When I was a kid, my favorite toy was the Bag of Animals, an assortment of plastic critters gathered from various discount stores in my neighborhood. It was an unlikely mix of farm animals, wild beasts and the occasional monster, but I had the kind of imagination in which cows, lions and dragons all played for the same team.
"Skylanders Giants" (Activision, for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Wii, $74.99) brought back memories of Bag of Animals, turning my coffee table into a menagerie of birds, fish, lizards and even some sentient plants. Two differences: The Skylanders figurines are much prettier and you don't have to make up your own adventures.
For those of you who missed its debut last year: "Skylanders" comes with a "Portal of Power" that plugs into your game console. When you place a figurine on the portal, the character appears on your TV screen, inside the "Skylanders" video game. The original release offered 32 playable characters, and the new edition adds 16 more - including eight giant-size creatures.
You don't need all 48 toys to play "Skylanders Giants." The starter kit comes with the game software, the portal and three creatures - one giant and two regular-size. You can complete the game with just one Skylander, but to get the full experience, you'll want to spring for five more (which cost $10 each).
See, each Skylander controls one of eight "elements" - water, tech, earth, magic, fire, undead, life and air. Bonus areas of the game are accessible only by creatures of a particular element, so if you want to see the entire game world, you'll need one of each. And on occasion you'll need the brute strength of a giant to break through an obstacle.
So we're talking about $125 to get the complete "Skylanders Giants" experience - although, if you bought last year's edition, you can use the same portal and figurines. Of course, hardcore collectors will want all the new characters as well as the updated versions of last year's favorites.
Is it worth it? Well, the video game itself is solid and at times delightful. The story is paper-thin - you're out to save the Skylands from a high-strung lunatic named Kaos - but provides adequate motivation to explore the airborne islands and battle a succession of wittily designed monsters. On the default difficulty level, it's quite easy, but just right for kids who aren't ready to take on "Call of Duty." (And even grown-ups need a break sometimes.)
However, obsessive collectors - say, the kind of people who need to round up all 48 Skylanders - will find "Giants" much more time-consuming. Toys for Bob, the development studio, has crammed the Skylands with treasure chests, scrolls and goofy hats. There are "soul gems" that open fresh challenges for each of the 16 new creatures. There's even a simple but addictive collectible card game within the game.
Overall, "Skylanders Giants" is a lighthearted romp that parents and children can enjoy together. Don't be surprised, though, if you find yourself cranking it up after the kids' bedtime. There's always one more hat to find. Three stars out of four.