Did you dream about your toys coming to life as a kid? We sure did. And that dream is a reality for kids these days. The Skylanders franchise have made this fantasy a reality by making seemingly ordinary figurines come to life on the TV-screen. This concept has rocketed Skylanders to a prominent position in gaming. But now we've been through four instalments of the series and we're about to spin the fifth edition in the disc drive. Can the developers behind the game really breathe new life to the series or has the concept run its course?
On the surface much is similar. Kaos is once again plotting to become the master of all of Skylands. This time he has built an evil machine called The Sky Eater which bite for bite eats the entire sky away and everything that floats in it. Furthermore The Darkness, the root of all evil, has wound up on his side. For every bite the Sky Eater takes The Darkness grows stronger. The only ones who can stop these unfortunate events are - you guessed it - the Skylanders. But this time around it isn't giants or Skylanders with switchable body parts who are going to help. No, this time it's vehicles that are coming to the rescue.
The vehicles quickly become a very natural part of the game. It actually seems as if they've been there all along. Vicarious Visions have worked hard to achieve this. They have re-worked all previous Skylanders so that they fit behind the wheel of any vehicles and they made sure that the vehicles play a big role of each level and don't feel tacked on or gimmicky. The vehicles unlock a bunch of different missions taking place in both the sky, in the sea, and on land. Like the Skylanders the vehicles can be upgraded and they each have their own abilities. They are upgraded by finding new parts and adding them. Even though all Skylanders can become drivers, you get the most out of the vehicles by pairing them with the matching Skylander. Each vehicle has an owner and when these are used together the stats get a boost. They're supercharged, hence the name of the game.
And thanks to the vehicles it is now also possible to go racing in Skylands. From the Skylanders headquarters, called The Academy, or via the menus you can access many different races much like in Mario Kart. The races are very enjoyable and we could spend hours on end trying to defeat the NPCs or our friends online.
Vicarious Visions set out with an ambition to add depth with Superchargers. More attention has been given to the narrative and the personalities of the characters. Therefore the different Skylanders speak a bit more than before. The developers even added more depth to the graphics by working on the light and shadows. That way they gave the burning exhaust on the cars more glow and the thick clouds more density and volume.
We really wished they would have gone even further with the story, however. After some truly amazing cutscenes we felt truly immersed in a darker more serious narrative. We could really feel the trouble brewing, but the game quickly returned to a more jokey nature, delivering silly punchlines. We wish they would held on to this mood a little longer in order to underline the gravity of the situation. We know the game is primarily targeted at young players, and death and destruction probably doesn't fit well with them nor with their parents, but we still think it's a shame that they created a story with all these emotions without giving their audience the chance to fully immerse themselves.
That aside the story is still a pleasure to play through. The levels are incredibly diverse, and they offer a variety of enemies and challenges. You won't ever get bored in the Skylands. But the developers might have been a bit too eager to steer clear of boredom. They may have amped up the pacing too much because sometimes the levels come across a bit "staccato". If only there was a bit more content in each level and quest, you would be able to immerse yourself even more in your task. But seen through the eyes of a kid this may be just the right sort of pacing, never lingering for too long. The adventure is still epic and in many ways it's a lot like the adventures of old we still care about today.
We were a bit concerned that there might be too much going on in the game and that it wouldn't gel and come across as cohesive. There's so much to do in the game besides the main story. The heroic challenges are returning, there are training missions, the card game Skystones, races, legendary treasures to be found, a new level-system for the portal itself, daily missions, and much more. There are so many different things to do that you get tired just listing them. We really hope players will take notice of all these possible missions. We hate to suggest it, but maybe their visibility would have benefitted by some of them being released as DLC later on. However, there is little cause for concern. Even though all these missions aren't tied to the story they are still part of the same universe. The lifespan of the game greatly benefits from these missions and that takes the sting out of the pricey figurines - just a bit.
We were first introduced to the Skylanders franchise playing it co-operatively with a young family member. One thing that stood out was how the co-op worked (or, actually, how it didn't work). When you play through the main storyline together you have to agree on which way you want to go because the players are tied together. That time our partner was a stubborn 5 year-old, and we ended up on different sides of the screen trying to pull the other one our way. Unfortunately they haven't changed how the co-op works when travelling through the main story. It is, however, solved brilliantly as far as the vehicles go. Instead of placing the players in a vehicle each they instead share the same ride. One controls the car and the other gets to shoot at the enemies. And for the first time it's also possible to play online. You can play the story in co-op, dabble in the card game, and partake in online races. In some of these it's only possible to play with your friends and in other cases you can play with random strangers.
Fans of the franchise have already accepted the premise of the game. To be able to fully complete it you have to collect Skylanders from each element. This time around you have to collect vehicles for both sky, sea and land. This brings us to what is both a great strength and a weakness of the series. It really is a pain when you discover a treasure chest in the game only to be rewarded with a so-called Soul Gem that unlocks an ability for a Skylander you don't have. These are sort of like small advertisements that pop up in your game showing you what you don't have. This time you even get to hear about these awesome quests you can't do because you don't have a boat or a plane. It sure didn't feel good having to leave all those innocent victims behind because we didn't own the right mode of transport. But you can't deny that these unlockable parts extend the lifespan of the game. You do want to return to the different levels once you get new characters to solve puzzles you haven't been able to before.
And we have to admit that Vicarious Visions has done a hell of a job with the physical toys. They know their target group well enough to know that the figurines themselves are toys and they have designed them to be just that. And this time the toys are even more toy-like than before because the vehicles have moving parts. It isn't a toy car without spinning wheels now, is it?
In spite of some flaws we still think that Skylanders Superchargers delivers on its promise. An epic adventure filled with high velocity and plenty of varied action. We can still complain about the pricey figurines, but the long lifespan of the game kind of makes up for it. It offers hours of entertainment for players all ages. The console doesn't have to be turned off and the portal hidden away just because the kids need to go to bed.