It may sound cynical, but with two power-selling titles and a colossal fan base, there seemed to be little incentive for Activision to innovate with its latest Skylanders instalment. After all, when it released last year, Skylanders Giants was essentially a copy n’ paste job with a range of slightly bigger, more expensive figures to buy. Aside from that minor albeit well-marketed addition, it brought very little to the table, apart from a looming sense of stagnation.
When announced earlier this year, SWAP Force yielded a brief pang of excitement. Sure, the swappable figures looked pretty nifty at the time but there was a genuine worry that Activision would continue to rest on its laurels. Thankfully, that isn’t case; where Giants felt rushed and under-developed, SWAP Force is progressive and much more fleshed out. Put simply, it’s the Skylanders sequel that fans deserve, building on just about every core aspect of the series.
Now, it’s easy to get hung up on the new range of SWAP Force figures but, in truth, the biggest change in this third instalment rests with its developer. Series pioneers, Toys for Bob, has handed the reins over to Vicarious Visions, the team which had previously worked on all of the Nintendo and mobile iterations of the series.
Straight off the bat, there is an immediate separation between SWAP Force and its predecessors: for a start, players can actually jump. It may sound trivial, especially to those who have avoided Skylanders in the past, yet it opens a number of avenues previously barred. Levels take on a greater sense of verticality without the need to stand on jump pads or elevators to access hard-to-reach areas. Jumping also allows for another series first in the form of platforming. Where previous Skylanders games felt like an endless, one-dimensional slog from one fight to another, SWAP Force is broken up thanks to a number of diversions and reflex-sensitive snippets of gameplay.
One core element that hasn’t been completely redone is combat. It still feels very basic, yet tweaks to character animations and a better variety of enemies helps to produce a better sense of parity, giving the combat experience greater feedback. No doubt Vicarious Visions would have liked to completely refresh the battle mechanics, but there is one, inherent limitation passed down by its predecessors: the Skylanders figures themselves.
Each figure has access to three basic attacks which are bolstered through purchasable upgrades. Therefore, to radically change the flow of combat, the studio would have to bar the use of older figures, all of which store information (level, experience, gear, gold) that is carried from game to game. Though having an in-depth combo system and varied movesets would have been ideal, combat in SWAP Force is still the best the series has to offer.
As for the SWAP Force figures themselves, they bring a refreshing albeit gimmicky new dynamic to the series. As the name suggests, you are able to break the magnetic toys into two halves and combine them with others. For example, the two starter figures, Blast Zone and Wash Buckler, can be swapped to create Blast Buckler and Wash Zone. Cheesy names aside, it’s a cool mechanic, allowing players to create hybrid move-sets of their own.
Like Giants and Skylanders of a specific element, SWAP Force figures have their own exclusive in-game areas. Instead of opening a new section of a level however, these gateways unlock intuitive mini-games that can be revisited at your leisure. The type of mini-game depends on the bottom half of your figure; Wash Buckler’s tentacles allow him to climb vertical walls whereas Blast Zone tackles a slew of aerial obstacle courses.
The singleplayer campaign alone is at least ten to twelve hours with a shed-load of replay value – even more depending on how big your collection is. The only downside to this is that individual levels are often 40 minutes to an hour long and can often outstay their welcome. Something which wouldn’t be so bad if SWAP Force allowed manual, mid-level saves.
When you aren’t taking on missions you’ll be free to explore Woodburrow, an evolving hub where you can buy upgrades, hats, and other items. From here you can also partake in arena and SWAP Force challenges, both of which (along with Accolades) provide a source of Stars. Collecting these will gradually boost your Portal Master level and open access to new gear. It’s a fairly robust system and one that makes sure you are rewarded for just about everything. Individual Skyalnders even have their own shopping list of achievements.
Another thing fans will pick up on is the visual overhaul. Spyro’s Adventure may have had some aesthetic charm but this soon wore off, Giants delivering the same mix of basic models and textures. If there’s one game SWAP Force can be compared to based on looks alone, it would be Ratchet & Clank: A Crack In Time. A rich palette of colours is spread across swathes of updated, shinier character models and diverse environments. The cutscenes are particularly well done, too.
SWAP Force is in many ways a surprise. It remedies a raft of the series’ biggest issues whilst adding its own twists. Still, if you’re looking for a cost effective time-sink, there are dozens – if not hundreds – of alternatives. With that said, Skylanders was the first to popularise the toy/game hybrid and hopefully, with a little pressure from Disney Infinity, prices will gradually become more competitive.
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