Skylanders: Swap Force is the latest in the Skylanders adventure series, the ever-popular spinoff to Spyro the Dragon. The latest adventure follows series mainstay Flynn as he (and the player) travel to the Cloudbreak Islands, which are home to a magical volcano that erupts every 100 years or so to replenish the magic in the Skylanders world. The last eruption caused the birth of a new race of Skylanders, the Swap Force, who protect the volcano from evil. It's a good thing they exist, since the evil Kaos is planning to use Petrified Darkness to turn the world evil.
By default, you have no player characters in Skylanders. Instead, your potential playable cast is determined by the out-of-game action figures. Most copies of Skylanders come with two or three figures, but the rest need to be purchased separately. When you place a Skylander figure on the Portal of Power, which is included with the game, you can begin playing as that character. You can swap characters at any time by removing the figure from the portal. Put multiple figures on the portal at once, and you have multiplayer. All your character's information is stored on the action figure. When it levels up or unlocks new moves, you keep them as long as you continue to own that figure, even if you go to a friend's house to play his copy of Skylanders.
Skylanders: Swap Force retains compatibility with all the previous Skylanders toys. So far, there have been two kinds of Skylanders toys. The first set was the default Skylanders figures and was part of eight different elements: Air, Earth, Fire, Life, Magic, Tech, Undead and Water. The second set was the Giants, who are, well, giant. They're also elemental-themed but much larger than their counterparts. Players were encouraged to collect as many of the figures as possible since a wide range of elemental types allowed access to new areas and new content. All of this is retained in Swap Force, which keeps special content available to certain elements or Giants. There are also new "Series 3" versions of several popular characters, and they’re a little more powerful than the earlier toys.
The big new gimmick of the game is the Swap Force characters, which are comprised of two parts: a top and a bottom. You can upgrade each half individually, and both halves share that character's elemental affinity. Swap Force halves can be swapped with other Swap Force characters, so you can take Wash Buckler's water-themed top half and attach it to Blast Zone's fire-themed bottom half to create the new character, Wash Zone. He'll also be a dual-element Skylander who counts as both Fire and Water. In addition, each bottom half of a Swap Force toy has an abilities tied to that character's legs. Some can double jump, some can climb, some can dig, and so on. These abilities can only be used in specific areas, but they can only be used by Swap Force members. As such, you need a healthy selection of Swap Force figures to see everything in the game. The default two figures can only go so far.
Skylanders: Swap Force plays like a kid-friendly Diablo game. Players enter various areas and quest through them, beating up monsters and collecting loot. Each character has two attacks and can unlock a third by upgrading their character or finding special Soul Gems. Hitting enemies with attacks knocks them out, and being hit lowers your character's HP. Loot — such as gems, new equipment, and even collectible hats — can be found throughout the environment. This loot allows you to power up or customize your Skylanders. The aforementioned hats stay equipped on your Skylander and even show up in-game, giving kids a way to customize their favorite characters. Various areas have elemental affinities, rewarding players with extra damage and better stats for switching characters to match the element of the area.
The level design is straightforward. Every level has a main path and several optional side paths that lead to the best loot. These side paths are usually barred behind gates that need a specific kind of character. New to the game are dual-element doors, which require a Swap Force Skylander with both elements. Some are elemental and require a Skylander of the appropriate element to pass. Some are boxes that can only be opened by Giants or minigames that can only be played by Swap Force members. It's possible to finish the game with the default characters, but you'll need to constantly switch characters to see everything the game has to offer. There's some light platforming and puzzle-solving but nothing too arduous. The boxes you can push are clearly labeled and show you which directions you can push, and the punishment for failing a platforming segment is almost nonexistent.
Skylanders: Swap Force is easy to play and is appropriate for kids of all ages. It never gets too difficult, but it remains fun and engaging the entire way through. It's clearly geared toward kids, but it is also a good family game. Those who really want a challenge can pump up the difficulty to a higher level, which also increases the amount of loot that drops from enemies and chests. The tutorial does a good job of explaining the mechanics to kids, and the game strikes a good balance between hand-holding and letting the player play, which prevents younger children from getting bored.
A word of warning to parents: While Skylanders is perfectly appropriate for kids, it's also one of the most straightforward marketing tools I've ever seen. Most aspects of the game are designed with the idea of selling more toys. You can't go six steps without encountering something that requires a specific toy. You might encounter a door that needs an element you don't have, a minigame that requires a specific set of Swap Force legs, or a Soul Gem that unlocks a special power for a character you don't have. If you buy this game for your kids, they are going to ask you for more toys, and they'll be right to do so. It's possible to finish the entire game with the default toys that come in the Swap Force package, but a good chunk of content is sealed off. I had a set of six Skylanders and still encountered a bunch of things that would have required me to buy more toys. If you buy this for your kids, be prepared to shell out more money for Skylanders — and specific Skylanders at that, many of which are difficult to obtain or often sold out.
A problem I have is that these are not very good toys. In the '90s, there was a popular brand of toys by Todd McFarlane. They were well-sculpted models of famous characters that suffered from a complete lack of articulation. The Skylanders toys remind me of those. They're nice models, but they're all attached to a base and have no articulation. They're stuck in whatever pose the designers deemed fit, leaving them more as collectible shelf pieces than something a kid can play with outside of the game. That sort of devalues the rather neat idea of combining a toy and video game because while the video game is quite good, the toys are likely to gather dust on a shelf when not in use. Of course, I'm an adult and kids may find plenty of fun in the toys, but in my experience, the star of the show is the game, not the expensive add-on toys.
Swap Force is a bright and colorful game and, surprisingly, one of the better choices I've seen thus far for showing off the difference between the PS3 and the PS4. It isn't a graphical powerhouse, with simple character models and basic environments, but it runs crisply and smoothly at a solid 60 FPS and at 1080p. It might not have hyper-realistic graphics, but the cartoony characters are charming and enjoyable, and the game is fun to play. It's really easy to notice the difference between the last-gen and next-gen versions of Swap Force. The voice acting is solid, if very Saturday Morning Cartoon-esque, and Patrick Warburton's Flynn does a good job of carrying the story.
Skylanders: Swap Force is the best kid-friendly game available on the PS4. It's incredibly accessible, easy to play, and full of content. It is a solid and well-crafted game from start to finish. The only potential downside is that it could become a serious drain on a parent's wallet as their kids run into roadblocks that require specific toys to continue. If you don't mind dishing out a few extra dollars, or if your kids already have a healthy collection of Skylander toys, there's no better choice for a new PS4 owner looking for something for the younger crowd.
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