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Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure review: Gotta buy 'em all

Mike Smith

There's some primal need buried deep within the human psyche that's fulfilled by performing repetitive, simple acts and watching numbers rise slowly and compellingly as a consequence. Ask anyone who ever got hooked on a Blizzard game; it's powerful stuff. Now imagine combining that need with another that's just as enslaving ... say, collectible action figures. Like Pokémon, but with a $7.99 price tag on each 'mon. It's the kind of concept that makes rooms full of suited executives twirl their mustaches approvingly.

It's exactly what Activision -- together with veteran Star Control developers Toys for Bob -- have done with Skylanders. As much ecosystem as game, the full Skylanders launch range comprises 32 three-inch plastic action figures (most sold separately), a disc-shaped "Portal of Power" peripheral, an assortment of add-on toys that work like DLC, and enough flashy packaging to give your garbage collector a bad back. Oh, and there's a kid-friendly button-mashing videogame buried under all that, too.

Gallery: Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure (Xbox 360 - 8/23/11) | 5 Photos

So, tear through the plastic, plug the Portal into your console, and drop a Skylander figure on it. Your toy will leap to life on the TV, with a flourish that'll have any kids in the room grinning with glee. Hit the game, and as your Skylander fights he'll earn experience, cash, stat-boosting hats, and new attacks. In the background, the Portal is communicating with a sliver of internal memory tucked inside the figure, constantly recording his progress.

When you take your Skylander off your Portal, all his upgrades come with him. You can drop him into a friend's game for some co-op just by putting him on their Portal. The figures don't care which console you're playing on, hopping from Xbox 360 to PS3 to Wii without issue. They're even transferable to the 3DS and PC, although those games are considerably different: A free, vaguely social world on the PC, and a platformer on the 3DS.

The game comes with a starter set of three figures -- including once-proud gaming icon Spyro, who, despite getting top billing in the game's title, is far from the most interesting to play. Fear not; you'll soon settle into a new favorite.

Just don't get too comfortable, because the game's constantly nudging you to change characters. Each Skylander is associated with one of the game's eight elemental types, as are each level's various zones. Match zone element to Skylander element and you'll do more damage. Some doors can only be opened by Skylanders of a particular type. And if your current Skylander dies, you're forced to swap in a fresh contender -- or restart the level.

Here's where that moustache-twirling business model really sinks its teeth in. If you run out of Skylanders, you have to start the level over. If you don't have a Skylander of the right element, some doors will stay permanently locked. So the more Skylanders you buy, the easier a ride you get -- and the more content you can access.

Does this feel money-grubbing? Maybe. Nothing's stopping you playing through the game (and getting most of the achievements) with the three bundled figures, if you don't want to spend more. Experienced gamers will breeze through the vast majority of the levels without needing to swap at all. But if you do opt to buy them, the toys are undeniably appealing and durable. If nothing else, they'll look good on your desk.

The flashy memory tech of the figures stands in contrast with the game itself. Spyro's not the only blast from the past here: Skylanders is a relentlessly linear hack through level after level of easily dispatched baddies, collecting pieces of the game's MacGuffin as you kill, kill, kill. Some Skylanders work best at range, others close-up, but none offer much strategy beyond the superficial. Sit back, mash buttons, earn XP, play the odd minigame, grab inconsequential loot. Sure, it's by-the-numbers, but it's slick and fast-paced enough to make the time slide by without you really noticing. For what's nominally a kids' game, that's quite an achievement.

If only that feeling lasted through the game's six to eight hour duration. The final few levels build satisfyingly in intensity and difficulty, but they culminate in a boss fight that's a loveless, plodding war of attrition. It doesn't spoil the game, but it's sad to finish on such a low note.

Although "finish" probably isn't the most fitting word. Winding up the campaign is usually where these games start, but here the thrill of little-by-little completion isn't as acute as it is with Pokémon.Taking a a Skylander to the level-10 cap is only a matter of a few hours, and although a tenth-level critter is certainly more powerful than a first, their statistical progress is largely gradual and predetermined -- there's no dramatic or transformational change to be had. No evolution, you might say.

Still, if it's survival-of-the-fittest thrills you want, Skylanders can do that. Make 'em fight, gladiator-style, in a digital twist on the way kids have been playing with action figures for generations. Skylanders' Battle Mode offers single-combat arenas packed with spike pits, rocket hats, and all kinds of death-dealing fun. It's the natural destination for experienced players (and their experienced figures), and it'll see plenty of use long after the campaign's done and dusted.

And from there? Seasoned gamers will enjoy it for a while, even after the kids have gone to bed, but this isn't really their game. Younger ones -- especially those turned off by Pokémon's slower pace -- won't have any trouble sticking around for the long haul. Cynical and exploitative though it might be, it's a genuinely pleasant way to spend your time.

Just be ready. Sometime before Skylanders pulls its one-more-go hooks out of you, plan for an awkward parental conversation. It'll start with "Daddy, how did my new Zap get to level 10 while I was asleep?" I just hope you can come up with a good answer.

This review is based on a final retail copy of Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure provided by Activision.

Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no." Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.

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