With its kid-friendly content and massive range of optional toy figurines, it’s easy to write the Skylanders series off as a cynical cash-grab targeted at society’s most annoying and stinky demographic. If that is the case, it’s working incredibly well – Activision is building forts out of the fat stacks rolling in not only from the Skylanders games and associated toys, but also from book and mobile tie-ins. Fortunately, in Swap Force, any accusations of shaky ethics are largely held at bay by exceedingly well-designed core gameplay and what seems like a fair amount of content in front of the series' trademark paywalls.
Swap Force is the third title in the third-person fixed-perspective action adventure franchise, and sees up to two players platforming, puzzling, and battling their way across a swathe of beautifully rendered floating islands in an effort to thwart the suitably dastardly plans of a chap by the name of Kaos. Familiar to anyone who has played the previous games, Kaos is a great villain: a cowardly, ambitious, hilarious weakling who is expertly voiced by Invader Zim's Richard Steven Horvitz.
Kaos is “evilising” animals using a ray gun of some sort, and is looking to take over Skylandia with his new army. It’s a tale simple enough for pint-sized poop machines, and the great animation and amusing writing will keep adult poop machines happy as well, even as Patrick Warburton hams it up as the oblivious self-proclaimed “best pilot in Skylandia”.
New story aside, Swap Force’s big hook is its new figurines. As was the case in prior titles, when a figure is placed upon a USB-powered portal peripheral, its likeness appears in-game with its own unique attacks and stats. Any of the dozens upon dozens of older Skylanders figures may be used in the game, but the newer swap figures are magnetised in the middle and thus may be broken apart and combined in ways that confer new powers to their in-game avatars.
For example, our Starter Pack came with a “furnace knight” called Blast Zone, who was quickly crawling about on the tentacles of an octopus-lookin’ fellow called Wash Buckler. This mash-up created Wash Blaster, a faster but less well-armoured hybrid who lost Blast Zone’s rush attack in favour of tentacle slaps. The great part is that all figurine swaps and recombinations can be done at absolutely any time in the game, and are in fact essential in order to pass through its many gated areas.
This is where Skylanders will be contentious for some: throughout the game’s campaign are Swap Zones which may only be accessed by a Skylander of a certain elemental type, size, or ability. However, these gated areas are only challenge rooms – small explorable areas or minigames that emphasise a particular characteristic, such as Swash Buckler’s climbing ability or Blast Zone’s flying.
What’s behind these gates isn’t really essential content then, but it is very enjoyable, and there is a lot of it, which might tempt completionists and those with poor impulse control into spending more money. The other benefit to owning more Skylanders is that each is essentially a life. Once a character takes one too many goo balls to the dome and becomes “too tired” to continue that level, the only option is substitution. Run out of Skylanders and it’s back to the start or midpoint with you, tightass!
Adult gamers shouldn’t strike this situation at all in the first few hours of Swap Force, as it begins very kid- and uncoordinated adult-friendly. A switch to the game’s hard difficulty is recommended for most here, but fortunately things pick up eventually once all the mechanics have been demonstrated, and the challenge rooms in particular live up to their name.
Combat feels deep and enjoyable once it gets going. Each Skylander (or Swap Force half) has its own upgrade path, although until two or three attacking moves are unlocked it’s a little dull. But again: it’s a kid’s game, and the eventual combination of hefty melee combat with destructive ranged weapons and environmental traps and puzzles is well-executed. While the ranged weapon lock-on aim sometimes leads players astray, it’s clear a lot of thought has gone into each character’s attacks: Blast Zone’s semi-circle of fire and Swash Buckler’s inky discharge evade are particular favourites.
It certainly helps that everything in the game looks so lush and that the animations are so lively. Both friends and foes have impart oodles of character through the way they move and their hilariously expressive faces. There are hillbilly fish, tiny ankle-biting creatures that are courageous in a swarm, a host of robotic creatures, talking trees and boulders, slightly clumsy goblins of all shapes and sizes, and a ton more besides – all perfectly presented, and each with its own strengths and weaknesses.
Naturally, there is also a deluge of collectible items and trinkets that grant various powers and boost stats, as well as a ton of secret areas and minigames outside the gated stuff that take the core gameplay in unexpected directions.
Outside the main campaign is a really fun Arena Mode, a wave-based survival or deathmatch mode for up to two offline players. The introduction of hazards and power-ups keep things interesting here, and there are a variety of arenas and sub-modes to unlock and some cunning enemies to battle.
Activision knows it is on to a winner the the Skylanders series, and is already giving it the annual release treatment. That phrase alone will make many toes curl, but whats here is so polished and engaging, it's hard to complain at this stage. The backwards compatibility of figurines certainly helps, and the addition of the new swap Skylanders shows that developer Vicarious Visions (which handled ports of prior titles as well as separate mobile games) is committed to giving players more than just extra characters. Just don't keep the figurines in your bedroom and you'll be fine.