Nobody saw Skylanders coming. In 2011, I (and my of my adult buddies) wrote off Activision’s Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventures as another kiddie game. The game took Spyro, a beloved mascot from the glorious PS1 days and turned him into toy figurine.
The Skylanders concept is simple: chip-embedded toy figurines are placed on a plastic “portal”. From there, the video game recognizes each toy instantly and translates it into an onscreen character. Players can switch between characters simply by placing a new toy figurine on their portals. As you level up, each toy saves data to its chip. You can trade the figurines and there are even super rare figurines that fetch top dollar amongst collectors.
Fast forward to 2013 and the Skylanders franchise is the best-selling kids video game/toy, generating over $500 million in U.S. retail sales. It’s incredible.
The fusion of video game and toys does come at higher cost your typical $60 game though: $75 will get you a “starter kit”, which includes the Swap Force game, a portal (compatible with all previous Skylander figurines) and three Skylander figurines (Blast Zone, a fire knight; Wash Buckler; an octopus pirate; and Stealth Elf, an earthy ninja elf). The figurines themselves run between $10 to $15 for single character packs, $25 for triple packs and $30 for double packs (characters with hybrid bodies).
Does the third game in the series bring anything new and worthy to the gaming table (or should we say, portal?). Read on for our review.
Swap Force is not revolutionary — it’s evolutionary. It builds on the previous games in the series and tightens all the mechanics, while adding a few new ones in to keep things fresh. If you’ve played the first two Skylanders games, you’ll be right at home. Controls are straightforward, although some figurines like Ninjini have attacks that require multiple button combos.
For the most part, the story mode doesn’t deviate from the tried-and-true linear formula of the previous two games: you’re a Skylander flying around with a cocky badger/raccoon named Flynn and you have to save the world from an equally cocky evil villain named Kaos.
Your Skylander explores different levels and smashes boxes and objects scattered across the level to gain coins, which then can be used to purchase character upgrades. Similarly, defeating enemies will result in orbs that can be collected to boost your Skylander’s level. It’s simple and repetitive, but coupled with the lighthearted voice acting and cutscenes, the game comes to life like a cartoon. It’s easy enough for a child to blaze through and deep enough for the hardcore who wants to search for every hidden item within a level.
That’s where the similarities with the old games pretty much ends. It may sound stupid, but Skylanders can’t jump in Spyro’s Adventure and Giants. In Swap Force, Skylanders can now jump — you know, for avoiding enemy attacks and stuff. The addition of jumping gives the levels new vertical depth, something that the previous games always skirted around.
Also, there are 16 new Skylander figurines with swappable bodies (that’s where the name in Swap Force comes from). These figurines have magnetic tops and bottoms that split in half at the stomach. The idea is to let players mix and match different kinds of elemental characters to create new hybrid ones. For example, if you mix Blast Zone’s top (fire type) with Wash Buckler’s bottom (water type), you’ll get Blast Buckler, a fire and water type that has abilities from both halves.
Additionally, the bottom half of a swappable figurine is designated with one of eight different types of abilities (rocket, climb, dig, etc.), which unlock mini games in levels.
Swap Force is also a much longer game. In the previous game Giants, levels would take around 20 minutes to complete, but in Swap Force, each level took 50-60 minutes to finish — and that was with a second player. If you’re looking for the short pick-up and play experience from Giants, you won’t find it in Swap Force. I don’t mind longer games, but it would have been nice if the pacing in Swap Force was a little quicker. It also doesn’t help that you really can’t skip many of the cutscenes masquerading as load screens.
When Vicarious Visions took over as lead developer from Toys for Bob, they brought with them an entirely new graphics engine. Every single Skylander has been recreated in even higher resolution than in Skylanders: Giants and Spyro’s Adventures. The colors are richer and as a result, the worlds are more lush and livelier. If Pixar made a video game, it’d look like Swap Force (sorry Disney Infinity).
The new graphical overhaul is even more noticeable when you load up old Skylander figurines. Oh, and those large Giants figurines; they look amazing in high-res. Furthermore, the CGI cutscenes just look gorgeous; animated film-quality.
Swap Force’s music is also mostly the same. It’s light, majestic, and bouncy; perfectly fitting for the game’s family-oriented direction.
In my honest opinion, Skylanders is best played with a friend. Swap Force is no exception. Sure, both characters are tethered together on a single screen (it’s not split-screen), but that encourages collaboration, whether that’s for choosing which way to proceed in level, or how to solve a puzzle.
The biggest surprise with multiplayer is how Vicarious Visions balanced it out – specifically with how coins are collected. In previous games, each player collected coins individually. If Player 1 collected 100 coins, tough luck for Player 2. This time around, the coins collected by either player are collective, meaning if Player 1 collects 100 coins, then Player 2 also gets 100 coins.
That said, collecting orbs is still a single character affair. If Player 1 collects the orbs, Player 2 doesn’t get them as well.
Swap Force is a delightful experience that builds upon the success of its predecessors. The new graphics breathe new life into old Skylander figurines and the ability to splice certain figurines together to create new hybrid ones adds another level of customization and replay value. Skylanders Swap Force is available for Xbox 360, Wii U, and PS3 for $74.99.
The Good: Revamped graphics and cut-scenes. Skylanders can now jump. Certain Skylanders can be combined with others to create hybrid figurines. Fun mini-games.
The Bad: You’ll need to buy Skylanders of different elements and types to unlock certain areas in the game. Levels are a little too long and survival missions are slightly too challenging without a second player. Some gates require two elemental types (meaning you’ll need to buy more figurines) and some of the voice acting is off and doesn’t match with the character’s moving mouths.