Skylanders: SWAP Force review
Skylanders SWAP Force costs money. Let’s get that out of the way right now. If you want to experience everything the game has to offer, you will need to buy more figures. There. Now that that’s out of the way, we can talk about the game itself. Skylanders Swap Force marks the return of Activision’s billion dollar franchise for its third entry in the series. All the leveling, looting, and platforming from the old games is still here, with a few great features added. Though this game is an improvement in many ways, there are still a few things holding it back from perfection.
If you haven’t paid any attention to the Skylanders series ever, allow me fill you in on the basic concept. Skylanders are mystical creatures who live in a place called “Skylands”. Through a curse put on them by Kaos–an evil overlord–they have been frozen into little statues and sent to Earth as banishment. It is then the player’s job as a portal master to put their Skylander figures on a “portal of power” (the portal accessory that comes with the game) to bring them back to life in Skylands, in order to fight Kaos. So, to recap: Kaos bad, Skylanders frozen, toys come to life, great fun is had by everyone.
The story specific to Swap Force is fairly simplistic, but there are enough twists–including one big character reveal–that make it feel fresh and fun to watch. Some of the writing can seem a little childish at times, but most of the predictable jokes are easily dismissed with a facepalm and a smile. In this game, Kaos is back with another plan to take over Skylands, this time wanting to harness the power of ancient elementals who gather for a ceremony to replenish all the magic in Skylands every one hundred years. This magical ceremony happens at a volcano located in a new area of Skylands called the “Cloudbreak Islands”, which are thankfully a lot more fun to explore than the environments in past games.
The “Swap Force” characters are a group of 16 Skylanders who got caught up in the eruption long ago. This eruption gave the ability to swap their top and bottom halves, making them able to combine their powers and abilities. This is the main draw of the new game, in which the physical characters in your living room can swap their tops and bottoms in order to be read by the portal as an entirely new Skylander. This new innovation requires a new portal of power to be purchased with the game–which is understandable–considering that it must now read both halves of a figure. Also, all previous Skylanders will work with this new game, so if you already have a collection going, you can rest easy knowing that they still have value.
If you’ve played a Skylanders game before, you probably have a pretty good idea of what to expect from Swap Force’s gameplay. You have a main hub where you can upgrade your Skylanders, buy hats, and move on in the story. The hub in this game is a huge improvement over the one in Skylanders Giants. Previously, it was the cramped deck of Captain Flynn’s ship, making everything run together, and feel really tiny. The hub in Swap Force is a forested area called Woodburrow. It’s big and spaced out, and has two teleporters that send you from one side to the other. It also features a little combat practice area to try out your Skylanders’ new upgrades, and see how much damage they are doing. There are a lot of other little secrets to find all around it, making it dynamic and giving it character.
It’s hard to explain, but against its predecessors, Skylanders Swap Force’s actual level gameplay seems much more refined. Most of the elements are still the same. You go through the level collecting treasure and defeating enemies along the way until you complete the main objective for the level. The variety in the levels is amazing. Lush jungles, arctic battlefields, and western cities are just some of the many environments your characters will be trooping through, which makes the levels more immersive than they’ve ever been.
The levels are also significantly longer now, with some taking me over an hour without even being able to do all the Swap Force Zones. Also, a popular fan request addition to the game is a jump button. Every single Skylander in existence now has the ability to jump, which is a new addition that opens up new puzzles and combat possibilities. This is kind of weird with characters that can fly though–because while flying–if they try to cross a gap that is meant to be jumped over, they’ll simply plummet down. While falling isn’t that big of a deal as you’re zapped back to the place from where you fell, it just seems strange that characters with the ability to fly still need to jump over gaps.
Another way they shake up the gameplay is with new “Swap Force Zones”, which require the new Swap Force characters. Each Swap Force character’s bottom half has its own movement type associated with it, such as dig, climb, or bounce. The Swap Force character that is using the required bottom must then complete a little mini-game, such as climbing up a wall and dodging falling debris, or blasting yourself through rings with rockets. It’s a fun little distraction from the rest of the level and you earn some good cash from it, letting you compare your score with your friends.
Similar to the Swap Force Zones are the elemental gates and dual elemental gates. Elemental gates require a Skylander of the corresponding element to open it (for example, a fire gate requires a fire Skylander). The Skylander will get healed if the area is of his element, and there is usually some kind of puzzle, battle, or mini-game to complete and win a hat or other collectible. The dual elemental gates are a little trickier. Let’s say you run into a fire and water elemental gate. There are two ways to open it. One is to have a water Swap Force Skylander swap a half with a fire Skylander and approach the gate. The other is to hook up a second controller, and have a Skylander of both elements in play. I’ve found that the second method is easier and cheaper, especially if you already have someone else in the player two spot. Luckily if you don’t, dropping in and out of gameplay is simple as placing a Skylander and pressing A.
In addition to swap zones, there is also a new form of lock puzzle in the game. Lock puzzles require the player to take control of two little electrical cubes named Zap and Bolt to solve puzzles that unlock doors to new areas. You move the two characters around the screen one at a time, trying to get them to meet and unlock the door. The puzzles are a fun distraction–if not a little easy–and provide a nice change of pace. There are other little mini-games, such as fishing, shooting, or rail grinding that come up periodically, keeping the game feeling varied and fresh.
