In 2011, Pandora’s box opened once more to let loose one last demon to haunt a mother or father’s wallet in the form of Skylanders Spyro’s Adventure. The game from Toys for Bob made a huge splash that holiday season and suddenly, kids couldn’t get enough of the figurines that come to life. An iOS app, a 3DS game, and the ever-constant schoolyard debate over which Skylander is best fueled a second game in the form of Skylanders Giants where oversized figurines with special abilities joined figurines with alternate poses and color schemes.
To Activision’s credit, the franchise continues with a lot of what made it great in the past while also adding plenty of new layers in both gameplay and shiny toys to collect. Vicarious Visions flexes some serious development talent to push Skylanders forward while also introducing the franchises best new (and swappable) figures.
As soon as you tear open the box, it’s plain as day that Skylanders are made to the highest quality, featuring finely painted figurines with a great, reliable heft to them. The new SWAP Force characters go one step beyond the standard figurines by featuring two distinct, interchangeable halves each complimented by its own brain, storing stats, gold, and upgrades independently. The starter pack comes with Wash Buckler, a pirate octopus fond of pointing out that he’s got eight legs and no pegs. The other new SWAP Force character in every starter pack is Blast Zone, who flies around with rocket feet and is always dropping bombs.
Whether or not you’re a Skylanders aficionado, if you want to play SWAP Force, you’ll need a Starter Pack which also comes with the new Swap-supporting portal of power. The portal plugs in via USB but never fails to recognize figurines as you switch on the fly. The $75 Starter Pack is a drop in the bucket compared to the cost of owning every new SWAP Force figure (priced at $15 a pop) but if you’ve got figurines from past games, you’ll see even more playtime reaped from that investment. Bottom line, Swap Force characters are cool enough that it’s worth it to upgrade.
Blast Zone and Wash Buckler can trade pieces to become Blast Buckler (a bomb tossing bro with puckering legs for transport). Basically, the bottom half determines locomotion, while the top half determines attacks—though bottom halves also have their own special attacks and upgrades. The two pieces are held together by magnets and it’ll prove incredibly difficulty to get kids to pay attention if they’ve got their hands fiddling with two halves.
Still, the way these figurines come to life in-game is more important and SWAP Force does the franchise’s best job at creating a living breathing world full of Saturday morning cartoon characters. The dialog is often funny and always light-hearted but the sheer variety in gameplay is SWAP Force‘s best asset.
Players will frequently come upon elemental or locomotive gates where only Skylanders of a certain type can progress into a bonus zone. These bonus levels allow Vicarious Visions to show off the depth and variety they can pull off within the cartoony Skylanders world. Wash Buckler’s levels involve wall climbing while Blast Zone’s top-half’s fire-affinity can break open Fire gates where spews of lava bounce players around. Sidescrolling levels, puzzle gates for both single and co-op players, or the occasional battle gate force players into different areas of the game. The entire experience benefits from this.
It’s easy to see that a slog through the campaign without these bonus levels would feel sluggish and mundane. Driving the player to try different things opens Skylanders up to a more mature audience while also allowing distracted and wandering younger players a reward for their directionless behavior in-game. Further, the variety and challenge gets players to switch figurines and swap halves on the fly.
If this is your first Skylanders game, pick up a few extra SWAP figurines and enjoy. Each figure newly purchased and torn from pristine package doubles the game’s playtime as combat is addictive enough to drive players to level up multiple characters. If you’re an old hand at controlling the portal of power, you shouldn’t need any more convincing.
Yes, SWAP Force could prove to be the most expensive thing you buy this holiday season (and that’s including a PS4 and launch games), but it’ll pay out in hours of playtime with children or non-gamers who are turned off from gaming’s penchant for violence.