Also On: Xbox 360, Wii U, Wii, 3DS
Developer: Vicarious Visions
Medium: Blu-ray Disc
Quiz time: Can you guess which popular Activision game my family has been anxiously excited to get their hands on this year? Here’s a hint, it’s not Call of Duty: Ghosts (not even close). If you guessed Skylanders SWAP Force… give yourself a nice pat on the back, that’s absolutely right. Activision bet big on kids and families buying into the ecosystem of a well-designed video game series with unique interactive toys and a lot of personality, and the gamble clearly has paid off. Skylanders figures routinely dominate the best-selling action figures charts, and the games themselves pull in consistently impressive numbers. Skylanders SWAP Force is the next evolution of the franchise, and with this installment literally blanketing platforms from the Nintendo 3DS to the PS4, we expect the trend to continue. The game will top holiday shopping lists and sales charts through the remainder of the year no matter what our opinion is, but we encourage you to read on.
After being thoroughly and embarrassingly defeated in Skylanders Giants, Kaos (the series’ thick-headed villain) found a way back to Skylands to live up to his name by tapping into the power of some evil crystals to shake up the place. His latest scheme attracts the attention of the SWAP Force, which was a group originally formed to protect the ancient volcanos that power Skylands, until they were blown apart and given special swap abilities. A girl named Tessa and Captain Flynn (who has assisted the Skylanders since the very first game) unwittingly get drawn into the drama and need to team up with the SWAP Force and other Skylanders to fight off Kaos and his new “evilized” minions. The story is silly, cartoonish, totally family-friendly and appropriate for even younger kids, with writing that is still smart and funny enough to appeal to adults. There are a fair share of epic moments, over-the-top set pieces and high action scenes too, which keeps the game interesting.
To be honest, I was a little concerned that Toys For Bob, the studio that all but created Skylanders, would not be involved in the development or design of Skylanders SWAP Force. The concern was for naught, however, since Vicarious Visions — who are certainly a talented studio in their own right — was able to follow up with a more than worthy 3rd installment in the franchise. I was expecting a new story and a set of figures with new powers at most, though what we got was quite a bit beyond that. I’m not sure if it is because next generation versions are set to launch in about a month, or Activision bumped up the game’s budget, but SWAP Force shows an almost unexpected amount of polish and high production values.
Skylanders has taken over our family gaming time over the past few years and for all the right reasons. The beauty of the series lies in the interactivity between the NFC-enabled figures, the glowing USB-connected portal and the games themselves. Figures that players have collected from Spyro’s Adventure and Giants all work with SWAP Force, and since the levels and abilities are stored within the characters, they seamlessly transfer from game to game, even across platforms. As you may expect from the game’s title, SWAP Force introduces 16 new swappable characters which have interchangeable tops and bottoms (which are held together with magnets) to provide unique abilities and combinations. This new concept provides for quite a lot of variety which builds on what was in place with Giants. The characters each fall under an elemental type as with all Skylander characters, except the bottom half dictates their unique SWAP ability. There are a number of challenges and gates that require a specific combination of abilities and elements, say a Fire character with the Climb ability. The game strategically tosses these forks at the player to no doubt encourage them to take a trip to the store to pick up a new figure or three. These side-quests are entirely optional and exist to reward players with additional loot or useful, powerful items, but they are never required to make forward progress in the story. Players can play through the game without ever buying another Skylanders figure if they wish.
In addition to the SWAP characters, Activision has released several series 3 Skylander figures, a selection of more powerful LightCore figures along with brand new batch of standard figures to round out the count to more than 50. That’s including retail exclusive variations too.
The new Skylanders SWAP Force starter pack includes a pair of SWAP characters (Wash Buckler and Blast Zone) and an updated Ninja Stealth Elf core character. The pack also comes bundled with a slightly larger portal which is required for the game. Unlike Giants and Spyro’s Adventure, the old portals will not work with SWAP Force due to the need for it to detect up to 4 character parts simultaneously. So if you were expecting to pick up a slightly cheaper Portal Owners pack this year, you’re unfortunately out of luck.
