There is a common and unfortunate trend in video game development in which a great game is released on a home console, and then a vastly inferior version — or spin-off — is released as a portable title. Recent victims of this phenomenon include LEGO City Undercover: The Chase Begins and Sonic Lost World. While these shouldn’t be considered terrible ports, as they are mostly unique titles on varying platforms, it is safe to say that they aren’t up to snuff with what can be expected from the console counterparts. As you’re currently reading a review of Skylanders: SWAP Force for 3DS, you’ve probably already figured out that it’s the latest game to join the ranks of these other ill-fated colleagues.
The first thing that needs to be said is that no, Swap Force on the 3DS is not a terrible game. It may be flawed and much less fulfilling than the Wii U game of the same name, but it stands as a fun and ambitious platformer nonetheless. Using the same figures and formula as previous Skylanders games, SWAP Force allows you to take real world character figures and place them on a device known as the Portal of Power in order to use them as playable characters. To increase the portability of this peripheral-based title, it allows you to import all of your figures into the game and leave them logged in. Rather than having to place a figure on the portal and wait for them to load in each time you want to use them, once your Skylanders are imported into the game, switching between them is made simple by tapping the console’s touchscreen. Even the game’s characteristic swapping mechanic is performed on the lower screen, so creating new characters is streamlined as well.
Swap Force plays just as well as any 3D platformer on the 3DS should, with tight controls and precise collision detection in both movement and combat. Most of the combat involves button mashing with no emphasis on perfecting combos, but it’s undeniably fun to wipe out a horde of baddies with a levelled-up Skylander. Unlike the console release, the 3DS version of Swap Force has a strong emphasis on platforming rather than combat, leaving long stretches of stages without much action at all. Characters can still be levelled up and acquire new attacks, but with fewer brawls and the inclusion of a double jump, it opens the environments up to more adventure than action. That being said, the stages here feel even more linear than they do in the already straightforward Wii U version, offering fewer elemental gates to explore.
The campaign is divided up into 19 stages that span across seven different worlds. The environmental themes vary from world to world for unique-looking locales, but they all tend to feel the same once played. If you’re just playing through the campaign without venturing off through too many elemental gates, then the game can easily be completed in less than five hours. Its lifespan is extended by offering incentives for multiple runs through each stage, such as more stars to increase your Portal Master ranking and varying hats to collect, but this mostly feels superfluous and tacked on in order to lengthen an otherwise shallow experience. The campaign is fun while it lasts, but the stages are hardly original enough to truly warrant multiple plays from any gamers who aren’t over-obsessed with collection and completion.
Designed entirely as a single player experience, it’s a disappointment to see a complete lack of multiplayer here, whether it be co-op in the campaign or simply friendly combat in minigames. Despite the lack of any form of multiplayer gameplay, there is still a connection with other SWAP Force players on the 3DS through the console’s StreetPass feature. Should you pass another person playing the new game, their most recently used Skylander will become available in your game to play for one stage. As this character is very temporary, there is no way to level it up and increase his or her stats, but this does work as a good way to test out new figures that you might be interested in adding to your collection, assuming you can get the hits.
While all of the character models are designed well to compliment their real-world figures, the overall visual presentation here is a letdown when the console’s trademark 3D is turned on. Not only does everything have a graininess to it with jagged edges and visible pixels, but the frame rate also drops noticeably, causing choppy environments and character movement. It’s also apparent that the 3D effect does absolutely nothing to enhance the overall experience. There is minor depth added to the stages with the 3D on, but it mostly just slows down the frame rate and creates a frustratingly small sweet spot in which the action can be properly viewed.
If you do go ahead and decide to pick up Swap Force for 3DS, do yourself a favour and plug a pair of headphones into the console at least once. For as outstanding a soundtrack as this game boasts, the 3DS’s tiny speakers don’t do it any justice. The sound effects, on the other hand, can be a bit grating after a while, but a quick adjustment in the options menu will put the music volume at the forefront, adding an additional layer of splendour to the otherwise drab experience. When the soundtrack is the best thing a game has going for it, there should be absolutely no reason to let it go to waste.
Skylanders: Swap Force for the 3DS is a game that was clearly made with the best of intentions, but it ended up being bogged down by hardware limitations and a shortfall in content. While still a very worthy addition to the Skylanders lineage, it falls flat when compared too closely to its console counterpart. It’s undeniable that series fans will love playing as their favourite Skylanders in this new story, but it’s a hard sell for genre fans looking to jump in. If you own a Wii U then you’d be better off sticking with the superior home console release, but collectors seeking a straightforward platforming adventure could do much worse.