It seems that there’s no stopping the Skylanders. With two previous mega hits under its belt (those being 2011’s Spyro’s Adventure and last year’s Skylanders Giants), the toy-driven action-adventure series continues to be a hit with younger gamers. Now, the series is up to bat for a third time with Skylanders Swap Force, and the result is a polished and refined game that has enough notable improvements and innovations to declare it the freshest and most fun entry so far.
The way the game and its roster of characters and items function has not changed. Players still receive a USB base called the Portal of Power and three character figurines with their purchase, and must place the character of their choice on the portal to play as them in the actual game. Thankfully, Swap Force is completely backwards compatible with the dozens of previously released Skylanders, meaning that players who have grown comfortable with certain characters won’t be forced to say goodbye to them.
Continuing with the tradition established in Giants of incorporating a new twist on gameplay with each new game, Swap Force‘s new gimmick is the titular set of 16 “swappable” characters. As with before, each Skylander belongs to one of eight elemental types in a Pokemon-esque fashion, which are used both to enhance the damage they dish out to enemies in certain areas and to unlock special gates in each level.
The twist with the Swap Force characters is that each of them can separate their top and bottom halves, which click together via magnets. If you have more than one of these, you can mix together hundreds of possible combinations, all of which will be properly represented in the actual game. This will likely inspire kids to combine their favorite character parts together, but it also adds an extra layer of strategy to enhancing each character’s abilities. As with previous games, Skylanders earn stat-enhancing experience points from defeated enemies, and also collect gold and treasure strewn to buy new abilities.
For the swappable characters, both halves contain different abilities, and while the main stats, cash and experience level are stored in the upper half of the figure via the microchip technology that previous ones have sported, you can theoretically swap the bottom half of a figure you don’t have much money for onto the top half of a figure that does have more money, making it easier to manage your upgrades.
The swappable characters also factor into a new type of gate found throughout the levels. Instead of being restricted by their element, each one has a unique ability in their bottom half that is required to open specific gates, such as climbing, flying, racing, or teleportation. Each of these gates lead to a unique minigame that will unlock more bonus items – a new mechanic that is generally fun and surprisingly challenging at times.
The core gameplay hasn’t changed a huge amount compared to the first two games, but the actual controls have had some revamping. The most notable feature is the fact that your Skylanders can finally jump, allowing for some more engaging platforming and creative environments to explore. This is a welcome addition, but a major downside is the fact that you can’t attack while jumping, meaning that you’ll have to make sure beforehand that you aren’t landing in the path of an enemy attack.
One of the most obvious improvements is the way the game actually looks. Developer Vicarious Visions came up with a totally new graphical engine for Swap Force, and it’s taken the series from looking like a high-res Wii game to one of the best-looking games on current-gen systems. It’s a welcome change to what was definitely one of the bigger shortcomings of the earlier games.
There are also numerous additions and refinements when it comes to the side missions that can be accessed via the main hub level. There is a much larger variety of battle arenas and side quests that can be unlocked and played through for numerous perks. Outside of their characters, main players will have a Portal Master profile that can be levelled up by completing stages, fulfilling side objectives, and building their collection of Skylanders. The higher their rank, the more perks and additional items they’ll unlock at the main in-game shop.
Something that hasn’t changed, but I feel should, is the story. While I can forgive it for not being very complex or memorable due to the target audience, I have grown a bit tired of the lead villain, Kaos. While he has his moments of good humor, and the addition of his equally evil mother helps a bit, I’m wishing at this point for a new villain in the inevitable fourth game, both for variety’s sake, and because I feel that the current baddie feels played out. Upon doing some research, it seems that the 3DS versions of all three games have offered different villains. I can only hope that the console versions will eventually follow suit.
Another minor complaint lies in the length. While the actual total playtime is comparable to past games, there are fewer unique levels, with the ones that are there being much longer than before. This means that there are less interesting environments to explore (and considering how nice this game looks, that’s unfortunate) and that each level can take upwards of an hour to complete. I have a feeling that may not go over well with kids who have short attention spans.
Despite these complaints, Skylanders Swap Force is easily the best entry in the series so far, and while I certainly enjoyed Giants a lot last year, this feels like a more noticeable leap forward in just about every way. I’m assuming Activision has plans to keep putting out annual entries until the franchise stops making money, but if this is any indication, they’re still willing to innovate and improve instead of rehashing things, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game.
Offering genuine improvements over its predecessors and a gorgeous graphical overhaul, Skylanders Swap Force is the best iteration of the toy-based series so far.