Version tested: iPhone
Skylanders, eh? What a cracking wheeze. Take a game, gate off much of its content (including several levels, a clutch of power-ups and all but three of its playable characters), and release a bunch of toys at seven quid a pop to act as glorified unlock keys. Then drip-feed supplies to stores over six months and watch the cash roll in. You can almost picture Bobby Kotick skipping around his boudoir, casually flicking piles of loose banknotes into the air in slow motion. Just me?
But here's the kicker: Skylanders is actually brilliant. You're not paying for crappy plastic bits of nothing, but genuinely well-made and characterful figurines. And you're not merely unlocking fresh content, but buying into a world. Quite apart from the NFC-driven wizardry of the Portal of Power (it's kind of magical the first time even for an adult; the effect lasts much longer if you're six), you've got a Top Trumps-style card game, a substantial browser-based multiplayer universe, and now a perfectly enjoyable iOS spin-off.
Cloud Patrol is a shooter of sorts, tasking you with firing cannonballs at trolls who've taken up residence on a series of floating islands. Tapping them individually is the easiest and safest way to get rid of them, or you can draw a continuous line between them all to earn a combo bonus. The trouble with this latter method is that it's all too easy to drag your finger into the spiked bombs that bob and swirl around each archipelago, and which result in instant death.
That might seem quite a harsh punishment for a game ostensibly aimed at kids, but restarts are swift and Jetpack Joyride-like goals give you a sense of progress even after an unexpectedly curtailed run. Besides, with a bit of practice you'll get used to avoiding them - although at this point the game ups the ante by giving the trolls shields with explosives attached. Meanwhile, others shoot projectiles which need to be tapped before they reach you.
To tip the scales in your favour, you can collect items to increase your score multiplier or to take out a screen full of enemies in one shot. These power-ups can be levelled up with the coins you earn from taking down trolls, while any gems you collect are used to unlock new Skylanders to play with.
Their presence is little more than a cosmetic concern, but it's a neat connection with the main game, and those who already have the figures won't need to grind to play as their favourites; instead they can input a code that comes with each toy to instantly unlock them. In other words, there's a slight advantage for those who already own the game and figures, though that's fine by me. Those who've invested more in the universe should get the most out, and besides, while the power-ups give you a boost, they are no guarantee of a great score.
The only real complaint here is that the goal notifications can pop up at the worst possible time, obscuring enemies or worse, incoming projectiles, which can prove fatal. Otherwise this is a smart spin-off that doesn't try to shoehorn the existing game onto a platform ill-equipped to host it; rather, it's a briskly-paced arcade blaster and a worthwhile expansion of a brand that looks set to keep a certain CEO cavorting for some time yet.
App of the Day highlights interesting games we're playing on the Android, iPad, iPhone and Windows Phone 7 mobile platforms, including post-release updates. If you want to see a particular app featured, drop us a line or suggest it in the comments.