“Dad , we can be two guys!”says six-year-old Theo, ever the fan of local co-op. “I’ll be this guy” he decides, grabbing the coiling blue flame techno-dragon awaiting a call to action from the top of entertainment cabinet. But that’s not all that’s sitting there: “I’ll drive the car, too!” he adds enthusiastically, pointing at the dragon’s ride.
Welcome (parents everywhere) to Skylanders Superchargers, the latest iteration of the monster monsters-to-life franchise from Activision. Theo maybe isn’t the most discerning video game critic yet, but he knows what he likes, and Activision’s probably extensive market research department knows what he likes too, because this time around they’ve dropped vehicles into their successful franchise – no doubt to the joy of Theos everywhere.
The dragon’s car is a chunky little flame-scorched hot-rod called Hot Streak, and it’s eagerly road-tested by two children rolling it around the carpet on its solid little blue wheels and making “brrrm!” noises before we even get it into the game.
There’s immediate trouble when we do boot up, though; the dastardly Lord Kaos is messing up life in the Skylands with a superweapon called the Sky-Eater, and it’s shut down the traditional portal access method to the Skylanders’ world. Fortunately, Skylander vehicles can get around this because of Reasons, and so it’s up to starter-pack Skylanders Spitfire (the dragon) and less-cool-offcast-for-Mums-and-Dads Stealth Elf to get in there and put things to rights. (You can also bring any Skylanders from your existing collection in as reinforcements no problem.)
Superchargers introduces vehicles to proceedings pretty seamlessly. Each character in the new game has their own vehicle, and pairing a character with their vehicle “supercharges” it. So while Stealth Elf can drive Hot Streak around fine, she doesn’t get to use the boost ability for it that Spitfire does. All levels contain a vehicle section, with action often swapping from a racetrack Mario Kart-style affair (with wide tracks and simple controls for wee hands) to more arena-like wide angle car combat.
Here, control of the car switches to a screen-relative direction system (push left on the stick, car drives left on the screen, push down on the stick, car goes down on the screen) which can feel unintuitive coming directly from the traditional driving game controls of the tracks, but you adjust to this as the game goes on.
When it’s time to beat the streets on foot (or flame-tail), the game falls back on the franchise’s tried and true simple beat ‘em up / platforming action, with plenty of barely-secrets around to reward the curious. Button bashing will normally win through, although each character has their own unique skill tree and abilities for those who want to play with a little more sophistication.
Between missions, to thwart Kaos’s evil plans, the Skylanders rest up at the safe haven of the Skylanders Academy, where they can spend gold on skills, customise their vehicles, place special treasures discovered in the campaign about the place, or try on silly hats. They can also participate in a wide range of races, time trials, and other challenges – to the extent their toy collection allows. Hot Streak is a land vehicle, so there’s no taking it out on tracks for the other two categories, air and sea. To do so, you’ll need to hit the toy store if you want access to two-thirds of the race content.
A land vehicle is enough to get you through the story content, but you’ll find a specific air and sea side mission in every level as well, most often framed as a plea for help to avert some dire catastrophe for a bunch of cute critters. It’s hard to fault the game for reinforcing its main reason to exist, I suppose, but when your four-year old daughter turns to you and says “Why aren’t you saving them, daddy?” as you abandon another lot of hapless NPCs to their fate for want of a toy boat, the devious cunning of the whole enterprise is certainly rather starkly on display.
In another rather somewhat naked mechanic, your physical Skylanders toys also act as continue credits. Lose all your health, and your active Skylander becomes “tired”, and has to come off the portal. You can carry on where you left off, but only if you have a different Skylander toy to replace them, or else it’s back to the beginning of the level for you.
Fortunately, there’s enough family friendly fun on hand to mostly wash the taste of all this capitalism out of your mouth. Drop-in co-op is easy and offers the bright idea of teaming up in vehicles, giving one player driving duty and one control of weapons, Halo Warthog-style.
Whompin’ / blastin’ through troll hordes together is fun, although as with many co-op games of this nature, exploring can get tricky if someone wanders away too far (although thankfully a simple trigger hold will spawn you next to your friend).
There’s also plenty to appreciate for those outside the target audience, with some varied, inventive level design and game mechanics. You’ll go from racing along the back of a dragon to battling across gravity-flipped arenas and making clever use of a shrink ray – there’s always something new happening.
And it all takes place across colourful, vibrant worlds filled with enjoyable characters who have a pleasing tendency to bust out some memorable lines: “Prepare to wallow in the footbath of epic failure!” is surely one of the better video game villain threats as of late. It’s a game with a true sense of fun.
Sure, it’s an exercise in consumerism too, but hey, we live in a consumerist society. Skylanders Superchargers is ultimately easy to recommend for those with younger gamers about, but much like your typical Pixar film, it rewards older folks along for the ride as well.