In the movies, whenever two characters with towering pride find themselves embroiled in a slightly too public bust up they invariably arrange to meet in a less visible place, later on, where it's just the two of them and they can settle their differences like men. Of course, one of them always brings friends along to the party, resulting in an utter hiding for the poor soul who kept to his word. In somewhat similar fashion, Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure is looking to mark something of a triumphant return for the little purple dragon. Only this time, he's brought a whole bunch of friends along with him.
You may not have heard of Skylanders yet, but by the end of the year Activision is rather hoping that, if you're a parent at least, Skylanders will be all you're hearing about. Combining cutesy action-platforming gameplay with tangible collectible toys, Skylanders represents a big project for Activision. While most adult eyes in the gaming world are going to be rigidly fixed upon the battle between Call of Duty and Battlefield, Activision are hoping that they can begin to corner the market for younger gamers in a way that's not really been seen since Pikachu and co. arrived on the seen last millennium.
'The aim behind Skylanders is to bring the two spheres of collectible toys and video games together,' explains Toys For Bob's Paul Reiche. 'The way that works is that you put your collectible figurine onto a 'Portal of Power' and it pulls that character into the gameworld. You can then play as that character in the game world and anything you do - experience you earn, abilities you unlock or treasure you collect - gets saved permanently to the toy's memory. It's completely automatic and you an use those characters across platforms on Wii, 360, PS3, PC, 3DS or anywhere the game is showing up and your character is there.'
It's a simple system, and one that to anyone who's played Pokemon or Dragon Quest Monsters or indeed any RPG or game where you become rather attached to your collection of characters or creatures will surely be an attractive proposition. The transition is virtually seamless. Approach the Portal of Power with your figurine and they instantly appear in the game world, armed with whatever loot you've picked up along the way. Fancy a spot of co-op gameplay with a friend? No problem, simply stash your creature in your pocket, take it over to their house and pop your figurine of choice on the Portal next to your friend's. It doesn't matter if you have a Wii and they have a PS3, the system works across platforms. 'The toys are completely interchangeable,' continued Reiche. 'Not only can you use them across platforms, but you'll be able to use them across different games as well, so when the next batch of Skylanders games come out, the toys will be transferable as they are to those games as well.'
The technology behind the figures themselves is a closely guarded secret, and all attempts and theoretical hypotheses made by yours truly were duly evaded and rebuffed in lighthearted fashion by Reiche. 'What we wanted was for it to be automatic, fast and feel effortless. We want it to feel magical, considering the generally young audience that this game is aimed towards.'
Eager players will be able to pick up the game along with a starter pack of three characters, including Spyro himself, although the combination of of the other two will change depending upon which version of the game you buy. The 3DS game, for example, will actually have three completely different characters: Dark Spyro, Flame Knight and Stealth Elf. The characters will all have individual unique abilities and skills, as well as an elemental association that will come into play as one progresses through through the game. Spyro trots about headbutting things and setting enemies on fire; Stump Smash is an Ent-like heavy hitter, clubbing things with his log-fists; the Tech element character Trigger Happy is, as his name suggests, more of a ranged character along with Water-type Gil Grunt.
Anyone familiar with Traveller's Tales' LEGO titles will be right at home with the simple blend of platforming, action and puzzle solving. There are switches to be hit, blocks to be pushed and pulled, buttons to slam and plenty of debris around to wreck for sweet loot. Treasure chests abound, although often behind elemental blocks that require a character of a certain persuasion to unlock. There are a bunch of 'hidden' areas in the game, though Toys For Bob say that you'll be able to finish the main game with just the three starter characters.
The 3DS version plays down the action elements to create a game that's more of a traditional platforming affair, Reiche compares it to Crash Bandicoot, but there'll still be treasure to find and you'll still be able to transport any character into the game world. Because of the portable nature of the 3DS, though, Vicarious Visions, who've been developing this version under supervision from Toys For Bob, have implemented a 'Soul Crystal' system that effectively allows you to save two characters into the game and swap between them, replacing them with other via the Portal of Power should you wish.
In addition to that, there'll be a Web World available to PC users, regardless of whether they have the game or not. 'The Web World is basically there for customisation,' says Reiche. 'If you bought a figurine, but don't have a copy of the game, you can still transport your character into the Web World and build a little hub for them. If you have progressed through the game, we're hoping that the Web World will allow you to centralise your data, meaning that if you happen lose your toy, hopefully you'll be able to get a replacement.'
Frankly, we're really excited for Skylanders. Games geared towards children deserve to have as much time and attention lavished upon them as for any blood-soaked killfest aimed at adults. The game plays out in familiar fashion, there's no huge amount of innovation in terms of what you actually get up to with controller in hand, but that's not the point. From our short hands-on experience with the game, what we played of it was sweet, colourful, charming and fun, and that's exactly what Toys For Bob and the other developers are aiming for. There's so much shovelware out there for the younger generation that it can be difficult for parents to sift through and that's why Activision appear to be making a big effort to make this game stand out from the crowd. 'Activision have been bizarrely supportive,' says Reiche, acknowledging that often children's games don't get as much time as is necessary. 'I've been working in the industry for thirty years and we've been working with Activision since 2005 and you always hope that the games you make will get a really good level of support - so the best teams for video and audio and voice talent and so on. And, in this case, about a year ago, we had a version of the game almost done and they said "We believe in this enough that we want you to go back and add in more detail to the game and toys, we're going to go out and hire Hans Zimmer to do the music and give you guys a really big marketing budget. At this point I don't think there's anyway that anyone on the planet will be able to avoid knowing about this game!'
'I love toys,' I always have, but kids are growing out of toys much faster than they used to and it's because of video games, because these virtual experiences are so compelling. What I wanted to do was find a way to blend those experiences together. That's the point of Skylanders. Sure, you can take this toys and maybe play with them in an imaginary way but now you can take them into the game, spent time with them and customise them. No two toys are the same. The Spyro you take into the game world - he's your guy. At the end of the day, you have this attachment and affection towards your character. That's what we're really going for.'
We've only a month left to wait, but from the looks of things, if there's any justice whatsoever, Skylanders is going to be massive.
Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure will be out on October 14th on PC, PS3, Xbox 360, Wii and 3DS.