Skylanders Swap Force is an intelligent evolution of the popular franchise.
What is Skylanders Swap Force anyway?
The Skylanders franchise is a series of video games which incorporates plastic figurines that have clever electronics inside them, so that when you put one of them them onto a special base that plugs into your game console (called the Portal of Power) the character appears in the game and can be controlled by the player.
In 2011, Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure invented the video-game-plus-plastic-figurines genre, and for two years it had an extremely lucrative market all to itself. In August this year, Disney Infinity was launched. Seen by many as a rip-off of Skylanders, it was at the very least a rival, threatening to eat into their established market share.
This Christmas shopping season, there is a new Skylanders out, the third in the series, subtitled Swap Force. With it comes a whole range of new figurines, some of which have the new ability to split in half at the waist, so the top and bottom halves can be recombined into new characters (hence the title).
The problem with this entire genre is that you need a lot of figurines to see everything the game has to offer (and, for the obsessives, achieve 100% completion) and the costs add up. Last week I published a guide for parents and gamers to get the most bang for their buck with Disney Infinity. This week, it's Skylanders' turn.
How much does all of this cost?
All of it? You really don't want to know. The complete figurine collection includes 16 of the Swap Force characters, 16 new single-piece characters, 16 old characters in new poses, five "dark" characters (same character but with a dark paint job), and eight Lightcore characters (single-piece figures that light up when placed on the Portal).
The starter pack contains the game disc, the Portal, two Swap Force characters, and a small single-piece character, and goes for $68 at Big W, $79 at JB Hi-Fi, $99.95 at EB Games, and $99.99 at Toys R Us. EB Games also has a special edition starter kit with the "dark" versions of five figures, priced at $119.
Any completionists out there will need to have very deep pockets. Big W has the cheapest Skylanders items in any Australian store, but even at their discounted prices the starter kit plus one of each of just the new characters totals up to around $680, and significantly more if you buy at a higher-priced retailer.
How many of these things do I actually need?
Honestly, to play the game through from start to finish and have a good time, including two-player co-operative play, all you need is the starter kit, costing between $80 and $100 depending on where you shop. Even better, the game is fully compatible with figures from older Skylanders games, and it even remembers their experience level and treasure.
If you actually want to complete everything in the game, however, things get a lot more complicated.
Content in the game is gated according to character types, and they break down a few different ways. First, there are the elements. Each character is associated with one of eight elements: the four classical elements of earth, air, fire, and water, plus two more opposed pairs in life vs undead and magic vs tech.
In every Skylanders game, you will come across locked gates with a particular symbol on them, and if you try to enter with the wrong character, the narrator will say, "Only a character with the element of X can open this gate".
This is complicated in the new game by gates that require a specific Swap Force combination. For example, a gate that requires fire and water could only be opened by a combined Swap Force character made from half of a water character and half of a fire character.
It's not over yet, though. Each Swap Force character also has one of eight modes of movement: climbing, speed, spinning, rocket, bouncing, teleporting, sneaking, and digging. Some special challenges in the game, rather than being associated with elements, are restricted to a specific mode of movement. Some involve climbing a cliff and dodging projectiles, while others involved flying through floating hoops, for example.
The good news is that you can get every mode of movement and all eight elements by purchasing just the starter pack, which comes with two figures, and six additional figures. The starter kit comes with Wash Buckler and Blast Zone, and you need to buy Free Ranger, Rubble Rouser, Stink Bomb, Hoot Loop, Magna Charge, and Rattle Shake.
There is also one more thing you need in order to see 100% of the game's content: a Giant figure from the previous generation of characters. The new game includes quite a lot of items that can only be accessed by a Giant character, so if you don't still have one from last year, you're going to need to buy one. They cost $19 at Big W, though I advise shopping around in bargain bins since they are technically superseded stock.
Our grand total, then, for the base game and enough figures to achieve 100% completion, comes to $201, or $182 if you still have one of your old Giant figurines.
Is Skylanders Swap Force actually any good?
