Depending on how you look at it, the Skylanders phenomenon is either a brilliant new idea that combines toys and gaming or a sly ploy to rob parents of even more money by providing merchandising that can keep children crying out for the newest wave of must have figures for their game. I like to think it’s the former and I’m a fully signed up member of the Skylanders figure appreciation club.
There’s no denying that the franchise has been a complete success, first with Spyro’s Adventure and then with Skylanders Giants. But Activision wants to take it further by providing the same pairing of toy and game on iOS and so we have this new App and portal bundle in Skylanders Battlegrounds.
The story is the standard ‘evil Kaos army takes over an area and you must stop them’ approach, but it does introduce the new area and works well enough to set the scene for the game ahead. The initial cut scene builds up the energy by showing a whole bunch of enemies ready for a fight and fans would be hard pressed not to be excited by the presentation.
This new game, the third App based on the franchise, is the closest to the console version. The cut scenes will seem familiar to fans and look suitably impressive and the in-game graphics are pretty close to those on the other platforms, too. The gameplay, however, has been completely altered to take advantage of the platform’s strengths. Instead of the free roaming action adventure seen on consoles, Skylanders Battlegrounds takes place on a series of islands separated out into hexagonal grids, in a similar fashion to a turn-based war game. Sliding a finger from the Skylander to a grid space moves them turn by turn to that space. In the meantime, enemies are also allowed to move in the same way, making it a game of avoidance until you land on the same grid space as one of the many monsters.
Fights are played out in realtime but take advantage of the touchscreen in a similar way to the recent Borderlands Legends. Unlike that game, though, the controls feel refined enough to work well and they offer a quick response when the player is faced with fighting off several enemies at once. In every fight you get to use 2 of your Skylanders. One is unlocked at the start and others become available as you collect gems, one of the game’s currencies, or level up. You can mix and match these characters to provide a range of attacks and even special powers to use on the enemy. I found that ranged weapons always came off best, though, while keeping away from the enemy’s reach.
With the portal, you can place any Skylander you already own (including lightcore and Giants figures) into the game at any time, meaning that you can swap out one of your team if their strength bar is running low and bring another character in. Alternatively, you can pay coins (picked up in fights and by finding treasure chests in the game map) to bring in another Skylander when one perishes. Any defeated character will be revived before the next fight, so there’s no danger of risking the ability to use them later if you’re low on power. There is no doubt that the portal changes the gameplay, though, and makes things a lot easier the more characters you own.
Age is going to play a part in how much you get out of these battles. There isn’t a heck of a lot of strategy involved beyond keeping your characters alive and using the special items and powers and the same enemies will appear over and over again, just in different levels of difficulty. Later difficulties are more fun because they become more challenging, but anyone 12 or under will find the earlier battles just as rewarding. Battlegrounds doesn’t quite offer the same range as the console game, though, and will mean that adults aren’t as easily swayed by the repetitive nature of the battles and the missions.
There is also the content to consider, with only 2 maps available at present, each with 10 missions, it won’t take that long for a seasoned player to get through the game. A new free map has been added in the latest update, though, with a Christmas theme and an interesting new boss and there are 2 new maps already placed on the menu screen which will be unlocked in future updates, though it’s not yet 100% certain whether these, too, will be free. My feeling is that Activision should have really made these extra maps available from launch, even if it was just to those who purchased the complete pack.
Battlegrounds can actually be played without a portal of power, the stand that connects the toys with the game and allows your figures to appear on the screen, but it’s really not half as much fun. There are three ways to play the game; by buying the app from the App Store and gradually building Skylanders up as you go along, entering the special codes that come with the toys or, if you buy the pack, simply placing them on the Bluetooth portal of power.
The first method allows you to use gems earned in the game to buy new Skylanders, but if you’re not planning to use the In App Payments to buy more gems it will take a pretty long time to get a decent roster of characters together. Entering codes is faster and cheaper than buying the full package and could be a good option as long as your kids have kept those little bits of paper with the codes on for each toy they own.
So why pay the extra for the portal? For one, the package comes with a bonus treasure chest that gives you a whole bunch of items and maximises the slots needed to carry them all, making battles easier in the process. Secondly, as mentioned above, fights are a lot easier when you can hot swap the characters mid battle. Lastly, it’s just as cool to see your figures appear in this game with a blinding flash of white light when you place them on the portal as it is in the console title. If you already have a large collection of Skylanders it’s a great addition to the game. It’s just a pity that it’s yet another portal to add to the ones already needed for each platform. It would have been much better to standardise the portals for use on every console.
The other benefit to owning the portal of power, aside from getting the special edition characters in the pack, is that you can use it with the 2 other Skylanders games on the App Store; Skylanders Cloud Patrol and Skylanders Lost Islands (a review of which will be up on this site shortly). Both games are improved by the use of the portal in the same way that Battlegrounds is. The extra characters will also come into use in the console game, as will the treasure chest, so factoring in the cost of these makes the overall package seem more reasonable.
How you rate Skylanders Battlegrounds will depend on several things; your age, your love of the series and how many figures you already own. As an app on its own, without the portal or codes from the toys, it’s a long slog to get a decent roster of characters. With codes from the toys the game improves a fair bit, but it really comes into its own with the portal attached and a ready-to-use collection of Skylanders. Our 8 year old game tester was more than happy with the difficulty level and found later battles more of a challenge.
Our score, therefore, reflects the fun that younger games will undoubtedly get out of Battlegrounds, With the full package and a larger roster of toys, Skylanders Battlegrounds is great fun for those who want to take their game on the move and level up their characters in a new way. Even in basic form, the game will appeal to younger fans but it’s certainly best played with a portal at your side.
- Sound: 8
- Graphics: 9
- Gameplay: 8
- Longevity: 7
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