Review: Skylanders: Battlegrounds

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to repossess hamburgers.

Despite having amassed a fortune, I am evidently still a repo man for McSkylands.

If you’re a mom or dad, odds are good you’ve heard an earful about Skylanders lately – the gaming phenomenon that elementary schoolers are going nuts for. Even if you’re not a mom or dad, Skylanders might interest you if only because it’s the brainchild of Toys For Bob, the long-dormant creators of legendary strategy games Star Control and Star Control II.

November saw the debut of Skylanders: Battlegrounds, available in the most ambitious package yet seen for an iOS title. If you’re new to the Skylanders phenomenon, it’s a wildly popular introductory action-RPG which allows two-player co-op in its console versions. Essentially, it’s an ideal parent-child game for gamer parents of elementary-age children – though it has some reach outside that demographic.

There are over 50 toys to collect which include RFID chips with a little memory. Place a Skylanders toy on a peripheral called the Portal of Power, and it shows up in the game. Level that character, earn it an upgrade or change its name, and the toy keeps track of that even if you bring it to a friend’s house and play on their saved game – essentially, the toy has a persistent digital identity which makes each one special. It’s an admirably clever set-up – and a heck of a smart hook for selling toys.

The software alone is available from the App Store for $6.99, but $49.99 will get you a bluetooth portal, three characters, and a Platinum Treasure Chest that multiplies your in-game winnings – a satisfying amount of Skylanders loot. Sadly, the game has three major problems which severely undercut the value of its excellent presentation.

First, it treats your Skylanders as its iOS predecessor Cloud Patrol did – you can unlock upgrades with your codes (or, now, with the portal), but your upgrades and money belong to the game save rather than the Skylander figure. The portal never writes anything to the Skylanders on it, and any Skylander you’ve unlocked is selectable whenever you’re in the overworld. All the portal saves you is the effort of typing in your codes and a minimal coin fee for swapping out Skylanders during battle. Adults will rarely be in a position to pay this fee, anyway, because the game is fairly easy. This failure to use the potential of the portal is a huge oversight which drastically reduces the game’s special connection to the toys.

Second, the game’s overworld, lovingly rendered in perfect Skylanders style and featuring a hex-map familiar to strategy gamers, largely sits around twiddling its thumbs. There’s almost nothing for it to accomplish, since the levels are mostly narrow paths to places you can’t avoid and you only have one unit (even when using two Skylanders). Though you can often choose where to fight and battles take place in different stages depending on the overworld location, there’s no functional difference between them. Though attractive, the overworld is also unable to provide a sense of distinct place because the plot doesn’t allow for it.

A battle in progress

Red line good: bash enemies! Blue line BAD: stroll at enemies.

The game is divided into four campaigns (only two of which are available at launch) of ten missions, but the missions are so arbitrary I genuinely wondered when playing whether they simply chose existing assets for players to fetch. Every one involves either killing all of the baddies of a certain type or collecting all of the objects of a type. These include rockets (okay), barrels (uh-huh), lollipops (what), and balloons (seriously?) – all on the thinnest of contrived excuses. Skylanders is aimed at kids, sure – but even kids will wonder why these legendary warriors are defending the realm’s lollipop supply.

Battlegrounds’ third (and worst) sin is the ill-considered combat control scheme. You tap a Skylander and drag to wherever you wish it to move or whichever enemy you’d like it to attack, and you may also activate special abilities with a single tap. The obvious problem with using the same mechanism for movement and attacking is that it’s possible to do one when you desire the other if your aim is just a little off. Even worse, the dead bodies of defeated enemies stick around, moving and twitching. If my Skylanders could hold grudges, I suspect Whirlwind would be beating me about the head for so frequently sending her into the melee after an already-deceased troll.

The zoom of the camera during battle exacerbates the problem. It wants to stay quite tight on your Skylanders, which has the side-effect of creating some fog of war. If this were intentional, I could respect that choice, but special abilities will still seek out enemies off-screen, so your Skylanders are obviously supposed to be able to see their targets and hit them. It’s a curious break between the player’s knowledge and the character’s, and it annoyed me sufficiently that I began leaving coins dropped by farther-off enemies on the field simply to force the camera to give me more warning about oncoming enemies.

It’s unfortunately quite cumbersome to play with two players each controlling different Skylanders because of the controls. An alternative which worked well with my son, who’s too young to play effectively himself, was for me to use the special abilities while he targeted for both Skylanders. Though there are some tactical considerations which keep the battles from being completely uninteresting, their challenge is calibrated to keep us winning even with Junior calling the shots – though it may not be enough to keep your attention for long.

There’s an awful lot of top-notch work in Battlegrounds. The animations give the Skylanders a bit of character, the sound design is up to the high standards of the series, both the overworld and the battle stages are attractive. There’s so much about the game that’s well done that its central failures are all the more disappointing. Battlegrounds’ central theme is letting you choose where you fight – this time, you ought to just run away.

SCORE

2 out of 5

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