Skylanders SuperChargers Review
There was so much wrong with last year's Toys for Bob-developed Skylanders game, Trap Team, that it's actually difficult to narrow down which faults to explain. Light and Dark expansion packs, containing new elemental items near-crucial to finishing the game, shipped in unbelievably low numbers, as did the must-have Kaos Trap, with units that are about $6 in stores selling online for hundreds of dollars. The most damning fumble, though, came in the way of the final "yawn" sculpt traps. These final three traps saw release in Australia and Australia only, leaving literally the rest of the planet unable to complete their Trap Team collection, short of from turning to eBay (the last I checked, one "yawn" trap was going for $700 plus). After Trap Team's disappointing blunders, collectors, myself included, were pissed and ready to walk away from the franchise. But I'm glad I gave Skylanders SuperChargers, developed by Vicarious Visions, a fair shake. Much like Skylanders: SWAP Force (VV) saved the franchise after the "meh" Skylanders: Giants (Toys for Bob), SuperChargers is not just the best Skylanders game, it's a new, fantastic beginning for the series that even the angriest of collectors will be unable to resist.
Skylanders: SuperChargers once again pits the ever-growing army of Skylanders heroes against Kaos, the perennial villain of the series. This time, Kaos has harnessed the power of The Darkness to run a Skylanders version of the Death Star, the Ultimate Doomstation of Ultimate Doomstruction. By the time you start the game, Kaos has already taken over or destroyed most of Skylands, captured series mentor and narrator Master Eon and declared himself emperor. A resistance is mounted from Skylanders Academy and the SuperChargers, a mix of new and old characters with new powers and, for the first time, vehicles, lead the charge. Though the past Skylanders games have nearly identical setups, SuperChargers' story is handled with skill and emotional heft never before seen in the series. The humor and light-heartedness are still present, but characters we've known from the beginning have much more personality and depth, and a specific turn of events I won't spoil changes the tone of things entirely, leading to an extremely satisfying ending. Kids who picked up the Skylanders games years ago are getting older, and SuperChargers' story shows that the franchise is willing to grow up with them.
SuperChargers looks and sounds better than last years' Trap Team, an expected turn as each subsequent game has upped the ante on presentation. SuperChargers looks and sounds slightly less spectacular on the Wii U than it does on the PS4 (we were able to preview the PS4 version, but the Wii U version was used exclusively for this review), but the differences are negligible; draw distance is a little shorter and some textures and lighting look slightly downgraded, but nothing your average eight year old would notice. The voice acting is excellent, as per usual, but the previously mentioned focus on story really gives these characters the room to shine. And as always, Richard Steven Horvitz's Kaos and Patrick Warburton's Flynn steal the show. What else can I really say? These games have all the personality and flair of theatrical computer animated kids movies, and they just keep getting better.
This year's gameplay twist, the vehicles, had me skeptical at first. Was this going to be a reskinned Mario Kart? Is the core on-foot series standard gameplay going to be edged out in favor of racing? Or vehicle combat? Will it still feel like Skylanders? The last question was the most important, and yes, SuperChargers still feels like the Skylanders games we know and love. The on-foot, action RPG segments, the series bread and butter, are still a major part of the game and the foundation for making the vehicle segments work. As was with previous games, these levels have puzzles, enemy challenges, bosses, etc. and it works as well in this fifth game as it did for past titles. I won't say much more about this except that, like they did with SWAP Force, Vicarious Visions has turned the speed of the game up - a very good thing. Trap Team's characters all seemed to lumber around like the Incredible Hulk on prescription painkillers, and SuperChargers brings things back to the more rapid, frantic action of SWAP Force.
What you really want to know is how the vehicles play, right? They play really, really well and have as much personality as the Skylanders themselves. Vehicles come in three varieties, land, sea and air. In the main game, piloting these vehicles (each level has one vehicle section for each of the three types) is a ton of fun and really breaks up the often very long stages with a short blast of either a small race or battle arena. In racing mode (more on this in a minute), the vehicles play a lot like a Mario Kart or, better yet, Diddy Kong Racing, with lots of boosts and weapons to try out. No matter the mode, the vehicles are totally customizable and upgradeable. You can buy shield and weapon stat boosts, and either collect or buy new engines, wheels and even horns for each vehicle. Part of the fun of the Skylanders series has always been building up your favorite characters, buying the upgrades and maxing out the level cap, and it's equally as fun to buy a new engine or horn for a vehicle as it is to buy a new attack for a character. The vehicle concept is one that could have very easily crashed and burned, but it turned out to be arguably the best Skylanders "gimmick" yet.
