I was never really aware of how bad my Skylanders addiction had become. That is until I started playing through SWAP Force and dragged out my box of figures that I had accumulated over the years. It took me nearly an hour to get all my new and old toys scanned into the game, and for what? To showcase to my friends online that I have 66 pieces of plastic set to dominate yet again. Skylanders has become a tradition in my house. Just when I think I am out, it pulls me right back in. SWAP Force may have a new developer and require a large money sink, but I still couldn’t help but love what it introduces.
The story once again follows the Portal Master and their collection of Skylanders as they attempt to thwart Kaos and his band of minions. This time around Kaos has a surprise helper at his side in the form of his mother. The writing is still solid and genuinely charming. I chuckled and saw where kids would absolutely eat it up. I cannot wait to introduce my son to it in the coming year or so.
The latest entry in the series brings yet another type of Skylander into the mix. SWAP characters are exactly what they sound like. These new toys can be split into two pieces and combined with other SWAP characters to create new one. This might mean placing a snake’s top onto eight tentacles for a ghastly creation right out of Dr. Mephisto’s lab on South Park, but it also opens up the door for a colossal amount of creations.
Combining each set of characters marks a check in a massive list of possible combinations. What was surprisingly enjoyable though was experimenting with each one to see what worked best. When combining SWAP characters, new upgrade paths are also unlocked. Meaning that maxing out my collection was only going to take more time.
These new creations also factor into the game itself. Each level is fitted with sections that require specific elements to open. For example one gate may be locked behind a life element, requiring that type of Skylander to open. With SWAP Force, gates can now be multi-element locked, meaning I needed either a SWAP character of each element, or a co-op partner to open them. The SWAP characters also have special abilities represented by badges. These unlock yet another gate that leads to a challenge area.
There is a lot of gated content in the game for sure, but it is all presented so meticulously it only drives that urge to discover it. There is an option to revisit any level, which helps with cleaning up sections I missed. I have to applaud the continued marketing behind this. It made me want to go out and buy more figures every time I reached something I couldn’t get past. Thankfully the new characters are really well designed. I enjoyed playing as Rattle Shake and his cobra turret, and Zou Lou might be the best base figure yet. Tossing emerald-like animals at foes Green Lantern style is simple too much fun.
New developer Vicarious Visions cut its teeth on the 3DS versions of previous games, but their console debut is by far the most impressive. They have gone back to the hub world of the original game, as opposed to the more limited ship from Giants. They also introduced a jumping mechanic to the console outing for the first time, which may not sound like an evolution in game design, but it changes up Skylanders drastically.
This is most notable in the general area of combat. No longer do I have to stop and move left and right to avoid incoming fire. Now I can simply leap over incoming attacks. Sadly I can’t attack while jumping, perhaps that will be in the next game. Movement speed also feels slightly increased over Giants, even when controlling the massive characters. I also loved the little touches such as the ground shaking when Giants landed a jump.
Jumping also opens up levels for a more dynamic feel. Side-scrolling sections and elevated platforms are no longer deterrents. This gives way to a lot more variety in the design. Every level felt more interesting and thoughtfully designed. Though I do wish they were a bit shorter in length. Levels are massive, and pacing could have felt more streamlined if there were more of them, just shorter.
There are also the mini games I mentioned before, plus the return of horde-style arenas for both single and multiplayer. These new distractions are actually one of my favorite features in the game. Mostly because I am obsessed with leveling up all of my toys, and this is the best place to do that. Plus I love the challenge that comes with each new wave. The versus mode is also here, but has never really garnered my interest seeing as it is only local.
Figures can now be leveled up to 20, and the new Series 3 will even morph appearance once maxed out. It is a novel, but really cool feature that had me constantly grinding to max out each figure. This time around Vicarious Visions has also added a leveling system for the player. The Portal Master ranking system unlocks spaces to activate the Legendary Treasures I collected in the main game. Activating each one will deal bonuses such as 10% more XP and 5% Gold. It feeds into the collection mentality, and gives more reason to find everything in the game, which is once again plagued with story scrolls, treasures, hats (for stat bonuses) and random items in each level. To 100% this game would take double-digit hours.
If there is one area this game falls apart on me, it is the money sink. I love my Skylanders. I have spent a small fortune collecting figures. With this iteration there are so many of the new SWAP types, with each one carrying a $15 price tag, while the regular ones are now up to $10. This wouldn’t be so bad if the game didn’t do such a wonderful job of making me want them all. Collection Soul Gems and getting a preview of a character I don’t have is just wrong, but brilliant marketing. Sure the core pack has plenty of game play to keep players happy, but I have yet to meet someone who only bought that initial pack and never another figure. It is also worth noting that the new portal is required, so there is no “Portal Owners” pack this time around.
Vicarious Visions also completely re-did the engine this time around. The familiar look is still present, but the new look of the characters really stands out. I was impressed by the new animations and everything just has a sharper color to it. I am actually excited to see it running on the next gen machines, just for the sharper resolution. Audio once again also impresses. The soundtrack is not as catchy as Giants, but the character voices remain humorous, and the voice cast returns yet again to deliver a solid performance.
Skylanders SWAP Force is at the cusp of feeling like series fatigue, but is also the best in the series to date. Even if you might be feeling a little burnt out on the genre, it only took one level before I was sucked back in. Once again I am lost in the world of Skylanders, and it remains the toy-to-game series to beat.
Review copy of game provided by publisher. Primary play on Xbox 360.