Perhaps because the series is based on collectible toys, or maybe because the franchise uses original creations that affords some creative freedom, Skylanders has actually had unusual success coming up with unique gimmicks year after year. This year's iteration, Skylanders: Superchargers, feels less like a breath of creative fresh air than recent years, but the implementation of the new vehicle mechanic is so well-done it gets a pass for that simplicity.
The eponymous Superchargers are yet another elite team of Skylanders. One has to wonder just how many teams the Skylanders have, since they're starting to rival G.I. Joe for absurd levels of specialization. At any rate, this particular strike force are vehicle specialists, called in to bring down a machine called the Sky Eater that threatens to destroy Skylands as well as cut off the Portal Master (that's you) from the Skylanders themselves.
In practical terms, this means each stage contains at least one section devoted to each of the three vehicle types: land, sea, and air. Only land is required to complete a stage, since it's included in the Starter Pack, but completing the sea and air objectives can subtly change other elements in an area.
The focus on vehicles is a roundabout way of fixing one chief criticism of the series. Skylanders has always been about selling toys, with power tokens serving as commercials for action figures and areas gated behind particular elements. There have been eight elements throughout the series, with two more (Light and Dark) added as downloadable content last year, meaning players have needed at least ten toys to see all the content.
Superchargers changes that. By only locking content behind vehicle types, and including one of the three in the pack, you could easily just get a sea and air vehicle of your choice and access all the stage content. Special challenges still await for elemental types, and vehicles get "Supercharged" when matched with their appropriate driver, so it certainly still has those hooks. Still, less content gating makes this the most consumer-friendly version yet.
The vehicle segments themselves were occasionally forgettable, by nature of their numbers. The sheer mass of them--I made sure to do all of them in every stage--meant they tended to blend together. The sea vehicle segments in particular were consistently rather dull. Land vehicles were better, since it felt like a competent kart racing game, but since they doubled as race tracks the roads felt too wide to present a real challenge. Air portions were by-and-large my favorite, alternating between rail shooter and full-range areas that at their best felt reminiscent of Nintendo's Star Fox series.
It also houses a large series of races against A.I. opponents or friends, with your own customized Supercharger vehicle and weapons to bring down the thunder as you race around the tracks. These add some longevity to what is already a pretty lengthy campaign, and even after you finish the story Superchargers offers new daily quests and tons of collectibles. As a series built for kids who ravenously consume games and plumb every nook and cranny, it finds some ways to keep them busy for a while.
The emphasis on vehicles does mean the traditional loot-driven platforming takes more of a back seat in Superchargers. If you take on all three or more vehicle challenges in a stage, your total time on-foot is probably roughly half. It's just as mechanically sound as ever, and the character designs themselves are a notable step up from last year's Trap Team, but there's proportionally less of it.
That's not to say it doesn't have its share of inspired level design though. One uses a painterly style to create unique side-scrolling platforming and overhead shoot-em-up stages, appropriately enough while the Skylanders are researching ancient history. Another uses a magnet mechanic to push or pull everything in a stage--including enemies. Juggling your moves while also swapping between polarities was a tricky twist on the usual combat.
For the first time in the series, though, I started to feel Skylanders creaking under the weight of its yearly iteration. At this point the series is so chock full of different mechanics, and the team is so beholden to include some form of backward compatibility, that it had to make a compromise. I unexpectedly loved the Trap Team mechanic, which let you keep defeated bosses in small stones and summon them at will. Superchargers relegates all those trapped villains to special ammo for your vehicles and a Skystone for its card-based minigame. It's a minor concession, but it makes me wonder if future iterations will similarly have to pick-and-choose which older mechanics they utilize.
King of the Koopas
I also experimented with the Wii U version, which is content identical to the PlayStation 4 version except for the inclusion of special Nintendo-themed Amiibo-Skylanders. These are awfully clever, with a small switch on the base that swaps them from one proprietary NFC toy to the other. However, Skylanders have never looked as good as Amiibo, and these are obviously worse-looking than Nintendo's toys. Not to mention, the Wii U version has a noticeable drop in graphical quality overall, so fans who don't care about playing as Bowser or Donkey Kong will want to spring for the more powerful console versions.
Vehicles certainly aren't the most inventive toy tie-in the series has ever seen. In fact, outside of the sub-par Giants iteration, it's perhaps the least creative idea we've seen introduced since the series inception. However, there's something to be said for implementation, and between the well-designed races and more consumer-friendly gating, the machines are a strong addition. Skylanders: Superchargers didn't impress me with ingenuity like Swap Force or surprise me like Trap Team, but it's a solid series entry regardless.
This review is based on retail PlayStation 4 and Wii U copies, along with several figures, provided by the publisher. Skylanders: Superchargers is available now, for $74.99. Individual vehicles are priced at $14.99, and figures are priced at $12.99. The game is rated ESRB.