Skylanders: Swap Force Review
I might have missed out on the initial Skylanders hype train, but after two years of well-regarded and successful games, I'm finally getting bitten by this addictive franchise. If you haven't heard about how this works, Skylanders is a Disney-styled cartoony action adventure game with tons of cool characters to play as; the unique thing about these games is that you put a toy on a USB-connected "portal" to play that character in the game, and a small chip inside each toy stores character stats and upgrades. As you can probably guess, that means Activision has been selling a lot of toys as well as games as a result.
Skylanders: Swap Force, the third game in the series which is being made by Activision-owned Vicarious Visions, was started before the first Skylanders was even released. The new wrinkle with this game is that the new toys can be split apart at the waist and mixed and matched with tops and bottoms from other toys. But one of my favorite things about Swap Force is that while there are new toys - and you do have to buy the kit with the game, the new USB portal as well as a few included toys just to get started - you don't have to buy any other toys if you want to make it through the main story. You won't be able to unlock everything without a fairly sizable collection of current and past Skylanders toys, but if you have any toys from the past two games, those all work here with those characters fitting into the world nicely. I think that Activision's ploy here is that the character designs and toys are so cool that parents will feel compelled to buy the new ones anyway after their kids pester them enough, as the game will show off preview videos of characters that it doesn't think players have seen yet.
So, what about the game itself? Skylanders: Swap Force brings a new type of threat to the Skylands, and the Skylanders must be tapped once again to fight off Kaos and his new device, the Evilizer. Each character has two attack buttons and one dash button, and skill points can be bought with the in-game treasure that's found in a mini action-RPG way. Both dash and attack abilities can be improved, and those are saved onto the toy itself so that players can take those toys to a friend's house for cooperative play. This works across all platforms, making the thing no-hassle for kids who want to build their characters.
Swap Force has great visuals with a very Disney-esque style - it's fun, silly, well-animated, and very colorful - even if the lip sync and some characters' little animated flourishes don't really match the voice acting or the grandiosity of the game as a whole. (Then again, Pixar has bigger teams working for longer to build a completely un-interactive two hour feature, so it's not really fair to compare the two, is it?) The action starts out very simple, but eventually you'll see plenty of challenge on normal or harder difficulty as enemies mob you and use multiple attack patterns at once to take you out. Your combat options increase, too, with lots of attack upgrades available. Ok, it's we're not quite at the Diablo level of skill upgrade choices, but there's still a lot to level up, improve, and equip on dozens of Skylander characters that you can control - assuming you've got the toys, that is.
And this new swap ability does actually add something unique, too - not only is it fun and incredibly easy to use the magnets to click the tops and bottoms of toys together, but it's a blast to mix and match the attack and dash abilities of the characters in-game as well. The game's plenty long, full of great cutscenes and arena-type battles with high production values, solid visuals, some really cool music, and a ton of secret items and collectibles that have proven to be so popular in the LEGO games. Admittedly, it will be frustrating to some that you can't get full completion on this game without having a pretty wide range of toys (including some Giants from the previous game and a full range of Swap-enabled ones that are being released alongside Swap Force), but Activision has done a good job of motivating those who want full completion to include the actual figures in that count, too.
Now, I probably have a mildly unique perspective from other people reviewing this game in that I haven't played much of the two Skylanders games that preceded Swap Force, so this whole thing was kind of new to me; I don't know if anyone else has already experienced fatigue at yearly releases of this game, but I haven't had the chance at that yet, nor am I entirely sure on what gameplay, action, and puzzle gimmicks have been relied on too heavily. So if you're wondering whether developer Vicarious Visions was able to add significant things to the formula on top of the swap mechanic and the new characters, missions, and Skylands to explore, this review isn't the best place to look. But as someone coming to this franchise with fresh eyes, what I can tell you is that Swap Force is pretty darn wonderful, with simple gameplay for the decidedly younger crowd this game's aimed at, but still just enough depth for action-RPG enthusiasts.
While Swap Force is a blast to play with one or two players, I do find that there are a few annoyances - like the unmovable, often zoomed-out camera that sometimes makes combat tough to see in cooperative mode, or how closely the two players must stay together on-screen. When players are exploring, if they walk more than 30 steps apart or so, the camera will suddenly stop zooming out and the characters start to run into an invisible boundary made on-the-fly by the game engine. But these are minor complaints, and they're easily worth the trade-off in order to get a full cooperative mode in there. Beyond that, yes, you will have to buy the full "starter kit" (with a price starting out at about $75) that includes the game, a new USB-powered "portal" and three figures - there's currently no way to just buy the game alone and use the stuff you already have - and then there are new toys which are required for 100% completion. Hey, it beats crappy $10 DLC since you get an actual physical thing here, but the new swappable character figures are running a rather steep $15 each currently. Ouch! Also, remember that these aren't action figures when kids want to play with them outside of the game - other than the swapping tops and bottoms, they're more like "inaction" figures in that they're not posable in any way.
Skylanders: Swap Force is a somewhat-fresh take on the franchise with a really satisfying new element of mixing and matching character halves, but let's not pretend that it's going to take the series' fans by surprise. Even with my meager amount of experience with the past games, it's clear to me that this is a mild expansion on the formula with just enough additions in enough areas to keep the fans happy year-after-year. The new characters and toys fall in perfectly with what Activision and series creator Toys for Bob have been building over the last couple of years, and the experience is lengthy, fun, and satisfying - if a bit costly to collect if you want the full experience. Either way, if you had any doubts as to whether VV could pull it off, worry not, as Swap Force is just about everything it's been hyped up to be, and even with a few little wrinkles, it's still a great choice this holiday for a couple of hyperactive kids. Or even a pair of caffeine-fueled adults.
Disclaimer: This review is based on a retail Xbox 360 copy, along with several toys, provided by the publisher.