Before we get to talking about the toys, let's quickly touch on a new feature for the Skylanders, online multiplayer. As has always been the case, local co-op is available for the entire campaign, and for races as well. But both the entire campaign (two-player co-op), as well as all the races, now support full online multiplayer. For the Wii U version, a person must be on your friends list to play online, but adding new people is extremely easy (not sure of rules/restrictions for PS3/PS4/Xbox 360/Xbox One). Once you've sorted that out, dropping in and out of games and races is easy and intuitive. While I definitely prefer flying solo on the campaign, the online racing is fast and very competitive and it will be interesting to watch as people build their skills and fill up the leaderboards.
Ok, let's get on to the star of the show, the toys. As I mentioned before, Trap Team really screwed the pooch when it came to collectors. Missing, unreleased items, bungled handling of light and dark elements, hell, there were more light and dark villains to trap than there were different traps to catch them in and the expensive case sold to hold all the traps didn't actually have enough spaces for all the traps. SuperChargers is, with one notable exception, the warm hug after Trap Team's cold slap in the face with a wet noodle. The new Skylanders are slightly bigger than the core Skylander toy size of the past, and they seem to have a much higher level of detail. Some of Trap Team's toys came out of the box feeling flimsy (Rocky Roll) or with atrocious paint jobs (Echo, Eggcellent Weeruptor), but I was sent all the toys from wave 1 and 2 and I've yet to find an imperfection on a single one of them. The vehicles are just as cool, and feature another first for the series - moving parts. Cars actually roll, propellers actually spin; the vehicles are every bit as neat as the Skylanders themselves and feel like they could stand up to some serious play time. Does that mean you should take Gill Grunt's Reef Ripper into the bath with you? Probably not, but try to resist the temptation.
So what was that "notable exception" to SuperChargers superior handling of the toys? Well, as you may know, Bowser and Donkey Kong are "guest star" Skylanders for this game, working only on Nintendo systems and coming in FOUR different versions, regular and dark. These four versions only come with the Nintendo Wii, Wii U and 3DS starter packs. The PS4 and Xbox One starters have regular and dark versions as well, complete with items not available through the Nintendo starter packs. That means if you want a complete collection, you either need to buy SIX starter packs (at between $75-$100 apiece) or pay some scalper on eBay for the toys you need. In a post Trap Team world, the Skylanders brand needed to extend the olive branch to the serious collectors, and this was about the worst way they could have chosen to kick things off.
As a minor side note, the trading cards and stickers included with each figure have been overhauled for SuperChargers, and not in a good way. The trading card idea has been completely dropped in favor of the small sticker sheet, and starter packs don't include stickers at all. As a collector with a huge binder of every character card that has come with every figure from games past, I was disappointed to see they dropped the cards. This won't matter to many people, and I'd have to guess most kids didn't even notice the little cards while opening the boxes, but it was a big letdown for me.
The last thing I wanted to address was backward compatibility. Every single Skylanders toy, level, item or trap ever can be used with SuperChargers, though they do not unlock the same stuff they did in previous games. Expansion levels and magic items, when scanned, give you legendary treasures, little trinkets that boost your stats and can be placed wherever you want in Skylanders Academy. Traps unlock the Skystones piece for whichever villain you have saved in that trap. Of course, the Skylanders themselves work as playable characters as they always have. Considering any Skylander, even SWAP combos, variants and minis, can be used to play any level or pilot any vehicle, even people with small collections from past games will still have lots of fun to squeeze out of those older characters.
Skylanders: SuperChargers is the salvation for a series that just wandered out of the 40-year desert exile called Skylanders: Trap Team. The game itself is tons of fun and has plenty to do and unlock, the new focus on story adds a new wrinkle to the deeper and more mature plot, the vehicles are a ton of fun in-game and even on your living room floor and a series that very nearly fell apart with the last game is reborn into something both fresh and familiar. The questionable "starter pack only" attitude on some figures, and the high price tag for collection completion because of it, as well as the missing trading cards, are small stumbles out of the gate, but the finished product is so fantastic you'll probably find these faults as easy to forgive as I did. After the failings of Trap Team, I was done with Skylanders for good. It only took a few minutes in the SuperChargers driver's seat to convince me to come back for game #5, and guess where I was at midnight last night? That's right; I was at the Toys R Us SuperChargers release party, picking up a 3DS starter pack to add to the collection. SuperChargers is as good as the Skylanders have ever been, and old fan or new, this is a ride you really need to strap in for and enjoy.
Final Rating: 96% - It supercharges the Skylanders franchise.