There is something special about the first time you see a Skylanders toy come to life. A plastic figure is transported into your game and becomes a walking, talking video game character.
Toy-based peripherals for video games have been around for a while; starting with the first Skylanders release Spyro’s Adventure in 2011. Since then, Disney has launched Disney Infinity as their claim for the plastic toy crown.
Activision’s latest release, Skylanders Swap Force, has a lot to prove as the previous game, Skylanders Giants, left fans wanting more. With the series annualised, the sequel to Spyro’s Adventure was limited in scope, offering little gameplay innovation and a patchy narrative.
Fortunately, with this realised, development of Skylanders Swap Force was handed to veteran Activision studio Vicarious Visions who have delivered the best Skylanders game to date.
Swap Force is Vicarious Vision’s first original console Skylanders game (they did develop the Wii U port of Skylanders Giants), having cut their teeth on the rather excellent 3DS version of Skylanders Spyro’s Adventure.
Aside from the new Swap Force characters, the most obvious mechanical difference is the ability for Skylanders to jump. This has always been a key component of 3DS series, and Vicarious Visions have successfully replicated their platforming pedigree in Swap Force’s gameplay.
While a number of different types of Skylanders have been introduced over the course of the series (such as the Lightcore range and the Giants), the Swap Force Skylanders are the first to offer entirely new gameplay in the series, adding eight new Swap Force abilities to the existing eight elements.
As the story goes, the Swap Force were the special forces of Skylands, who in their attempt to thwart an evil plan to destroy the source of all magic, where torn in two. Imbued with the ability to divide in half, figures are connected by magnets and can be mixed and matched with other Swap Force figures to create new characters.
Swap Force figures have two-part names (one for each part of the figure), so mixing toys Magna Charge with Wash Buckler creates Magna Buckler and Wash Charge. The sixteen announced Swap Force figures provide 256 possible combinations, each with their own personality and abilities.
Swap Force abilities are tied to the bottom half of the figures (indicated by an icon on the base) and include bounce, sneak, rocket, spin, speed, climb, dig and teleport. All the Swap Force abilities are distinct and offer a great way to mix up play. Tops and bottoms of Swap Force figures have alternate upgrade paths, with attacks mapped to different buttons, offering even more player choice for character customisation. Want a robot torso with tentacle legs? No problem. Want to swap those tentacle legs for rocket boosters? Go nuts.
Importantly, Skylanders Swap Force continues Activision’s commitment to forward compatibility, with all Skylander characters, set pieces and power ups from previous games able to be used in Swap Force. The level cap for characters has again been raised, meaning there is reason to revisit old favourite figures from Spyro’s Adventure and Giants in Swap Force levels. Gates and treasure chests specific to Giants figures have also been included in Swap Force.
All Skylanders level considerably faster than previous games, on more than one occasion I swapped in a fresh level 1 figure that hit level 4 at the end of a moderately challenging enemy battle. It’s clear the developers really want players to spend as much time in game as possible, with more XP and gold bonuses on offer.
You’ll want to revisit the levels of Swap Force to upgrade your Skylanders, but also because the detail, quality and complexity of the world and is above and beyond anything in previous Skylanders games. Levels are very long, with expansive areas across a variety of starkly different environments. Some levels took me well over an hour to complete, and exploration is rewarded with some great treasures tucked around the level.
The ultimate upgrades for each Skylander are hidden in the form of Soul Gems. Finding these unlocks a short trailer to help sell the player on the character, and advertise a new figure for their collection.
Each level is well differentiated, including a wild west themed township inhabited by land sharks and an ancient museum under siege where Skylanders fight alongside frost elves. In the tundra level, dinosaur skeletons are half frozen in glaciers, and huge blocks of amber hold different species of bugs and animals. It’s an extraordinary level of detail.
Elemental gates require you to use a specific type of Skylander to access certain areas, encouraging players to switch Skylanders mid level. The new Swap Force challenge gates are based on ability type. This does mean you will need one figure of each Swap Force type to see the whole game, but this isn’t anything new to Skylanders fans.
Swap Force challenges get progressively harder, and are some of the most challenging content in game. Complete a Swap Force challenge and it will be available in the hub world to be played later. Each challenge is very different and plays to the strengths of the Swap Force ability.
Dual element gates require either two Skylanders of different elements to access the area, or one mix-matched Swap Force figure. Drop in drop out co-op returns, and arena battles now include team challenges to further encourage players to share their Skylanders experience.
In a welcome change, the Skylanders base of operations is located in a new part of Skylands known as the Cloudbreak Islands. Swap Force sees the return of an evolving hub world that expands and populates as the adventure progresses. A welcome change from the restrictive hub offered in Skylanders Giants.
Players are encouraged to explore the hub world between levels, as secret treasure troves replenish and allow you to upgrade your Skylanders’ powers.
In previous Skylanders games, legendary treasures provided additional gold, but in Swap Force these can also be used to provide buffs for Skylanders such as bonus XP, gold, luck, damage and damage resistance.
Aside from upgrading your Skylanders, Swap Force allows the Portal Master (the player who controls the Skylanders) to level up. Completing levels and challenges earn stars that increase the Portal Master rank. In turn this unlocks new items in the game stores for purchase. The more levels a Portal Master gains, the more buffs they can utilise for their Skylanders.
Swap Force wants you to spend lots of time in its world, providing enough incentive to return again and again. The Skylanders series demonstrates accessible games don’t have to be dumbed down for a younger audience, and Swap Force successfully caters to kids big and little. As the current console generation draws to a close, Skylanders has successfully leveraged the tail end of an era, and Swap Force stakes a claim on the next.
It’s very easy to dismiss the whimsical art style, collecting and platforming as a game for kids, but dig a little deeper and you’ll find a lot to like about Swap Force. Skylanders will be an influential series in years to come and successfully combines real world collectables with a fantastic platformer to deliver a rich and engaging experience.
The Author: Paul "Hoops" Houlihan is host of The Fourth Player Podcast. Connect with Paul on Twitter at @paulyhouly