Of all the franchises under the Activision umbrella, Skylanders was the riskiest. The idea was undoubtedly a fresh one, as it incorporated actual figures into the game, but no one could have seen it taking off the way it did — even with the use of Spyro's name in the original title. Spyro's name was removed from the second game, and the target audience of kids didn't mind, picking up the game and figures and propelling the brand into instant name recognition. The game was helped by the fact that nothing like it existed for two iterations. The third game enters a different kind of field, though, as Skylanders: Swap Force now has to contend with other figure-based video games, including Disney Infinity, which uses a hefty license and is also a good game. This latest Skylanders title introduces new mechanics and polishes up existing ones to become the most exciting entry yet.
Long ago, the Skylands had its world magic replenished from time to time by four great beings. While this circle continued in peace for a while, it was inevitable that evil forces would try to take the magical powers for their own use. As expected, the Skylanders stopped them, and while they succeeded, the magical blasts from the fight gave them the ability to swap body parts with each other. Time has passed, and the great beings are set to come together once more for their magic replenishment ritual. However, Kaos has mined some fossilized dark energy and is planning to use his evilizer to fill the world with evil. The Skylanders, both old and new, have to stop him again.
While the story is going to be somewhat familiar for those who have followed the previous titles, it benefits from some strong writing. You won't find any deep story twists or character enhancement beyond that of a typical Saturday morning cartoon, but the flow of the adventure is still pretty good when compared to typical fare intended for a younger crowd. More importantly, Swap Force is humorous. Most of it is predictable, but there are a few jokes that'll slip by if you aren't paying attention. It's good-natured, so the chances of finding something offensive is almost nonexistent. While most players won't care much about the plot, those who do will find it to be entertaining enough.
Like previous Skylanders games, this entry is akin to a dungeon crawler minus the randomized level structure. Each character starts with two different attack types and can gain experience to level up and boost their stats. They can also collect gold to obtain new abilities and augment their current ones. Aside from each character being represented by an element that makes them stronger in certain areas, the hook is that the characters are physical figures. Placing the figure on the Portal of Power device that's hooked up to your console causes the virtual version of that figure to appear on-screen. Since the character's level data is stored on the figure's NFC chip, you can take that figure anywhere and continue leveling up him or her, regardless of the game platform. To take advantage of this, each level has a few alternate paths that are locked away through gates that only open up if the character with the correct element is standing near it. While the opening of these gates isn't essential to beat the game, it leads to extra items and more coins. Also, the game can be played either solo or cooperatively, and unlike Disney Infinity, there are no restrictions about which characters you can use in which level.
There are a few new gameplay mechanics in Swap Force. In addition to the usual assortment of hats for your Skylander, you can also obtain relics that give a boost to everyone in the area. The ability to put a relic into play and use more of them as the game progresses falls upon the portal master leveling system, which treats you as a character and has you leveling up via stars obtained through certain tasks. Completing a mission gets you a star, but doing other things, like registering X number of Skylanders or opening up specific secrets, gets you more stars. The game has a hot swappable difficulty level, so you can increase or decrease the difficulty on a whim. Higher difficulty levels give you bonus XP and coins. Levels are also much longer than before, and some contain upgrade stations where you can immediately spend coins to power up your character instead of waiting until the hub world. There's also a new minigame for opening chests that has you figuring out two to get sparks together to unlock the treasure and/or gate.
Jumping has also been added, though it exactly isn't a new ability since it was present in the portable iterations of the game. The ability to jump adds a great deal to the level design, so levels can now have some real platforming elements. It also gives the game more breadth in comparison to other dungeon crawler titles. You gain some defensive capabilities to an extent, though a dodge would have been more preferable if you plan on playing solo on the higher difficulty levels.
The biggest change is a physical one, and that comes from the titular Swap Force characters. Unlike the Giants, the Swap Force characters move and attack at a normal pace, making them equivalent to the normal and Lightcore Skylanders. Where they differ is their ability to mix and match body halves to create a new character type. While both halves of the character retain their element type, the lower half also includes a mobility type that is key to unlocking special challenge levels. If, for example, you need the tornado movement ability from Free Ranger but would rather have Magma Charge's blasting ability, all you need to do is break the figures, place Magma Charge's upper half on Free Ranger's bottom half, and you now have the best of both worlds with Magma Ranger. In all, there are 256 different combinations that can be made out of the 16 available Swap Force figures.
