It’s easy to write off Activision’s billion-dollar Skylanders franchise as a game for kids, but given how much success the series has had so far, the numbers indicate that the merging of collectible toys and in-game adventures has apparently found the sweet spot in the all-ages marketplace.
In the latest installment of the series, Skylanders: Swap Force, developer Vicarious Visions ups the ante with a new twist: character figures with components that can be “swapped” among each other to form various combinations that manifest in the game. It’s one of several ambitious upgrades in the latest Skylanders adventure, and it’s the sort of gamble that’s become increasingly necessary as Disney Infinity and other projects look to emulate – and stake their own claim upon – the interactive toy-and-game model.
Fortunately for Activision, Swap Force offers a surprisingly fresh experience for returning fans and newcomers alike, and makes it clear from the start that the series is determined to evolve rather than simply expanding the old model with more toys and new adventures.
New faces, new places
The third major console release in the franchise finds the world of the Skylanders in peril once again, and much like its predecessor, Skylanders: Giants, the adventure introduces a new line of characters with abilities above and beyond the standard series. Last time around it was the lumbering “Giants,” and this time it’s the mix-and-match “Swap Force” (hence the naming convention).
The starter kit for Swap Force comes with the game itself, the “power portal” peripheral that allows the system to identify which characters (and combinations) you put in play, and three figures: two “swap force” characters and a standard, non-swappable character. It’s a fine enough assortment to get you started, and just one figure is all that’s required to complete the game’s main storyline, but the sheer breadth of all the side-quests, mini-games, and other challenges you’ll encounter that require additional characters have you feeling the “collect them all” urge in no time at all.
Play it again, portal master
Make no mistake: the collectible-character aspect of the Skylanders series has always played the biggest role in the games’ replay value and depth of each playthrough, with new figures unlocking in-game subquests and side-missions. It’s a money grab, sure, but it never feels forced like the microtransactions that are such a popular element of many online games these days.
You can play through the game with the characters you have… and be perfectly satisfied with the experience.
You can play through Swap Force with the characters you have, leveling them up and searching for hidden treasures (yet another element of the game that gets an upgrade – the levels are positively packed with hidden unlockables this time around) and be perfectly satisfied, then pick up a new character and have a relatively fresh experience running through the game all over again. On the other hand, dynamic in-game swapping of your collection of figures – and in this case, the parts of the Swap Force figures – also allows for a much slower, more completist-friendly experience that could stretch the main storyline out for as long as most open-world sandbox games.
We were sent a batch of six additional figures to go along with starter pack, and spent the first 12 hours or so completing every side mission or challenge that our collection allowed. This amounted to roughly 60-percent completion in the main storyline. Once we made the decision to plow through the rest of the story without getting sidetracked, the remainder of the game took about four hours to complete. When all was said and done and the credits rolled, the final tally left us with 50-percent completion of the subquests, side-missions, and challenges (and Achievements) over the course of 17 hours of playing time. That’s not too shabby, and the urge to jump right back into the game with some of the lesser-used figures was significant.
Along with the swappable figures, one of the most noticeable changes in Swap Force is characters’ ability to jump around the environment. The lack of a “jump” action was conspicuously absent from previous Skylanders games, and it’s nice to see that fixed this time around. Better yet, figures released with the earlier games now gain the ability to jump in Swap Force, too – adding an extra dimension to old favorites.
Don’t look back
While the game’s backwards-compatibility with older figures is refreshing, the inability to use the new line of Swap Force figures with older games could frustrate some younger players. This issue shouldn’t be surprising for anyone familiar with the technology supporting these games and the way it evolves, but having an explanation ready when young fans discover that their new figures don’t work with their old games could save some frustration down the road.
Bits and pieces
While the lack of compatibility between Swap Force figures and the older games is essentially a necessary evil of evolving technology, there are a few general gameplay flaws that pop up here and there, too.
The auto-aiming element of several characters’ attacks can be a bit sketchy, and in some cases you’ll need to reposition a character two or three times in order to hit your intended target. This is a recurring problem for characters that rely on projectile attacks, and given how much attention to detail was paid to so many other aspects of the game, it’s surprising to see this issue pop up as often as it does with certain characters.
There’s also a bit more distance between save points than seems wise for a game aimed at children or other audiences that might only be able to play in short bursts rather than hours at a time. Swap Force saves your progress according to the checkpoints you pass in a level, but it can occasionally take 30-45 minutes of playing time to get from one checkpoint to the next. Leaving the game before you reach the next checkpoint will save the accumulated in-game currency and experience your character has accumulated up to that point, but your progress will be reset to the previous checkpoint when you return to the game – which may erase a decent chunk of playing time.
Swap Force manages to improve upon a universe that was already known for being bright, detailed, and fun with some noticeable tweaks to the color palette.
On the positive side, Swap Force manages to improve upon a universe that was already known for being bright, detailed, and fun with some noticeable tweaks to the color palette and other visual elements. The storyline itself continues to hit the sweet spot for all-ages entertainment, thanks to clever dialogue and voice casting – particularly the inimitable Patrick Warburton as Skylands’ greatest pilot, Flynn – and an abundance of jokes that work for young and old players alike.
A new multiplayer mode that allows for cooperative and competitive challenges involving you and anyone else currently in your approved friends list (i.e., no random strangers) is also a welcome addition to the Skylanders universe, and offers a fresh new dimension to the franchise. While the multiplayer doesn’t go too deep with gameplay modes, it’s a logical extension of the franchise that offers fans the opportunity to show off their collection without having to actually transport the figures from place to place.
Skylanders: Swap Force could’ve easily hit shelves with a new storyline and characters without too many additional innovations and continued to be one of the industry’s best-selling franchises. It’s a credit to the team behind Swap Force that the game has arrived with so many new features that not only expand the in-game environment exponentially but also make old characters as welcome as the newcomers to this world. It’s rare for a game to come along that truly crosses the generational divide and establishes an audience among young and old gamers alike, but Skylanders has done exactly that with its last two console titles – and Swap Force continues that trend.
This game was reviewed on a PlayStation 3 using a copy provided by Activision.
- Character-based gameplay shapes in-game experience
- Backward-compatibility for older characters
- Tremendous replay factor
- Simple but fun multiplayer modes
- Wonky auto-aiming for certain characters
- Distance between save points can be frustrating
(This game was reviewed on the PS3 using a retail copy provided by the publisher.)