Skylanders: Swap Force is a game with a rich history behind it. We have to admit that back in 2011 when Activision invited us to interview Alec Sokolow and Joel Cohen, the two ex-Toy Story scriptwriters who penned the first Skylanders game, Spyro's Adventure, we loved what they had to say but were in two minds about the game itself. A videogames company was entering the toy market – a toy market that had already seen many new character franchises fall at the first hurdle.
Even the idea seemed perhaps a little convoluted for parents to understand. You collect figures that, once placed on a "portal" connected up to a games console can zap that character into the game. Fun? Yes. Conventional? No. Parents love convention at Christmas time.
Or so we thought. Skylanders has been a massive success and rightly so. Headed up by the latest title, Swap Force, not only have the toys developed further, to great effect, but so too has the game. Is it a title that bridges the adult-kid gap to be one universal success?
The Sky's the limit
Like with franchises such as Moshi Monsters and Pokemon, kids are so into Skylanders that they can name every character whether they own them or not. There are now books, T-shirts, cuddly toys based on the non-cuddly toys and much much more. It is a beautiful blend of tech meets toy and even adults get it now.
Many reviews of the new entry into the franchise will no doubt have been written by parents who have watched their children play it. They might have had a brief dabble, but ultimately they will watch from afar to see if their kids get it. Sadly, we didn't have that opportunity – apart from our two-year-old occasionally swapping the characters out whenever they were needed most. Instead, we played the game as if it were any other and we had a total blast – which could be a name for one of the Skylanders, as it happens.
If you've played Ratchet & Clank or one of the Sly Cooper games you'll find Swap Force familiar if a little more forgiving in difficulty. One of biggest changes over previous Skylanders games is that it introduces jumping and platform mechanics and they are certainly to its benefit and why it invokes the spirit of the classic cartoony platformers.
The other biggest introduction in the title, it introduces the ability to “swap”. This is not like you might remember from school with Panini football stickers, baseball cards or communal diseases, but instead with some of the physical toy characters themselves.
The Skylanders toys have always come with an RFID chip in their bases to interacts with the portal connected to the console, telling it which character is in play, but now 16 Skylanders come in two parts – a top and bottom. Those parts can therefore be swapped out, interchanged with other parts and new characters made from the upper part of one and the posterior of another. They retain the powers of each respective part and can ultimately lead to 250 combinations. Very cool.
Like with series 1 and series 2 figures, the new Swap Force collection – which also includes non-swapping Skylanders – also contain chips that store power-ups, hats and other boosting elements earned in-game. That means you... we mean your kids, obviously, can take them around to someone else's house and carry on playing with an already powered-up character. It also works across devices, so it doesn't matter if they own a different console. Swap Force is available for Xbox 360, Playstation 3, Wii U, Wii, and is even penned in for Xbox One and Playstation 4 later down the line. There's also a Nintendo 3DS version, but this isn't compatible with the portal which is a bit of a shame.
Anyway, it's this sharing and swapping aspect where Skylanders works at its best, and Swap Force specifically. The story and non-player characters in the game are excellent – bonkers, granted, but friendly and very cartoon series-esque. The graphics too have been much improved over Spyro's Adventure and Giants, being at times better than games with much more of a reputation among hardcore gamers. But it is the ability to power-up and improve your own Skylanders that not only makes you want to play through with multiple figures, but even multiple times.
The game is cleverly set-up to encourage this. There are rewards that really can only be achieved on a second or third play of the same mini-game or level – it’s like the Lego platformers in that respect.
Dreams and nightmares
The hardest difficulty level, Nightmare, has to be earned and unlocked. This fact is a bit of a shame for more seasoned gaming types, as even the Hard level can be too easy for those over 10-years of age at times, but you should never knock the importance of replay value. Even our interest in Grand Theft Auto V - something the kids certainly won't be playing - has waned after we completed the single-player campaign.
The other benefit of a power-up or role-playing element is that you get to see and use increasingly more spectacular combat moves with whatever Skylander characters you choose to play with. Of course, this is also, perhaps, Swap Force's weakest feature too.
Like with all the Skylanders games, the more figures you own the better the gameplay experience will be. And they cost money.
With the starter pack version of the game, priced at around £52 in the UK or $75 in the US, you get a brand new, slimmer portal than was supplied with former iterations, and three new characters in the box. Two of them are Swap Force figures, so you can check out the funkiness of chopping and changing them, while the other is just a regular Skylander. See how that makes number three sound like old hat already?
You get Wash Buckler, Blast Zone and the series 3 version of Stealth Elf, but there are many others to collect. In addition, as much of the in-game mini-games and content is locked to certain elemental powers and, in some cases, specific Swap Force combinations, unless you have a decent sized collection you will never see all the game.
That's kind of clever and kind of annoying - here's hoping kids communicate with one another about which figures to buy so they can unlock as much as possible between them, and be a little lighter on the wallets of the greater good.
It's a system that's caught on elsewhere, though, with Disney pushing out an Infinity title and starter pack in much the same vein, albeit with its own Disney-based characters.
READ: Disney Infinity review
But that's not to say the game can't be completed without lots of toys. It can from just the starter pack. It's just that the game is quite overt in its quest to get kids to put Skylanders figures on their Christmas lists. And plenty of them. At times, through collectable in-game Soul Gems, there are even adverts for Skylanders that they don't own.
Where you sit with that philosophy determines how you will ultimately feel about the game and franchise. But we're comfortable with it. As plenty of us here at Pocket-lint are parents we know only too well the toy companies' strategies. It's not as though Skylanders is unique in its strategy. Just look at the Thomas the Tank Engine range, or Barbie, or Power Rangers, or Transformers, or… you get the picture. At least with Skylanders you get a cracking game to go with the collectable toys.
And Activision has ensured that the game is backwards compatible too. You or your kids can use all of the toys from both Spyro's Adventure or Giants, so there may already be an existing collection of characters to choose from already. Plus, they all retain the power-ups and bonuses gained in previous instalments. That's a nice touch.
Nobody should underestimate the appeal of Skylanders: Swap Force. It may not be the best game you will play this year, but it could very well be your kids' favourite. And, to be honest, when they've gone to bed we reckon that you'll sneak back to have a play of it for yourself.
Thankfully you get three save slots to set up different games through the Story Mode so they won't even know you've been playing with their pride and joys. Who knows, you might enjoy it so much you'll build your own Skyland island out of cereal boxes and toilet roll tubes and make up little stories involving the toys outside of the game. Not that we do that ourselves. Erm.
Skylanders: Swap Force is a force to be reckoned with. It's a lot of fun, it's vast and the new "swap" mechanic makes it a more exciting concept than its predecessors. Collecting all the toys might add up in cost, but you don't have to buy them all to get plenty out of the gameplay.