The new Swap Force figures also greatly affect the game design. There are now dual element gates that block some areas in each map. While you can open up the gates in co-op, solo players need the Swap Force figures to get the right combo to open the gates. There are also bonus activity gates that only open if you have the right movement ability, and those are quite varied, ranging from air races toward gates to breaking down blocks to climbing up walls while avoiding falling boxes. Since both types of gates hold secret items and bonus coins, you'll want to do everything you can to access them. When it comes to the upgrade paths, both the top and bottom halves of each character have different avenues, and it makes the upgrade process more interesting. While the top half of each character holds the money and experience, both halves can be upgraded. You could provide an extra attack type for the top half or increased health and melee damage for the bottom half. The upgrade paths are more diverse than that of the regular Skylanders title, but when you think about how the pieces can be combined, the upgrade system starts to become very deep.
Just because the focus is on the Swap Force characters this time doesn't mean the regular Skylanders don't get boosts, either. Everyone from the Lightcore characters to the Giants to the regular ones get their level cap raised to 20, and each has branching upgrade paths they can take. As before, all of the old characters from each of the iterations are playable with all of their old experience, cash and hats.
Combined, the old gameplay elements and the new ones create a fun and varied experience for all ages. The use of both melee and projectile attacks gives players freedom over how they play, and the battles always change things enough that you'll be encouraged to use both types at a moment's notice. The long levels also promote this variety, and the inclusion of minigames and special areas in each stage means the adventure can take longer to complete than most triple-A titles on the market. The minigames also act as health replenishment stations, so there's always some encouragement to try the games. On the co-op front, money is now shared between players, so there's no more fighting over who gets the cash, though experience is still separate and only players who grab the orbs reap the benefits.
While the game has remained fun, the question that parents and gamers want to know is what's needed to complete the game. Like past games, the starter kit is enough to get you playing co-op and enough to get you through the story mode from beginning to end. Since the older figures are also usable, you can get through all of the elemental gates with figures from either of the previous two games. However, with the starter kit only giving you fire and water Swap Force characters and with the ladder and rocket movement abilities unlocked, you'll need more players to open up the playing field — even if you've made previous figure investments. You also need at least one Giant to unlock special treasure chests. With the Swap Force figures going for at least $16 and all of the other figures going for a little less, this is certainly an investment. Those starting with Swap Force can concentrate on getting one Swap Force figure for each element and movement type and one Giant. The only issue is that at least one movement type isn't available yet, so those who want to unlock everything need to wait for a future wave of figures to get either Trap Shadow or Stink Bomb for the disguise movement ability. This also doesn't cover the battle sets, which are sold separately and give you bonus missions. It can be safely ignored until you wring everything the game offers on the disc.
Graphically, Swap Force is a step up from previous titles in the series. The game is still very colorful, and the simple but detailed backgrounds and characters also return with an upgrade in graphics. Most of this is punctuated by the increased number of on-screen particle effects, but the animation of small objects (e.g., grass swaying) accentuates the upgrade in this department. Animations are smooth, and there's no slowdown, no matter what's happening on-screen. Outside of full-level transitions, the lack of load times is impressive. Interestingly, the most notable change is in the use of filters. Instead of the sharp look of the past two games, this one has an overall softness that results in a reduction of aliasing on the overall picture. The game looks much better, though it remains to be seen how the Xbox One and PS4 versions will differ.
From an audio perspective, it remains the same and that's a good thing. The music is the standard blend of instrumental tunes that evoke a sense of adventure, and while each piece isn't exactly memorable, it always seems to fit the situation. The voices are the real star of this department, as several big names in the field (Chris Cox, Richard Steven Horvitz, Kari Wahlgren and Patrick Warburton) are either making their debut in the series or returning to reprise their roles. Their delivery is just as good as in their other works.
Moving on to the physical aspects, the quality in manufacturing is still apparent. The regular figures are well sculpted and sport all sorts of details on the base and the character. The Lightcore figures have such nice lighting effects that you wish all of the figures had LED lights. Despite some of the details and small parts, the figures are pretty sturdy and can handle some minor abuse, such as being thrown with little force against the ground. The figures are about the size of the Giants from last year. The top and bottom halves of each figure are held together by small but strong magnets that allow them to connect with a satisfying snap and separate without too much effort. The use of magnets also allows them to be pivoted around their waists, giving the figures some movement and making it possible to display them in different poses. You must use the new Portal of Power because the older one can't read the Swap Force figures. The new portal is lighter, shorter and wider. It lacks the lighted symbols on the side like the Spyro's Adventure portal, but it has some lighted sides unlike the Giants portal.
Skylanders: Swap Force is very good. The core gameplay is still very engaging for those who want a lengthy adventure, and the tweaks to the formula (especially the jump ability) keep it fresh. Though it makes the game more expensive, the Swap Force figures are excellent, and the versatility of characters and dizzying number of combinations provide some excellent replay value. The series could still use some advancement in a few areas, especially since it lacks online play of any sort, but the game will be sure to please platforming fans as well as fans of the series.
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