In a word, yes. Skylanders was never broken, so it didn't need fixing, but Swap Force represents a healthy evolution for a winning formula.
The biggest change is the addition of jumping, which adds a surprising amount to gameplay. In previous games, big battles were strictly two-dimensional affairs, but jumping adds a whole new dimension to the action. Rather than simply dodging enemy attacks, you now also have to jump over some of them, which makes the big fights all the more frantic.
I have never been a fan of the previous games in the series, as the gameplay always felt quite shallow to me. Swap Force has made a convert of me, though, partly through the new opportunities afforded by jumping, and partly because the development team has obviously just put a lot of work into making it fun to play.
Also surprising was how challenging it is. While it starts off easy enough, tougher enemies are gradually introduced and the number of enemies in each battle creeps higher and higher. By about the six hour mark, I was dodging and leaping through crowds of enemies, with attacks coming from every direction. The optional challenge missions, arena survival mode, and other bonus levels are extremely hard, providing enough challenge for even seasoned adult gamers.
This is also the most polished-looking Skylanders yet. It's always been quite a good looking game, but Swap Force absolutely nails the "interactive Pixar film" aesthetic. Even minor scenery items like crates and trees have been created with loving attention to detail, and the major setpieces like vehicles and large characters are simply gorgeous.
It's also very entertaining, with the expected stellar voice cast full of familiar-sounding actors delivering a script that's snappy and fun, if not exactly deep. It's rarely laugh out loud funny, but it's clever enough to raise a few smiles.
Best of all, there is a staggering amount of content. Parents need not worry that their kids will have this one polished off by dinner time on Boxing Day - Swap Force features at least a dozen hours of main story (with immense replayability to achieve 100% completion) plus many hours of time challenges, arena battles, bonus levels, and more.
I would expect the average family to get at least 40 hours of fun out of Swap Force, and probably a lot more. It can be a substantial outlay to get started, but it works out to be surprisingly good value considering the diversity of experience it offers and the sheer amount of content.
It's not perfect, however. The fixed camera feels like a relic from video game history - even after playing for many hours, I was still moving the right control stick and expecting to shift the camera. It just feels weird to have a locked camera in a modern game like this, and the fixed angles can sometimes make it difficult to see what you're doing.
My main issue with Swap Force is just how much it nags you to buy more figurines. While you can have plenty of fun playing with just the starter pack, without paying for any additional toys at all, the game is constantly reminding you that if you don't have enough figures, you're missing out on content.
I'm a gamer who likes to see everything in a game, and having to walk away from a locked door because I don't have the right kind of character to open it is frustrating. Clearly this is a system designed to sell toys, but I wish they were a little more subtle about it. If you're a parent buying this for your kids, expect some requests for more figures, but never forget that they will only ever unlock optional content - the base game can be played from start to finish without any extra purchases.
That said, different characters really do play quite differently. Their various movements speeds, weapons, special attacks, defences, and dodge speeds mean that every character feels very distinct. Switching characters does not feel like simply loading a new skin over the top of the same gameplay. The Swap Force characters add even more variety, as you can mix top halves and bottom halves to get the movement and weapons that work best for you.
Overall, then, a somewhat cautious recommendation. I had a lot of fun with Swap Force, but I had the benefit of Activision sending me a bunch of figures, in addition to my leftover Giants figures from last year. if you're on a tight budget, expect some frustration at how much of the game is locked off, but you can still have a great time with it.
Probably the highest accolade I can give this game is to say that it made me completely forget about Grand Theft Auto V for a dozen or so hours, which is no mean feat.
Skylanders Swap Force is available from today on PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Wii, Wii U, and 3DS, and come November it will also be available for the new Xbox One and PlayStation 4.
Addendum: There is an error in the above article. I stated that gates in the game that are locked by dual-element doors require a combination of two Swap Force characters of the correct types. I have now been informed that these doors can be opened by two players in multiplayer, each using a character of one of the two required types. These can be characters from previous games. I apologise for this error.
- James "DexX" Dominguez
DexX is on Twitter: @jamesjdominguez