What’s great about Skylanders is that nearly all of the characters look and play unique, with their own attacks and special moves, catchphrases and upgrade trees. That’s an impressive feat if you factor in the 100+ figures or so which have been released since Spyro’s Adventure, all of which are 100% compatible with SWAP Force. There’s a ton of variety too, and my son and daughters immediately chose different characters as “theirs”. The new figures themselves are well made and nicely detailed, and my kids enjoy playing with them even when not playing the game itself. Mixing and matching the SWAP characters into different combinations had them cracking up more than a few times.
As for the gameplay, Vicarious Visions added one feature that many fans (including my kids) have been asking for — the ability to jump. Previous games had context sensitive actions for the characters which sometimes included jumping, but allowing them to now freely jump provides opportunities for some platforming gameplay to round out the action and puzzle solving. The platforming appears to make the game slightly more difficult for less seasoned gamers, though nothing that should hang them up for long.
For those unacquainted with the franchise, Skylanders can be best described as a co-op enabled action RPG, complete with character experience and levels, equipment (hats, legendary treasure), elemental abilities and a whole lot of loot. The game’s story progresses in a relatively linear way even with the variety of optional quests and challenges along with a hub that’s loaded with stuff to do. There’s a 3-star ranking system in place for each story level and several secret items to seek out, mini-games to unlock, and loot to track down. Story and challenge levels are replayable, and the game design definitely encourages gamers to play through them multiple times, not only for the experience, but to take different paths and earn better equipment.
Essentially, the more figures you have in your collection, the easier it is to achieve 100% completion and get through the game’s challenges. While you can play through nearly the entire game with 2 or 3 figures, sections of levels clearly remind players that a specific element may be stronger and that a certain type of character should be used. Since each figure has their own independent health, experience and abilities and there is a nice amount of strategy involved in choosing who to utilize at any given time. Playing with another player (locally on a single screen) changes things up even more since different combinations of figures may complement each other. Co-op is encouraged especially since all experience and loot earned is applied towards both players.
Because it’s a game that’s primarily geared towards the younger set, nearly everything that is voiced is also accompanied by large, easy to read text bubbles. As a parent, it’s a feature that I appreciate since it encourages kids to read along with the story and better understand the plot and instructions. And speaking of voice acting (pun sorta intended), not only is it of a better quality (bitrate wise), Patrick Warburton, who voices Captain Flynn once again, never fails to amuse.
As touched on earlier, Skylanders SWAP Force is a very polished experience, and that includes the much improved visuals. The game runs silky smooth and features lush foliage, organic environments and modern graphical flourishes such as subtle motion blur and depth of field in addition to improved lighting and a slightly different art style. SWAP Force has no shortage of fun interactive details and lively animations, and more than a few times reminded me of Insomniac’s Ratchet & Clank series. Thanks to the more advanced shaders and materials used in the game, the characters look even more like toys than before, which totally works. Vicarious Visions did a great job fine-tuning the engine and gameplay, and I truthfully didn’t expect to be as impressed as I was. The PS3 version (the platform this review is based on) of SWAP Force makes Giants on the PS3 look and feel like a game from much earlier in the generation. In case you’re wondering, from what we have seen of them so far in person, the next-generation versions will be a real treat.
There’s not much of anything negative to say about Skylanders SWAP Force to be honest. It’s an experience that can be enjoyed by children and adults alike, yet isn’t dumbed down to cater to the lowest common denominator. It comfortably improves upon previous Skylanders releases in nearly every way, and the new SWAP figures introduce another layer of strategy and variation. I wouldn’t have minded some sort of online co-op gameplay (invite only, even), though I fully understand the challenges of restricting online capabilities in kids games.
Whether you’re a Skylanders fan or a gamer who’s looking for a charming and unique family-friendly game series to get into, Skylanders SWAP Force comes highly recommended.