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Skylander fever is still raging for many gamers. Collecting all the toys and level packs released for Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure can run you well over $300 at this point, yet parents and players all over the world are scrambling to get a full set of figures. That’s because despite the whimsical atmosphere and child-friendly design, Skylanders is a dungeon crawler, and a pretty addictive one at that.

Skylanders Giants maintains the epic quest foundations laid down in Spyro’s Adventure but deepens the gameplay through interactive environments and usable items. It feels much more like a measured introduction to Blizzard’s hack-n-slash Diablo series than its predecessor and gives players many more opportunities to customize their experiences.

What you’ll like

Level design
The first Skylanders game was very pretty, but many levels felt too short or too simple. Giants answers this by introducing sweeping, multistage worlds full of hidden pathways and tricky puzzles.

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One of the biggest changes is that characters can now go inside of buildings. You never know what you’re going to find tucked away inside a house, and that adds so much to the depth of a level. You can easily overlook some of the legendary treasures or hats hidden in each level if you don’t explore every inch of the map.

Element-specific areas are also better designed. Rather than putting up a special gate that is often thematically inconsistent to everything else in the world, elemental areas now send up rocks, towers of gears, or vines to block Skylanders that aren’t allowed in.

Finding these areas are little more difficult than before, but it’s a lot more fun to stumble across a special zone and watch the path close in front of you until you select a corresponding character.

Compatibility
However profit-driven you believe Activision is, the company is smart enough to realize that forcing consumers to buy a whole new set of Skylanders toys to replace the ones they already have is a terrible plan. When you pick up Skylanders Giants, all of your current figures will work.

A whole new batch of toys is on the way, though, and a few of them won’t work with the older Spyro’s Adventure. But enough characters overlap that you won’t feel cheated.

What’s really great is that the separate adventure maps from the first game actually work on Giants. I was very surprised when I threw my pirate ship figure on the portal and actually got to play through the level again. You can even use the new Skylanders in these additional areas.

This will likely make a lot of parents very happy since the adventure maps were $25 a piece when they launched. Activision also has a handy Skylanders compatibility list on the game’s website.

Giants
The eight new giant Skylanders are massive, brawny monsters ripped out of Skyland’s history. They were the first heroes in the world and act a lot like titans out of Greek mythology.

Beyond their place in the story, stomping around as a massive and seemingly indestructible character is amazingly fun. They can perform new feats of strength, which means that they can throw piles of logs in the air or pull chained islands down so you can access the goodies on them.  They can even break through obstacles other Skylanders need cannons or bombs to destroy.

Giants are the perfect characters for less experienced players who want to smash everything in their paths but don’t think about conserving health. Giants have twice the hit points of other Skylanders and deal out a lot more damage, so they’re great for crowd control.

What you won’t like

Video quality
Something is terribly wrong with the cutscenes in the Xbox 360 version of Skylanders Giants. Prerendered video, in theory, should look better than regular gameplay, but cutscenes in Giants looks incredibly grainy and over-compressed. I’m not sure if this is something Activision can fix after release, and it’s a big disappointment since the rest of the game has such a high level of polish, including the cast and character designs.

Other times, textures in levels occasionally look very muddy, especially during in-engine cutscenes where characters are explaining objectives. This issue ran rampant during the Willikins level, where you are constantly flipping back and forth from a bright, cartoonish world to one without much color. Perhaps the colorless world should look disjointed, but I don’t think the grass should look like jagged pixel shards.

Shopping
This might be a holdover from not liking the Moneybags character from Spyro: Ripto’s Rage, but Auric the traveling shop keeper is just as obnoxious as Moneybags ever was. I suspect that they’re actually the same character given just how close their digital models are, but that’s not what makes shopping a hassle in Skylanders Giants.

Many hats and heroic quest options are now locked behind Auric’s infuriating pay wall. You can also buy keys to power through “difficult” locked doors and pay to upgrade your Skylanders while you’re in the field. This all seems very convenient until you realize that unlocking the items Auric sells takes a hefty amount of money that you’ll need to upgrade your Skylanders in the first place.

Given that each Skylander keeps track of its own wallet and that you can’t transfer funds between them, unlocking new items can become very tedious. I’d much rather unlock new accessories and heroic challenges by playing and exploring rather than endlessly grinding to get the 10,000 gold required for some items.

Chatty Skylanders
If you’re easily annoyed by repetitive dialog, it might be a good idea to turn down the volume when playing Skylanders Giants. Everyone talks now — some characters more than others.

When changing out characters, they always announce themselves with a punny bit of dialog like “be afraid of the bark” and “fear the fish.” That might be cute once or twice, but after swapping a few figures, this gets very irritating, especially since three different Skylanders make puns about fearing the dark.

Skylanders also have a tendency to constantly loop their dialogue. Trigger Happy, the manic, gun-toting loot fiend from the first game, is always shouting “mine mine mine” followed by bursts of insane laughter. If you are in an intense combat situation and gaining lots of gold because of it, Trigger Happy is perpetually shrieking and laughing. It got so bad during one level that I banished the toy from the rest of my review play sessions.

You can tell Skylanders is a game designed for children, but if you’re going to couple talking with performing actions in the game, please add more than one or two lines of dialogue.

Conclusion

If Activision and Toys for Bob can expand and develop Skylanders’ depth for every release and maintain toy compatibility, then a new game every year doesn’t sound half bad. Skylanders Giants adds much-needed depth to the previous game’s design and encourages you to play repeatedly by offering new challenges and difficulty levels.

Despite all the advances, Giants suffers from poor video quality and characters who jabber incessantly. Younger players might not notice, but new gamers coming to the franchise could find it grating to listen to the same line of dialogue over and over only to get a cheesy-looking cutscene as a reward for their patience.

Score: 85/100


Skylanders Giants launches October 21 on the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, 3DS, and Wii. Activision provided GamesBeat with a 360 version and additional Skylander toys for this review.

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