Reviewed on Nintendo 3DS, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Wii U, Wii, Xbox 360 and Xbox One
October 13, 2013
Skylanders Swap Force delivers almost everything fans could want. There are fantastic new characters, a funny story, and a complete disregard for the boring rules that say robots and wizards shouldn’t be part of the same world. It also delivers everything Activision, its publisher, could want. There are loads of new toys that you need to complete the optional challenges, a brand-new portal that you can only purchase in the starter packs, and a fanbase that has already made the previous games runaway bestsellers.
The initial appeal of Skylanders has always been in putting that physical toy on the portal and then watching it come to life in the digital world. While I’m still fascinated by the hardware and software that makes that transition possible, Skylanders’ real magic is its unrestricted embrace of everything in the toy box. When my kids sit down to play, they don’t only play cowboys or ninjas or robots or dinosaurs; they play in a world where all of those things exist side by side. Skylanders has always promoted that concept by including characters that might not really make sense together. What makes the rollerskating zombies, enchanted trees, and robotic dragons compatible is the series’ humor and visual style.
That anything-goes approach is even stronger in Swap Force thanks to the new swapping mechanic. Now you can take the rattlesnake cowboy and swap his tail for a giant robotic wheel, or take the bomb-lobbing fire knight and place his top on the octopus pirate’s tentacles. However, there are only six of these swappable Skylanders available at launch, only two of which come with the starter pack. The plan is to release 10 more swappable characters for Swap Force, which means there will be hundreds of potential combinations of figures if you’re willing to buy them all.
The payoff for these absurd combinations is really mostly visual at the start, but as I began to unlock new abilities for the swap characters’ various parts, I started to see there’s a compelling strategic decision here as well. The characters from the previous games have always given us lots of options to choose from in terms of play style – you could be a brawler with loads of armor, or a speedy character who can dish out damage at range – but Swap Force lets you create your own play styles. Maybe you want to use the teleporting legs of Hoot Loop, the magical owl, but you also really like to use Magna Charge’s helmet to lift enemies up into the air and slam them down on the ground. By swapping the two halves of each character, you get something entirely new and unique.
Without giving too much away, I’ve been really curious to see how this sequel’s story played out. The epilogue of last year’s Skylanders Giants hinted at a new villain for the series, and I’m happy to say it pays off here. Kaos is still one of the funniest and most enjoyable villains in gaming today, but the series has needed another antagonist who can support an entire game. Having Kaos and this other villain play off each other in Swap Force is well worth the wait.
Combat will be familiar to fans of hack-and-slash games like Diablo and Torchlight, but Skylanders leans a bit more towards kid-friendly button mashing and skill upgrades than the execution of combos. There’s a satisfying range of enemies here, from weak and tiny Chompies who overwhelm with numbers, to more powerful enemies armed with special attacks or armor. There are even Spellpunks who can strike from a distance and even heal other enemies on the screen. As a result, the action changes enough from encounter to encounter to keep things from ever getting stale. Some of the boss fights can get a little predictable, but that’s understandable given the younger target audience.
Outside of the fighting, there’s a lot to explore and discover in the levels and the between-mission hub. Some, like the legendary treasures and hats, can be used to boost the abilities of your entire team or of individual Skylanders. There are also plenty of bonus missions and levels to be discovered in far off corners of the campaign’s missions. Unfortunately, the new unlocking minigame is needlessly convoluted and not nearly as intuitive or enjoyable as the simple ball-in-a-maze puzzle in the previous games. Even more disappointing, there’s no Skystones mini-game here. That card game is easily one of the most pleasant diversions in the previous game, so it’s sad to see it gone.
Swap Force includes the usual elemental gates from previous games (which can only be opened by a Skylander associated with that same element) but it also includes new multi-element gates that require either a swapped Skylander of both elements, or two players who each represent one of the elements. It’s a great way to encourage swapping and cooperative play. The new swappable Skylanders also each come with unique movement powers that are tied to specific challenge gates. These challenges deliver more platform-like experience – like climbing up a vertical wall while dodging falling rocks, or bouncing along floating islands – that are a nice break from the core game and help reinforce some of the unique character of the associated Swap Force Skylander.
Additionally, Swap Force goes a bit farther than Giants in providing meaningful milestones along the way. Each time you earn a star in a level, find a treasure chest, or add a certain type of Skylander to your collection, you earn progression points that open up new Portal Master ranks. The ranks themselves only really seem to be useful for opening up upgrade slots, which is a bit of a shame, but it’s still nice that Swap Force provides such a clear way to track your progress. The most insidious part, of course, are the paths that track how many Skylanders you own. Seeing that you can earn additional Portal Master ranks by owning multiple Skylanders from a certain series, or a certain elemental type, might seem like a great way to reward hardcore fans of the series, but for people who aren’t comfortable buying dozens of figures, it might seem like blatant marketing.
You’ll have to set your own standard for the cost of the toys, but the new movement abilities of the swappable Skylanders are required to unlock many of the available optional challenges. As I said, the starter set comes with two swappable characters but you’re looking at paying as much as you’d pay for a whole other game if you want to buy the other four available figures at launch. There are two movement powers that aren’t even available in this first wave of figures, so you’d be looking at adding even more to your collection down the road if you want to get at everything Swap Force has to offer.