Skylanders: Swap-Force Review

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Another year, another Skylanders! There’s something about the Skylanders franchise that has its fangs sunk into this gamer in his mid-twenties. Growing up I collected a lot of action figures from various cartoons that I found myself engrossed in. Those years of playing with toys stuck with me a lot more than the “adult stuff” I currently partake in. Maybe that’s why I find myself gladly shelling out every penny I can scrounge up for each Skylanders game and every additional figure the series has to offer – because it makes me feel like a kid again.

After Disney Infinity left me in an empty-hearted and crestfallen state, my anticipation for Swap Force remained. I believed the Skylanders series would be able to show Disney how it’s done and make me feel a connection to the wallet-molesting genre of video games once more. Skylanders hasn’t let me down yet, so will Swap Force continue the ritual or fall to Disney Infinity’s “laziness pays off” disposition?

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Skylanders: Swap Force (Xbox 360 [Reviewed], 3DS, PS3, PS4,  Wii, Wii U, Xbox One)
Developer: Toys For Bob (PS3, Xbox 360) / Vicarious Visions (PS4, Xbox One) / n-Space (3DS)
Publisher: Activision
Release: October 13, 2013 (PS3, Wii, Wii U, Xbox 360 ) / November 15, 2013 (PS4, Xbox One) / November 2013 (3DS)
MSRP: $74.99 (Starter Kit)

Let me begin by stating that the story in Skylanders has never been meant to be taken seriously. It’s a Saturday morning cartoon in video game form; and I absolutely adore it for its wackiness. With that said, the entire premise behind of the existence of the Swap Force Skylanders is beyond stupid. A volcano-tornado gave a team of special Skylanders the gift of swapping legs. Uh, yeah; that’s not shoehorned in at all! At least the Giants were interesting and distinguishable from the regular Skylanders. The Swap Force figures stand barely a faction higher than the regular Skylanders in-game and out. In fact, you wouldn’t be able to easily pick them out of a Skylanders collection as vast as mine if you didn’t already know which were Swap Force figures. I’m not saying their height undermines their usefulness in the game, but they aren’t nearly as impressive as the Giants that came before them. Honestly, playing as them in the game doesn’t feel much different than playing as regular Skylanders, but the swapability allows players to pick and match the best combo of both Skylanders to go with their play style.

If you haven’t played a Skylanders game before, it could easily be called a “children’s Diablo fused with the collecting aspect of Pokemon.” The levels are very linear in their presentation but offer several opportunities to stray from the path and go exploring. In the past, exploring felt much more limited than it does in Swap Force because even Skylanders at max level were unable to jump to areas they should be able to easily access. It’s my pleasure to exuberantly confirm that jumping is no longer exclusive to environmental jump pads! This may be one of the most overlooked features in Swap Force, but I found it to be one of the more substantial additions to the Skylanders formula. Not being able to jump off the ground is an obtuse inclusion in a platformer, so it was prominent that Vicarious Visions recognized this and made the much needed change. Toys for Bob may have brought the Skylanders universe to life, but it looks like Vicarious Visions will be the ones refining it into what it’s meant to be.

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New elemental gates are scattered across the world.  Naturally, Skylanders can only open them if they are of the matching element. Since swapping elemental Skylanders is this year’s gimmick, you’re going to have to swap them to the matching two elements to open these gates. As always, nothing behind these gates are substantial enough to feel cheated out of it if you don’t want to invest further in the franchise, but they do serve as fuel for those of us with obsessive “Gotta Acquire ‘em All” personality disorders.

Another type of gate linked to Swap Force figures are various challenge gates. Unlike their elemental cousins, the challenge gates are a little more interactive and varied, as they include a range of minigames that are linked to the bottom half of Swap Force members. Skylanders with rocket feet will race through rings in the sky while Skylanders with tentacle feet will find themselves climbing a vertical obstacle while avoiding falling rocks. These minigames are simplistic and will profoundly annoy some players, but the variety is nice to break up the hustle and bustle of the main gameplay. Although, the main gameplay is still the star of Swap Force.

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Skylands has received a face lift, making Swap Force the first HD Skylanders game to date – and the upgrade really shows. The entire visual presentation of Swap Force feels like it’s ripped straight out of a CG Saturday morning cartoon and that compliments the craziness of the story to unprecedented levels. The Skylanders feel more alive with personality than ever before. Even with the supplement of new features and face lift, Swap Force remains very much the same game as both of the previous Skylanders titles, so don’t go into Swap Force expecting anything more than a refined gameplay experience with a new story driving you forward.

Unfortunately, all the refinement and added features weren’t added without additional issues presenting themselves. To play Giants after Spyro’s Adventure, all you needed to do was buy the base game and at least one new Giant figure. The original portal worked fine, so the new Starter Kit was not forced upon you. Since the original portal worked for both games, it was a safe assumption that a new portal wouldn’t be a necessity for Swap Force, but sadly that is not the case. Upon launching the game with an old portal attached, an alert prompts you to unplug the outdated portal and to plug in the brand-spanking new portal that comes in the Swap Force Starter Kit. The inability to use the old portal of power from previous iterations will be sure to induce headaches for gamers buying the base Swap Force game with the intention of saving some money and using their existing portals. Also, the fact there’s no wireless portal of power yet for the console version is very disappointing, especially after this involuntary upgrade. Why should only the subpar and severally underplayed iOS games get to enjoy an untangled mess?

 

In spite of my displeasure toward the concept of the Swap Force, I’m actually surprised in the quality of the physical figures. Instead of snapping together by some cheap plastic tab, they actually connect by magnets. These magnets are astonishingly strong and hold both halves to one another with a great amount of power. The “snap” heard when the two snap together is surprisingly satisfying to hear and just might be the best part of using the Swap Force figures.

Despite some of the flaws in its execution, Swap Force is a step in the right direction for the Skylanders franchise and gives fans high hope for what’s to come. Despite taking the backseat and only handling low-level ports for past Skylanders games, Vicarious Visions seem to have learned a thing or two and surpassed the masters in creating a truly immerse version of Skylands, making Skylanders: Swap Force the best entry in the Skylanders series to date and a must have for fans of all ages.

Rating Banner 4-5