I don’t think I ever want to meet someone who doesn’t like playing Skylanders games. I imagine such a person would be a miserable curmudgeon who has had all the joy sapped out of their life, with no recollection of what it’s like to be a kid.
Let’s face it: Skylanders games, and particularly Skylanders Swap Force – the third game in the series – are excellent reminders of a more innocent youth, a time that existed only for cool toys and Saturday-morning cartoons. If Activision could somehow add sugary cereal to this equation, it would have the ultimate formula for childhood crack.
Not that Swap Force isn’t most of the way there already. It is, in fact, the best Skylanders game yet. And yes, despite its appeal to people who are, ahem, caught in a state of arrested development, it’s actually aimed at kids age six and up. If the huge sales of the previous two instalments have been any indication, children have indeed been eating this franchise up like Froot Loops.
As with its predecessors, Swap Force is predicated on the zapping of real-world toys into the digital Skylanders realm via a “power portal,” which connects to a console through the USB port. The toys themselves store information, so any upgrades or magical items gained in the game travel with them. And the best part is that kids can take their toys over to a friend’s house, plop them down on their power portals and fire them up there, regardless of which console is being used. It’s true cross-platform magic.
Swap Force ups the ante by introducing dual-faceted toys. Each character has a top and bottom half that is connected by magnets. As the game’s name implies, the two halves can be swapped between them and mixed and matched. Blast Zone, for example, tosses bombs with his hands and has rockets for feet, while Wash Buckler wields a pirate-like pistol and cutlass while moving around on octopus tentacles. Swapping their top halves creates two new hybrid characters with different movement abilities – literally Wash Zone and Blast Buckler.
With 16 new Swap Force characters – the above two come in the starter pack – that’s more than 250 possible combinations. The new game also introduces 16 new core characters (those without swapping parts) and eight LightCore toys, which light up when placed on the portal. Additionally, there are also 16 new versions of older characters that have new powers. This is music to the collection-minded kid’s ears, but horrible news for parents’ wallets. Buyers should also take note that a new portal accessory, which comes with the starter pack, is needed for the more complex toys to function. All previous Skylanders, however, do work with the new portal.
The core of the game is pretty much the same, with the goal being the accumulation of as much treasure and magic items as possible for upgrading characters and unlocking new powers. The Swap Force toys, having two halves, obviously have more abilities, but they take longer to upgrade as a result.
Oh yes, there’s also a story. In this outing, the villainous-but-diminutive evil wizard Kaos is up to his old tricks – converting the innocent denizens of the Skylands into twisted versions of themselves. It’s up to the titular heroes to stop him and his new ally. The Swap Force characters have joined the fight after being reawakened by the explosion of a mystical volcano.
Previous games promoted re-playability and the buying of additional toys through sections that could only be unlocked by characters of the correct element, such as fire, air, magic, tech and so on. Swap Force adds to that by sometimes requiring certain movement methods for unlocking new areas. Wash Buckler and his tentacles, for example, has the climbing ability, so he can scale vertical walls, while Blast Zone can rocket through large hoops suspended in the air. Each of the movement zones are completely optional, but they do add quick, fun mini-game distractions that net more treasure.
While that concept seems aimed at getting kids to buy more Skylanders, it also introduces an efficiency. Some areas, for example, can only be unlocked by two characters of different elements, which you could do in the past with a pair of players. A properly configured Swap Force character, however, can take care of that problem single-handedly– combining portions of Wash Buckler, a water element Skylander, and Blast Zone (fire element) fulfills the requirement.
Also added to this mix are the Giants, from the second game in the series. There are some treasures that can only be opened by these larger characters, so having one on hand is a necessity for the completionist minded. Swap Force certainly does a good job at utilizing its ever-growing menagerie of colourful characters.
Therein lies the beauty of the game – it’s offers players a wealth of choice, from the many variations of Skylander they want to play with to the upgrades they want to add to the secret areas they want to unlock. Most of the toys are, for lack of a better description, really cool looking, which got me thinking very much like a kid: I want them all. You’d almost think Activision planned it this way.
Aside from the barrage of new choice that Swap Force adds, the game also has a few small improvements over its predecessors. The graphics are sharper and more colourful, which makes the zany fantasy-fiction inspired worlds and creatures that much vibrant. And there are some little touches that make those worlds feel a little more alive, such as the animated faces on the moveable stone blocks that grimace whenever you push them.
The characters can jump now, an ability they were lacking in the first two games. It’s such a seemingly minor addition, but it’s hugely important for any platformer, especially one that is so strongly focused on making characters feels alive.
With Swap Force, Skylanders has expanded and perfected its winning formula of choice plus collectibility, which psychologists would likely suggest is an irresistible lure to children – and child-like adults – with addictive personalities. The only question now is, what’s next? Maybe we will see Swap Force Giants next year?
(Note: The game will be released on Xbox One and PlayStation 4 in November.)