Skylanders SWAP Force is way, way better than it has any right to be

Skylanders SWAP Force is way, way better than it has any right to be

The Skylanders franchise is a pretty major cash grab. The game is targeted at families, it’s touched nearly every major console, and the use of toys as characters ensures that fans will be paying $10 or more for each new character. Think of it like DLC that you can display on your desk.

The amount of money Activision has made from the Skylanders series of games is hard to imagine, and it’s turned the publisher into a powerful force in toys as well as games. Go to your local toy store or electronics retailer and see how much shelf space is given over to Skylanders toys, games, or accessories. This is the kind of transmedia property that companies dream about; a way to wring money out of players on an ongoing basis.

That’s the cynical point of view, at least. The truth is that while certain aspects of Skylanders SWAP Force are clearly designed to sell more toys, there is more game, and that game is of a much higher quality than it has to be. Activision and Vicarious Visions certainly want to sell you toys, but they also want to show you a real good time while they’re doing it.

Swappin’ it out

The SWAP Force characters themselves bring one of the biggest changes to the game. These toys are made up of top and bottom halves that can be pulled apart and combined with each other to create new characters. So let’s say I’m playing with Free Ranger, and I combine the top of that character with the bottom of Blast Zone. This creates a whole new character, named Free Zone.

This opens up a ton of new game play possibilities, not to mention that it’s just fun to mix and match characters. The top half mostly determines how you fight, while the bottom half controls how you get around. So if you have a snake who usually bounces around on his tail, you can swap his top with another bottom to make him fly around on a cloud.

The levels and cash you earn as you play in each character is kept in the top half, although you can buy upgrades with in-game currency for both the top and the bottom. The toys are held together with small but powerful magnets, and it’s great fun to break them apart and play around with different combinations of tops and bottoms to find goofy new characters. The game launches with 16 SWAP Force characters, and you get two with the starter set, although that actually means you have four possible characters to play with once you swap the pieces.

But it gets more complicated! There are eight kinds of SWAP Force characters, and each one opens special challenges in the world. The problem is that certain toys haven’t been released yet, so it’s impossible to play all of the game at launch, even if you buy every available toy. Each SWAP Force character has one of these eight attributes, and also has an element attached to it. You’ll need some combination of figures that includes at least one of each to see the entire game.

So let’s look at Trap Shadow. He’s a stealth SWAP Force character, and his element is Magic. So he can open any portal that requires stealth or magic, and if a section of the game requires both magic and earth, you can swap the top or lower part of the figure to open it up, or you could add an earth element Skylander to your game in co-op. It’s simpler in action than it sounds on paper, and once things get rolling you’ll find yourself digging through your collection of toys to find the right combinations or elements to see everything there is to see.

Every Skylander released works with SWAP Force, and you’ll need a pretty substantial variety of toys, including at least one giant, to see and collect everything. SWAP Force also requires a new portal, which is kind of a drag. I have stacks of these things in my office from buying or reviewing all the past releases.

The game itself

The toys are fun, well designed and sculpted, and my kids have just as much fun playing with the figures as they do the video game itself. The ability to create their own combination of figures has only added to that. Still, this is meant to be a video game, so is it fun?

Vicarious Visions has added the ability to jump, something that was in the previous portable versions of the game and was sorely needed in the main product, and the result is some light platforming that adds a nice vertical aspect to the game play and a new level of complexity to boss fights. The game itself looks much nicer than previous games, and no longer seems like a refugee from the last generation of hardware. The levels themselves are massive and filled with secrets, optional areas, minigames, and challenges.

In fact, you’ll want to carve some time out if you want to sit down and get everywhere; it can take upwards of an hour to clear each level, especially if you’re being thorough and trying to do and see everything. The game itself feels like a family friendly version of Gauntlet at times, although you’ll also go fishing, solve puzzles, find hats, level up your characters, and help out the local townsfolk. SWAP Force does a good job of throwing in a variety of things to do, and I wont spoil some of the surprises and fun details.

It’s the kind of game that’s great for families, and if you crank the difficulty up even jaded gamers will find some challenge. There are waves of enemies to attack with your character, and each Skylander moves and fights in such a distinct way that it’s fun to try them all out and find your favorite.

This becomes even more enjoyable as you level up each toy to unlock new abilities and powers, and the game helpfully tells you how much damage you’re dealing with every hit so you can check out your progression or see if wearing that hat that adds 10 percent more damage to every hit is worth giving up the hate that gives you 5 percent more health.

The core game itself is great fun, and there are so many things to find and do in each level that it’s going to be impossible to finish each one completely the first time you play, giving you many good reasons to go through again with a friend to find everything, gaining new levels for your characters as you go. Co-op has been improved so that gold and experience is now shared, making it more of an enjoyable experience and less of a competition.

The fact that your progress is kept on the toy means that you, or your kids, can bring their favorite characters over to a friend’s house and gain more levels or cash without having to import their saved game, and anything they earn on another person’s system will be helpfully saved on the toy itself and returned to their main game when they come home. Each figure isn’t just a character, they also work as their own memory sticks.

Better than you'd think

All of this madness adds up to a game that's incredibly enjoyable on a number of levels. Some players may not be interested in buying into the idea of toys as content, and the price can get high rather quickly, but buying toys that add such interesting and fun characters in the game feels more real than the ongoing cost of many free-to-play games.

You're actually buying a product here instead of just paying money to get ahead, and swapping out the pieces to make new combinations or bringing in a new character to help with a boss fight is fun, especially if you're playing with your kids. This is the best Skylanders game yet, and I can't wait to keep playing.