Released just before Christmas 2011, the original Skylanders was a big hit but a strangely small game. With linear levels and limited room to explore away from the prescribed path, it often felt that more time had been spent perfecting the admittedly remarkable toys that sprang to life on-screen than was spent designing a truly inspiring world for them to roam around in. It was charming and fun, but in gameplay terms it seemed like a rough draft and it chafed awkwardly against the restrictions of choosing the Wii as its lead platform.
This makes Skylanders Giants one of those rare occasions where the games industry's obsession with annual iterations pays off. With the contact-based technology powering its plastic playthings well established, developer Toys For Bob has been freed up to open the curtains a little wider on its curious little world.
There are fewer levels than in the last game - 16 compared to 22 originally - but it still feels much larger, thanks to design that is no longer so keen to herd you down simple pathways. These levels sprawl in multiple directions and are filled with secret routes, hidden doorways and bonus areas. Sometimes there are secret areas lurking inside secret areas, and when you take into account the freedom to enter and explore many of the buildings you encounter along the way, it's far more fun to wander and poke around than it was before.
Most of these nooks and crannies are freely available as well. In the previous game, almost every secret area was visible from the main path, but locked away behind an elemental barrier, accessible only to characters of the right type. When those characters had to be purchased separately, it couldn't help feeling a little mercenary. That doesn't happen nearly so much now, and if you already have a decent collection of figures you'll be able to see pretty much everything without investing in more toys. Not that kids will let you get away with such tight-fisted nonsense, of course, but it's good to see that the design has been tweaked to be more friendly to parental wallets.
Gameplay itself hasn't changed much. The framework is basically a junior loot-drop action game with a light RPG coating. Experience levels up your character, hats bestow stat buffs and treasure can be collected and cashed in for items and attack upgrades. With no jumping - except on designated bounce pads - there's very little platforming to frustrate younger players, but that doesn't mean the game is easy. Combat gets fairly tricky towards the end and some of the puzzles are more taxing than their old-fashioned levers-and-blocks construction would suggest. There are also other new features, such as the surprisingly addictive Skystones tile game which joins the arenas and multiplayer battles as an agreeable optional play mode.
It's more than just size, however. There's a complexity to the new levels that really rewards repeat play. After completing the game, I found that my par time for each level was often double the suggested speed run targets (yes, this is a kid's game that makes a feature out of speed runs) and that I'd somehow missed out on dozens of collectables, despite making a point of being as thorough as possible.
At the end credits, my completion rating was less than 50%. When the whole idea behind the game is to keep buying new toys and levelling them up, it's commendable that the gameplay now rewards that level of deep repetition with plenty to see and do.
But what of the Giants whose presence gives this sequel its marketing hook? They're impressive creatures, with toys that maintain the high standard set by the first series and in-game abilities that are incredibly useful. Giants can pick up boulders, knock down walls and perform "feats of strength" to access new areas. Not only that, but they can smash smaller scenery items and squash smaller enemies simply by walking over them. They are, of course, more than a little overpowered and it's inevitable that your Giant - Tree Rex comes as standard in the full package - will become your default primary character for most of your playing time.
"Skylanders Giants is a vast improvement over a game that wasn't too shabby to start with, but it's still not quite got what it takes to sit alongside the classic modern kid's games. "
"The same, but more" isn't always the most inspiring pitch, but with Skylanders it makes a lot of sense. There was nothing wrong with the foundations set down in the first game, and the evolution has clearly been carefully managed and balanced. Boss fights are less common and more enjoyable. The story is no great shakes, but the characters pick up the slack with some flippant banter and a free-wheeling, self-deprecating tone that harks back to the likes of Banjo Kazooie.
Skylanders Giants is a vast improvement over a game that wasn't too shabby to start with, but it's still not quite got what it takes to sit alongside the classic modern kid's games. Though the levels are richer and more varied than before, the need to rely on separately purchased characters still hinders the deeper gameplay elements. The overlapping layers of puzzle and exploration that drive the Lego series just aren't possible with the Skylanders model, as every game must be completable with just the packed-in starter figures.
Nor do the restrictions of the toy's internal chips allow for the sort of vibrant ecosystem of a Pokémon game. Once fully upgraded, the toy's powers are locked in place for good, and there's little room to customise their skill set. A friend's Pop Fizz will be much the same as yours, all things considered. At least the level cap has been lifted from 10 to 15, and this applies to existing series one figures as well, so there's a little extra mileage in each toy before it becomes maxed out and a reason to keep playing with your current toys.
Those limitations don't impact on the core appeal of Skylanders Giants too much though. This is still a fantastic idea, realised with charm and passion - and with the reality of the gameplay now much closer to the fantasy being sold, it's an easy recommendation for parents warily eyeing those Christmas lists.