Developer: Vicarious Visions/Beenox
# of Players: 1
ESRB Rating: E10+
Score: A- (90%)
With this year’s installment of the series, Skylanders SWAP Force, veteran developer Vicarious Visions (with an assist from Beenox) takes over from Toys for Bob and bumps up the console versions to to HD quality visuals (save for the Wii version) while adding a few new play mechanics. More importantly, there are a new set of Skylanders with swappable top and bottom halves and plenty of locked off areas in the game that will send parents zipping into stores to buy new figures on a regular basis. That the gameplay is so basic yet compelling and all those enticing gated-away goodies the perfect opportunity to market new toys to kids and parents is exactly the formula any game company would kill to have in play. Skylanders has worked from the beginning in successfully roping nearly anyone who picks it up into its charms and while SWAP Force is the best looking and playing game to date, Activision also needs to kick things up a notch in the future, as you can practically hear the call of a more open world game experience with even more to do bellowing from those sweeping panoramic backgrounds…
This time out, some solid, laugh out loud funny writing, pretty in-engine cut scenes and a voice cast packed with excellent talent drive the story along nicely, but I won’t go into detail here because at the end of the day, it’s pretty much your typical Saturday morning fluff expanded for kid gamers who like a little meat in their plot soup. Yes, some familiar villains return, there are some new NPCs to do quests for and thanks to the bigger game world, this one will take longer to complete than the previous installments. The game does a great job of introducing the SWAP Force characters (yes, there’s a reason they can separate their tops and bottoms like that!) as it drops you into fast-paced playable “tutorials” before setting you loose in the game world. The shiny new HD visuals do make a huge difference as does the ability to jump. Granted, the game isn’t a platformer by any means (and in fact, less skilled players may miss a jump or three or leap into a pit on occasion), but levels now have more vertical and stepped sections and definitely look fantastic.
Par for the course, destructible objects littered all over the place mean stuff to bash for coins and collectibles and yes indeed, there are many hidden in some not to hard to find spots. Of course, if you’re going into this one cold with the basic starter pack, you’ll only have Stealth Elf, Blast Zone (Fire) and Wash Buckler (Water) Swap characters, meaning you’ll soon find areas that are blocked off until you boogie on back to the store. Thankfully, the game is solid and the rewards come so fast and furious from your efforts that you won’t mind that trip one bit because you just HAVE to clear out those areas. Light “RPG” elements such as leveling up and boosting stats are things that give the game appeal outside its demographic and the universal appeal of watching a character grow more powerful and gain new powers are another thing that make the game work so well.
In fact, other than a fixed camera angle that can be a pain when trying to pull off some of those new jumps or navigate some trap filled areas more precisely, good game design hits you all around here. There’s a puzzle mini-game for unlocking some chests that’s actually more fun and challenging as the game progresses, those funky hats are back, each adding some great bonuses to whomever wears them, you can bump up the difficulty at any time (the harder the game is, the better the rewards are) and while there’s still no co-op mode, It’s actually fun to watch kids take turns playing through a map to see how they tackle a particular problem. For the most part, this isn’t a hard game at all even on the highest difficulty setting if you go in with some nicely leveled Skylanders and happen to have ones for those element gates you can’t reach with the Starter Pack figures.
Of course, the game constantly reminds you that you might want to consider purchasing a new figure thanks to collectibles that act as snappy ten-second teaser ads for the brand. Before you yank out a flaming nostril hair, YES, these ads are optional viewing, although you only get the prompt to watch or not watch after you find the collectible. I always chose the option to watch just out of curiosity and while I didn’t find the quick spots annoying at all (my wallet was mad at me, though), I can see some parental units eyeballs rolling back in their head when the kid presents them with a longer than expected wish list of new figures they crave.
Which leads to my note to parents new to the Skylanders craze who are thinking of buying into the frenzy. Expect to buy in and buy in big should the kids (or you) get addicted to this one. There are 16 new SWAP Force characters, 32 core Skylanders characters and eight new LightCore characters, meaning yes, this is an investment if you’re new to the series and are working on that gift budget for the holidays or any other occasion. Add in any Skylanders Giants figures plus any of the older figures (all of which work in this new game) and that’s a nice chunk of change.
My suggestion is to start with one of each element Skylander, one or two Giants and any SWAP Force figures that match the different element gates just so your kid can complete the game proper and nail that Platinum trophy. Some may gripe about this, but if you don’t realize that the main purpose of this game is to get you to buy more toys, you’re not paying attention to those commercials or you had a really sheltered childhood. Hey, it’s like any other hobby, so at the end of the day if you can afford it, it’s not a big deal at all. If anything, this makes the core game last longer until you can snap up a few more figures, so holding out for a treat is actually no deal-breaker. Hey, I used to collect A/FX racers and other HO scale cars for years, so I know that feeling of “Ooooh, I need to get THIS soon!” when there’s something cool popping up that a friend already has (or wants but doesn’t have yet)…
In addition to the solo campaign mode, there are unlockable Time Attack and Score modes and a Battle Area with four gameplay types (Solo Survival, Team Survival, Rival Survival, and Ring Out). The Arena is an OK diversion, but having online play here or the ability to connect multiple Portals of Power would have been a nice touch for the final Skylanders game before the new generation of consoles hits. Speaking of that new generation of consoles, I’m curious to see how the PS4 and Xbox One versions will look, as I think it’ll be a case of adults noting the differences more than younger kids under ten who really don’t care much about more mapping techniques or how many more particle effects a dev team can get onscreen.
Granted, this is the sort of game that works wonderfully as is on consoles and I can’t even imagine the hassles an online console Skylanders game would cause in households where kids already spend too much time in front of a computer or tablet of some type. Or worse, in a home where there’s a crap internet connection and the kid just HAS to try and play online. Blech. That and there’s already an online presence for the brand, so I’m gathering Activision will be keeping the console versions offline for the foreseeable future so they can better serve those many families who snap up all those toys year after year. I’m still hoping they expand this “collect and play” style of gaming to either a new IP or different brand that needs a shake up, as I can only imagine how a collectible figure-based RPG or military shooter might affect things on a few fronts. Innovation in the right direction is disruptive, but when it works, well… you get Skylanders and a lot of very happy people playing and collecting…