemanding pastime and slowly intensifies as you capture more pieces for your board.
Skylanders Giants goes to great lengths to squeeze out as much fun from the variety built into their toy-obsessed ecosystem. Prepare to exchange characters regularly to explore, conquer, and exploit elemental bonus areas. More kids' games should follow its lead. It's a well-written and well-designed game at its core that the whole family can enjoy at the same time.