In the form of collectibles, there are literally hundreds of things to find. Story Scrolls, charms, achievements, mission maps, hats, winged sapphires, and more. An interesting addition is “Portal Master Rank”, which is earned by getting achievements (yes, the Wii U version has in-game achievements). Each achievement has a star rating, 1-3, based on how hard it is to get. Every 6 stars or so your portal master rank will go up, allowing you to use charm pedestals scattered around the Woodburrow hub area, which give your characters permanent boosts in areas such as XP and treasure. It’s a nice little feature that makes achievement hunting meaningful, but the fact that some achievements are related to how many Skylanders you have detracts from its merit.
Graphics & Audio
The graphics in Skylanders Swap Force are stunning. Activision did a huge overhaul of the graphics engine, giving everything in the game a more realistic and immersive feel, even upgrading all old characters with a brand new look. The areas you travel through are all unique and memorable, with a lot of things going on around you, putting you right in the middle of the action. One level in particular has an entire war going on in the background, occasionally interacting with the player. With so much going on in the background of this level, I never noticed a dip in my framerate, which is worth mentioning.
The music in the game is great as well, setting a more mature tone than its predecessors, but still carrying a playful sounding tune that is reminiscent of the original Spyro the Dragon series. The music never feels out of place and always adds to the experience, rather than taking away.
As far as voice acting goes, it continues to be top notch with several voice actors reprising their roles from the original games. Patrick Warburton, Tom Kenny, Tara Strong, Billy West, and others make their voices heard, giving each character a very fitting voice. Richard Steven Horvitz–the man who voiced Zim in the TV series Invader Zim–voices Kaos and uses his Zim voice for it. This is probably the best voice in the game and never gets old.
However, the script leaves an awkward feeling in my stomach. On one hand, I really want to like it because of the voice actors. On the other hand, some of the jokes, references, slang, and catchphrases are a bit overplayed for the mature tastes. Every time you put a Skylander on the portal, they mouth off their catchphrase. Some of the characters are cool; most of them are not. There is also a lot of phrase repetition, especially in multiplayer modes and mini-games. You can turn voices completely off in the options (something my girlfriend made me do in the previous entry), but then you’re missing out on a terrific cast. I wish more effort had been put into neutralizing the script between the younger audience and the adult one.
There are two main multiplayer modes in Skylanders SWAP Force, outside of being able to play the entire story mode co-op. There is no online multiplayer in Skylanders SWAP Force.
Survival mode can be played alone, but there are 2 variations of it that require a second player and frankly, it’s more fun that way. Survival mode pits you against a horde of enemies in an arena type setting, where you must kill waves of enemies in order to score points and earn money/experience. Team Survival is a mode where you and your partner work together to clear the arena and combine your scores at the end. Rival Survival–my personal favorite–has two players working together to kill enemies, but they each have separate scores. The one with the highest score at the end wins. It gets pretty competitive without getting too serious, which I think is a perfect balance for this kind of game. Sadly, there’s no “fight till you drop” mode, which the name survival suggested to me and would’ve made the mode last a little longer than it currently does.
Versus mode pits two Skylanders against each other in a fight to the death. This mode has two variations: Ring Out and Arena Battle. Ring Out puts two Skylanders in a circular arena, repeatedly whacking each other to build up charge gauges. Once the gauge is full, your character will unleash a “super punch”, which will bop the opposing Skylander to the edge of the arena in an attempt to knock them off. Think 3D Smash Bros. This mode is great fun and the more balanced of the two. However, Arena Battle mode could use some work. The core idea of just having two Skylanders try to deplete each other’s health sounds safe enough, but when you have certain Skylanders who can heal and attack with pushback and range at the same time (looking at you, Flashwing), these battles can easily become one-sided. It’s a shame too, because this mode could have been superb had the balance been a little more even. Still, if you trust your friends to not be exploiters, there is fun to be had here as well.
The last multiplayer aspect does involve online play, but it’s not exactly what you’d think. Using your Wii U friends list, you can view your friends’ Skylander collection, achievement collection, hat collection, high scores, achievements, and their percent completions of levels. You can even select to wear a hat your friend has that you might not have gotten yet if you like the stat boosts it gives. While this online interaction is more social than competitive, it is a welcome and fun addition to the franchise.
Wii U Features
Off TV play. Just throwin’ that out there. I know how much you guys love it.
On a more serious note, during gameplay, the player using the GamePad is able to see the Skylander’s stats on the GamePad, which is an incredibly nice feature. If it weren’t for the second screen, you’d have to go through two menus just to see the Skylander’s stats. With their stats always at your fingertips, it’s a lot easier to decide if you want to put on the hat you just found, or keep your current one. There are two other panels, one for seeing your current progress in the level, and another showing leaderboards for the level with your friend’s stats on it. These are more for convenience than anything–but trust me–not having to pause the game and navigate menus to find the information you want is really handy.
The game can also be played with a Wii U Pro controller, Wiimote + Nunchuk and Wiimote + Classic Controller.
Skylanders SWAP Force has a lot of content to cover. This game is jam packed with things to do, and as long as your collection keeps growing you’ll find more and more things to to occupy your time. The main problem is the cost of growing your collection. Still, with the starter pack alone, you have a game that is polished, smooth, and a lot of fun to play. There are a few annoyances with multiplayer balance and the baffling flying issue, but all in all, Skylanders SWAP Force is a fun game that you shouldn’t turn your back on if you have the cash.
+ Ability to jump adds to a solid formula, and the level design is better than ever
+ A lot more to do after the story is complete
+ Swap Force characters add novelty, collectability, and strategy in a fun way
+ Amazing audio and visuals powered by a new graphics engine and a terrific voice cast
+ Convenient gamepad use
- It does cost a pretty penny to experience everything
- Some balance issues in multiplayer and no online play
- Flying characters don’t really “fly”
- Some of the dialogue really reminds you that this game is aimed at children