When titles release on multiple platforms of varying power, it’s easy to overlook the handheld versions as weak ports with not redeeming value. Thankfully, Activision has taken a different approach with the Skylanders series. While last year’s 3DS iteration of Spyro’s Adventure was handled by Vicarious Visions, and did an impressive job of scaling down the experience, this year that studio has moved onto the mobile versions (Lost Islands and Battlegrounds). This left a void for Skylanders Giants that Activision chose to fill with developer n-Space.

You might recognize the name from Heroes of Ruin, which failed to live up to our hopes and expectations. Thankfully, using Vicarious Visions’ formula, a bevy of excellently designed characters and the series’ trademark Portal of Power, this experience fares better. There are a number of sacrifices made to retain portability (because lugging around 50 figures just isn’t practical), and there are a few key reasons why this adventure is worth taking, even for those that have already exhausted the console versions.

If you are new to the Skylanders phenomenon (and I think the pile of plastic I’m buried in allows me to use that word), the premise seems kitschy. There are static plastic figures that fit into one of eight different elements. For the most part, these simply dictate the theme of the powers. For instance, characters in the fire element like Eruptor and Hot Head have flame-based skills. There are instances in the level design where you’ll need to use a figure of a specific alignment to gain access to part of the stage, but that’s it. In the console versions there are also zones that give damage and experience boosts when paired with a character of the same element. There are no relative strengths and weaknesses, and the concept doesn’t extend to enemies.

The hook is that all of the stats, abilities, experience and treasure are stored on the character (and not the game save). You can use them on different versions or take them to a friend’s house and they’ll always be your characters and not a cookie cutter version. Chances are, if you’re exploring the portable version, it’s because you’ve already had some experience with the work Toys for Bob has done on the Xbox 360, PS3, Wii and PC. In fact, I’d be hard-pressed to recommend the 3DS installment if you don’t have one of the other versions. As a companion game it’s great. On its own, it is very difficult to justify the investment in figures.

The good news for veterans of the Xbox 360, PS3, Wii or PC entries is that this story is entirely different. Instead of hunting down and defeating villain Kaos (again), Hugo and Flynn are in a race to beat the ancient pirate Frightbeard to a haunted treasure chest containing his evil pirate crew. Yes, it’s goofy, but this is a game primarily designed for children. Unfortunately, some aspects of the design that make the title perfect for all ages on consoles are absent here.

If you read our review of the Xbox 360 version, you’ll note that I reiterated my love for the game’s gentle, instructional approach. As an action RPG with platforming element, Toys for Bob made some brilliant choices. Block puzzles aren’t overly simple, but it’s always made very obvious with arrows how objects can be manipulated. There is no way to “fall off the world,” and important point for a game that takes place in Skylands.

Last year, Vicarious Visions, and now n-Space, chose to emphasize traditional platforming. This means that it is possible to fall and take damage. For adults, that will rarely be an issue (except where the fixed perspective makes judging jumps more challenging than necessary). For children, it’s far too easy to stray too close to the edge and then off.

Another major change, again present in last year’s version, is that for the sake of portability, characters are stored on the game card. There is a portal for this version, but figures serve as more of a loadout here. Only two figures can be stored, and you can swap between them mid-stage. While this means you won’t be tempted (I hope) to lug the portal and multiple figures around with you, it does mean that unlocking elemental gates will likely require multiple times through an area with the right combination. Given that there are Giant-only areas that serve as another in-game challenge, and there is not yet a Giant in each category, you’ll likely want to have just one more character than you can bring with you.

A plastic toy’s stats are updated when you connect them again on the portal. Only experience carries over, and it flows rather quickly in the 3DS version. As a mechanism for rapidly increasing your base stats, it’s great. Unfortunately, you can’t accumulate treasure, used for purchasing upgrades in the console versions. Instead, the coins collected (no, you can’t nab weird goodies like gold teeth) contribute to a challenge present in each stage and are converted to experience for the two onboard characters. The series’ cute hats are also present, but they don’t have the stat-boosting effect present in the console versions.

Upgrades are doled out on a schedule, with new moves and health, damage and luck boosts triggering at specific levels. One of the joys of the console game is choosing which skills to prioritize and which of the branching power paths to take. It’s an unfortunate omission that removes some of the sense of ownership that the marriage of toy and digital experience is intended to evoke.

The aesthetics are perfectly balanced, with the kid-friendly elements present in measured enough doses that parents won’t get a cavity from the sweetness. I absolutely adore the universe that Toys for Bob has created, and the character designs evoke a sense of personality that more mature titles could learn from. That’s not to say that the visual elements of Skylanders Giants on 3DS are impeccable. The camera is often pulled out a bit too far, and the aforementioned platforming issues are largely resultant from imperfect camera placement. I also noticed that some of the detailing on characters is missing. For instance, Crusher is supposed to have spikes on his shoulder piece. They are absent in the portable iteration. It’s a minor thing, and only diehard fans are likely to notice these imperfections.

The audio borrows heavily from Lorne Balfe’s full score, furthering the charm of the experience. The voice acting is largely limited to the animated cutscenes. The Skylanders only say their names (rather than their catch phrases and incidental lines), and interacting with NPCs on Flynn’s ship is limited to text with a Navi-esque “Hey!” when conversation is initiated. It’s a shame that more voice acting wasn’t included, and based on other contemporary titles, it shouldn’t be a technical limitation.

Skylanders Giants on 3DS is a tough sell as a stand-alone title. The characters aren’t as differentiated on the portable as they are on the console and PC versions, which makes the $10 price tag on each figure a hard pill to swallow. As a companion to one of the other versions, and with a collection already in hand, it’s far easier to recommend. The story is cute, the figures work and retain the core essence of their character and the 3DS version is a power leveling machine. If you’ve already been bitten by the Skylanders bug, this is a great addition to your collection. I would absolutely not suggest starting here, though.

 

Here’s the Rundown:

+ Engaging action-RPG game play
+ Replay value in meeting time objectives and accomplishing challenges
+ Lorne Balfe’s score continues to enchant
+ Charming aesthetic with well-designed characters
+ Great as a companion to the console/PC experience…
- … but very difficult to recommend as a stand-alone title due to cost of collecting.
- Streamlined upgrades remove player choice
- Camera is imperfect leading to frustrating platforming
- Visuals are a bit muddy
- Minimal voice acting

6 and 6.5 represent a game that doesn’t do anything spectacular or drastically fails to meet the high expectations people had for it. These scores are for games that you would only recommend to diehard fans of the series or genre, something that the average gamer wouldn’t miss very much if he/she skipped it. A game in this range has rental written all over it.

Skylanders Giants was developed by n-Space and published by Activision. It was released on October 21, 2012 at the MSRP of $59.99 (Portal Owner Pack) and $74.99 (Starter Pack). A copy of the Starter Pack was provided by the publisher to RipTen for the purposes of review.