Game review: toys-to-life franchise Skylanders enters a new era with SuperChargers
New playing modes and ideas make this a wide-ranging if potentially rather expensive experience
The novelty of the awkwardly named toys-to-life genre has well and truly passed. When Skylanders first appeared four years ago, the idea of unlocking characters and levels by placing toys on a "portal" peripheral was fresh and interesting. Now we're on the fifth instalment and Activision has Disney Infinity, Nintendo Amiibo and Lego Dimensions to compete with. The emphasis now is on finding new gimmicks to keep things fresh.
This year the theme is racing and with that a new line of air, land and sea vehicles has been added to the Skylanders ecosystem. This not only brings driving missions and a new racing mode but finally adds proper articulated toys along with the static collectable figurines. Kids can play with the cars even when they're not on the console.
The plot of Skylanders: SuperChargers (for the PlayStation 3 and 4, Xbox One and 360, Wii, Wii U and 3DS, and iOS) is the same old nonsense: series nemesis Kaos has another plan to invade the Skylands, this time using a new weapon that swallows the sky itself. From here, it's a colourful action adventure with a tethered two-player co-operative scheme allowing you to play with a friend either online or locally. The challenge is never particularly complex, but this remains part of the charm. Waves of fantastical enemies are encountered through each level, and dispatching them requires the strategic combination of ranged and melee attacks.
The environments themselves really come to life this year. They've always looked good, but now bristle with hidden areas, treasures and bonuses.
Familiar on-foot platform brawling is punctuated by the impressive driving sequences. The starter pack includes Hot Streak, one of the cars that grants access to the land sections. To access the air and sea zones you need to purchase more vehicles. Additionally some sections are tied to a particular elemental type meaning that to access all of the areas you will need to purchase nine variants.
The three types of vehicular zones are impressive and distinct. They each offer specific abilities relating to the environment - including diving underwater to find hidden paths in the sea sections and barrel rolling to safety in the airborne zones. The land areas are most enjoyable, combining Mario Kart-style races along with open arena boss battles. This could feel like a gimmick, but Skylanders: Superchargers expertly works this year's toy furrow with deep customisation and upgrades.
The vehicles also have a paired Skylander driver. Use them together and you get a special supercharged enhancement. Tricking out each vehicle with their stat-enhancing modifications grows into a compelling part of the experience. In co-operative mode this really comes to life, with one player driving and the other looking after weapons, reminiscent of the often overlooked Mario Kart: Double Dash. For parents and children this works fabulously, with both players needing to coordinate their efforts to succeed.
Throughout the game, Skylanders offers new features and ideas, perhaps conscious that it needs to go the extra mile this year in the face of the strong commercial competition from Lego and Disney etc already mentioned. Beyond the on-foot and driving novelty, other gameplay mechanics are tweaked to keep things fresh. Whether this is adjusting gravity or adding the ability to shrink or grow characters, there is a sense of fun and freedom to the whole game.
There is also a standalone online kart racer mode with single races, time trials and boss challenges. This is available in all versions of the game, although it forms the meat of the Wii and 3DS experiences as they don't include the main adventure. Additional packs can also be purchased to unlock more boss battles and circuits.
The racing is at a breakneck pace, with the usual range of power-ups and upgrades. Here though you are using vehicles that have been modified as part of the campaign game, so a back-and-forth develops between the two modes. On Wii, Wii U and 3DS, the starter pack includes a novel Nintendo crossover. This collaboration brings Bowser and Donkey Kong into the Skylanders universe, complete with their own figurines and related vehicles.
It all adds up to a wide-ranging package - and quite a hefty financial outlay if you get caught up in collecting too many characters. Sure, you can complete the game with just the Starter Pack, as well as using all your old characters. You can even opt to reuse your old Portal via the downloadable version of the game, keeping costs down.
Superchargers is, though, the most fully featured Skylanders offering to date. The combination of new modes, online play and backwards compatibility is unparalleled in this sector. It seems competition really is a good thing.