Skylanders — Unfulfilled Potential

Skylanders — Sonic Boom, Stealth Elf, and Trigger Happy
Skylanders — Sonic Boom, Stealth Elf, and Trigger Happy

A couple of months before Christmas last year, when I was working on a number of game projects aimed at children, I scoured my local stores looking for similarly targeted games, and ended up buying a copy of Skylanders for XBox 360. I didn’t have time to play it, so it ended up as a kind of bonus Christmas gift for the girls — but they had so many new toys it pretty much was forgotten. We finally ended up playing the game in earnest about two weeks ago.

It’s a pretty good game, but it so easily could have been great. The game play is essentially late-model Gauntlet but with a few puzzle mini games thrown in — one or two players running around a 2d maze rendered in 3d with a camera controlled by Satan. The figures are beautiful and the characters they activate are fun and surprisingly different to play (we’ve tried ten different figures so far — it was the smallest set of figures I could buy in a hurry that covered all eight “elements” in the game, thus allowing all the bonus areas to be unlocked).

Our girls (who are nearly 4, which is to say a couple of years younger than the low end of the game’s target age group) actually love the game and can pretty much play it, but are handicapped by several shortcomings:

XBox 360 controllers, even small ones, are horribly designed for kids’ hands. (They’re not great for adult hands — the Playstation controller form-factor continues to reign supreme ergonomically in my opinion.)

The game varies widely (and randomly) in difficulty, and I suspect many younger players will find it horribly frustrating. E.g. the boss fights can be ridiculously difficult — especially if you’re perversely attached to a lame character — have no originality, and are annoying compared to the rest of the game. They seem like a cheap afterthought and the game would probably have been better without them altogether. The final boss fight (not including anything in expansions) is horrible, difficult, repetitive, and takes what seems like hours to finish. (I finished the final boss fight solo on my third attempt mainly playing the Stealth Elf, who is a gigantic exploit — horrendous lack of balance between characters is almost inevitable in a game like this so I haven’t listed it as a major flaw).

The game is full of lazy coding. To begin with there’s an excellent mechanism for skipping cut scenes, but it’s often not available. This is particularly galling for early levels with tutorial content built into them which can’t be skipped on replay. The game is implemented — somewhat like Super Mario Galaxy — as a hub island with an increasing number of portals to other worlds, but once you’ve completed a level you do not (and cannot) return to it by using the 3d portal, and instead simply use a poorly designed menu. Even so, the NPC who took you to the level is still present (most of the time) but does nothing but lock you into a modal cut scene (ugh).

There’s replayability built into the game design — but it’s half-assed — you can try to get three “stars” for each level, which involves finishing it (for one star), completing it without losing any lives, in a set time, etc. for a second star, and finding all the goodies hidden in it for a third star, but the game is lousy about telling you what you still need to do for a given level until after you finish it, provides no timer (for achieving the timed completion), and — worst of all — once you’ve found a secret goody the area basically becomes a giant empty area you get stuck in when you come back.

Similarly there are “heroic challenges” which are timed mini-levels with permanent stat bonuses as rewards. I suspect that many of these would be pretty much impossible for kids to complete.

The content gets “grim” (in terms of look) way too quickly, so there aren’t many brightly colored levels, which means the girls only like the first few levels which, not coincidentally, are the levels most beset by unstoppable modal cut scenes.

It’s possible that these issues have been fixed by a patch available from XBox Live, but since I refuse to pay Microsoft $80 for a WiFi adapter (let alone a recurring XBox Live subscription) and the XBox is inconveniently located for hard network access, I simply don’t know. The errors I mention would have been relatively simple to fix and are pretty egregious.

It’s also quite clear that the game is a huge commercial success. One can attribute this to the fact that it is very well-presented, actually a pretty good game, family friendly, and it allows two player co-op on a single console, meaning it has virtually no competition. Four or five months after its release, stores are still having trouble keeping the figures in stock (and they sell for $8-10 each, or $18-20 in three packs). I’ve only ever seen one of the content packs on sale, and immediately bought it.

So, I hope that the success of the game doesn’t mean that Activision (ugh again) won’t address the games significant flaws. Would I recommend this game to friends with small children? I think so, but be warned that the basic set (for one console) costs $50-70, and that the 29 extra (so far) figures cost a minimum of $8 each (and you’ll need at least five just to open all the content in the basic game), and there are three content packs that cost about $20 each. At $350 or so for the complete set, that’s ridiculously expensive.

Final Note: if you’re wondering about my choice of figures for the photo — of the characters I’ve tried, these are by far the most ridiculously overpowered.