October 28, 2013
Sometimes you forget that Activision produce other games besides Call of Duty, and then you remember just how much money Skylanders has raked in during its short time on the market. Ostensibly a game that carried on the Spyro story, the series has become less about the titular purple dragon and more and more about the huge backlog of other characters that stand alongside him. Hidden amongst the bevy of merchandising opportunities is still a very solid kids game but one that seems to have become a touch more cynical. Skylanders Swap Force is the next entry in said series.
Things start off nicely enough, with a wonderful voice cast led by Patrick Warburton (who will always be Joe Swanson from Family Guy to me, or that guy from the Soarin’ ride at Disney) providing the backdrop for yet another quest against the evil Kaos, who belies his diminutive stature, lack of hair and bizarre face tattoo to do all the menacing things that villains like to do. Oh, and bring along his evil mother too. The voicework and cut-scenes are top notch and help to set the scene for exactly why some Skylanders are able to rip themselves in two and create new combinations. Hey, it’s contrived but at least the idea is fun and the figures are cool.
The plot sees our titular heroes called in to help round up four elemental guardians, while Kaos and mother dearest do their upmost to stop them. Please do not create a Skylanders-style drinking game for everytime someone utters the word Skylander though, as you’ll probably be unconscious after the intro. Yet even though the script is pretty thin, it gets the job done and Warburton’s enthusiasm for the role is wonderful to behold. The plot gives the creators the necessary excuse to visit a range of weird and wonderful locales and each of them is full to the brim with hidden nooks and crannies.
Long time Skylander fans can add their already mighty roster of heroes to the new figures that come bundled with the starter pack, so devoted followers will already have an army locked and loaded to make the challenge a little easier. In fact the game almost relies on that fact. Checkpoints in levels seem to be quite far apart and if all your Skylanders bite the dust (which can easily happen when younger kids are at the helm) then you can be booted back to the start of the level or even the last checkpoint. So those with more figures have an instant advantage, kind of like microtransactions but with figures that cost more. Veteran portal masters also get the advantage of extra pedestals to pop down attribute boosting treasures and extra items to buy in the stores, so it really does help if this isn’t your first Skylanders rodeo.
Gameplay is pretty straightforward for newcomers, and exactly the same for series veterans, except this time your Skylanders can jump. You place a Skylander on the portal and they pop up in-game ready for you to beat up enemies, jump across platforms and solve basic puzzles. The Swap Force posse add a novel twist to proceedings by allowing you to mix and match the abilities from their top and bottom halves, though it’s hardly game changing. However it does allow you access to a neat range of options and opportunities. Levels are often lengthy affairs, broken up with unique foes and a variety of styles. Locks that require you to guide a pair of energy bolts together, apple bobbing quests, on-rails shooter sections and clever boss battles all help to keep things fresh and interesting. Though, in truth, it’s nothing you haven’t seen before and some levels do tend to overstay their welcome as you are forced to repeat the same few mechanics and puzzles over and over until you finally reach your goal.
Combat is also kind of bland too, with most enemies only having one of two very obvious and scripted moves that you can easily dodge. The fact that the same foes often turn up in most levels, with a slight change of colour or ability, is also pretty tiresome and sometimes you’ll find yourself just skipping past them if you don’t need to stand and fight. Sure things should be easy enough for kids to master but at times you feel there should have been a bit more thought and diversity. The same goes for the platforming sections, as some of the Skylanders only seem capable of jumping mere inches which can make some sections exasperating for younger players. The old double jump technique may have become overused but it would have been ideal for a game like this that is aimed at the younger end of the market. Some jumps just seem a touch too fiddly and the game suffers as a result.
Then we come to the real bane of the game, at least for parents, with a ton of content being cleverly locked away behind gates that only certain Skylanders can open. Sure you can complete the game with the base set, but if you want to explore every nook and cranny then you are going to have to dig into your pockets and fork out for a ton of new figures. Some gates can be opened by Skylanders from older sets, but some require specific Swap Force combinations and the fact that you run into a locked area every few minutes soon gets wearisome. It’s like a constant, cynical, marketing message aimed to get kids to pester their parents for certain figures and, dammit, it works. Who doesn’t want to snag that last balloon animal, or that one treasure you missed? I know I do, and I really should know better.
The main quest is fairly lengthy and takes in seventeen levels full of hidden areas to explore, mini-games to play and secrets to find. You can also unlock bonus missions, such as returning a bunch of stolen eggs to their mother or beating up shield wielding enemies, and these are a good bit of fun as well as letting you level up your force at minimal risk. There are also the now requisite horde mode style arenas for you to tackle should you so desire. Though, annoyingly, each time you hop into a new mission you will have to sit through a recap, and slow moving wall of character chat or the next quest each time you land back in town. Start up the game again – wall of text. Bonus mission complete – wall of text. It’s like the game thinks you instantly forgot about the next story mission if you decide to do something else and feels obliged to slowly remind you of it.
It also doesn’t help that the achievement list is simply one of the worst we’ve seen in a long time, lacking any of the imagination and verve that makes up most of the levels. Pretty much the whole list revolves around completing the game in various modes and difficulties, with a few extra points for doing well in bonus missions and the arena. The fact you also have to complete the whole game no less than four times (once to unlock Nightmare, Time and Score attack then again on EACH of these modes) strikes us as extremely lazy. They could have done so much more.
Yet again Skylanders Swap Force is an ideal game for kids, full of interesting worlds to explore and discover with the obvious caveat that you will have to pay extra to see the whole game. Combat is sometimes a little dull and some jumping sections feel a little too tight, but that doesn’t overly distract from the wonderful presentation and a game that still offers plenty to see and do, though maybe a little more for those who have played previous titles. The Swap Force mechanic is a fun addition, while never feeling overly necessary, but at least it gives you yet another excuse to get more of those awesome figures, buff them up and set them lose. As a kids game Skylanders Swap Force is great fun, for everyone else it’s still entertaining but the constant marketing-style reminders of where you can and can’t go will get tiresome.
Some superb voice work and decent enough soundtrack help to create a wonderful sense of adventure. The lead characters give it their all and it really pays off.
The best looking Skylanders game by far, though too many enemy models are rehashed between areas which is a shame.
Still just as fun as ever, though the overly simplistic combat and jumping may not be as fun for older players. For kids though this is an ideal romp through magical lands.
The constantly locked off areas are a forcible and disappointing reminder of the need to spend more, and some of the actual levels feel like they are made up of the same section multiple times. Completing the levels won’t take too long but if you want to see more you’ll simply have to pay.
One of the worst lists in a long, long time. Basically requiring you to complete the game four times and with zero invention or variety.
Skylanders Swap Force is at its core a fun filled kids game with a penchant for clever in-game marketing. It would be nice to be able to experience 100% of the game right out of the box, but where is the money in that? Instead you will probably get a thoroughly enjoyable 60-70% of the game and if you decide to call it a day at that point you will have still had plenty of fun.