It’s no secret that collecting and gaming go hand in hand — how else can you explain the popularity of special editions of games that come with physical content as well as toys and figurines? Taking this into account, it’s no wonder that the Skylanders series has become so popular and successful since its inception just two years ago. Following in the footsteps of those that came before it, Skylanders: Swap Force brings collectable figures to life in an all-new action pack adventure.
Three console games into the series and most gamers know exactly how the Skylanders formula works. By placing character figurines on a USB device called the Portal of Power, players can choose which Skylander they want to take control over. Each character can be individually levelled up to their cap – which has been raised to 20 in this new title – and new abilities can be purchased for the characters as well. Completing certain tasks such as finding all of the items hidden in a stage or using characters from each of the eight elements will still earn you stars that collectively grow your Portal Master level. What sets Swap Force apart from previous Skylanders games is the titular Swap Force. In the lore of the game, certain Skylanders were caught in a volcanic eruption that allowed them to split their bodies in half and combine with other heroes. Anatomical anomalies aside, it makes for a great game mechanic and encourages player creativity.
The figures themselves are connected at their middle by strong magnets, ensuring that losing one half of a character won’t happen nearly as often as most parents might fear. Joining two figures together not only combines their elements and abilities, but it also creates an entirely new character. Combining the top half of water elemental Wash Buckler with the bottom of fire elemental Blast Zone creates the water/fire character Wash Zone, and so on and so forth. Combining Swap Force figures into new characters doesn’t simply allow for more varied gameplay, but it also makes crossing through elemental gates a breeze. Although many of the gates are marked by a single element, some require a Skylander of two different elements to enter. While these gates can be opened by multiple players each representing the required elements, single players using swapped characters can make it through just as well.
Beyond the swapping mechanic, Swap Force plays very similarly to previous console games in the series. While each individual stage encourages a limited amount of exploration, the majority of gameplay is mostly straightforward action adventure with ridiculously fun hack and slash combat. Each stage has a beginning and an end with the aforementioned elemental gates leading to divergent paths. Though these additional paths may take you out of your way to find extra treasures and collectables, they all end up spitting you back out on the singular route towards the stage’s end. There are some puzzles scattered throughout the stages that mostly consist of moving blocks or rotating gears to open gates, but as this is a game focused on younger gamers, none of the puzzles are exceeding difficult. Even with the game’s difficulty increased, enemies become stronger but the puzzles remain simple.
The controls here are standard for the genre, and within that framework they perfectly adequate. Your movement is controlled using the GamePad's left stick with attacks assigned to the face buttons. Everything is tight and responsive, making sure that some of the more intense brawls go smoothly without worry of clunky controls getting in your way. New to the series is the addition of a jump action that allows for both additional exploration on different platforms in stages as well as increased evasive opportunities in battles. Though jumping can't be inserted into your attacks to create more robust combos, the new functionality is a great way to dodge enemies and cancel your own moves in a pinch. Jumping adds a bit of fluidity to battles that simply can't be achieved when all you can do is attack and evade.
The GamePad's touchscreen functionality is put to good use as well, displaying information useful to the game instead of simply copying the on-screen action or showcasing the game’s logo. While in a stage, rather than having to pause and search through menus for character stats and mission information, everything is displayed right on the small screen instead. Tapping through mission objectives is simplified, making it easy to ensure you're on track for stage completion and perfection. The GamePad also supports off-television play — allowing you to play Swap Force entirely in your hands — and it looks crisp scaled down, too.
For those looking to play with a friend or family member, Swap Force features the series standard drop-in multiplayer. The Portal of Power still only supports up to two figures at a time though, so fans hoping for bigger adventuring parties will be sorely disappointed. Rather than enforcing a split screen when two players are on screen, your characters are instead bound together by a translucent tether that limits the distance you can place between one another. This functionality leaves just enough distance between both players that you can easily cover the ground in your current area, but one player or the other won't be able to charge ahead with reckless abandon. Whether intentional or not, this actually forces players to work together rather than compete with one another.
Swap Force does well in taking advantage of the Wii U's processing power to create a visually arresting and enticing experience. The graphical style may slant towards the cartoon-like side of the spectrum, but that doesn't stop this from being one of the best-looking games we've seen on Nintendo's next generation console. From the rich environments to the expressive character animations and majestic soundtrack, the Skylands come to life in ways that make you want to come back for more time and time again. All of the characters — including NPCs — are fully voice acted, adding even more impact to the excellent presentation. This game really does give the impression that you are playing in an interactive CGI film with all of its unique characters and lively locations.
In order to get the most out of this title you'll have to invest in additional Skylanders figures, but it's also true that Swap Force is a huge offering. Exploring each stage to its entirety and following every divergent path opens up hours of replayability, and that's not even mentioning the bonus missions and stages. As you work your way through the campaign and find hidden treasures, extra missions and mini-games become available outside of the campaign. Reaching certain goals in these extras also earn you stars, so anyone bent on becoming the ultimate Portal Master will be spending a lot of time outside of the campaign. It’s definitely a good thing.
Skylanders: Swap Force is the rare type of game that takes all of the elements from previous series entries and improves on them at every turn. Veterans are bound to love this new title, but it also serves as a perfect place to start for those new to the series. With tight controls, dynamic characters, beautiful presentation and incredibly fun gameplay, it’s little wonder that the series has come as far as it has in such a short amount of time. If you’re looking for family friendly fun that’ll last hours and hours even after the campaign is complete, then rest assured that Skylanders: Swap Force is well worth the investment — of course, just how much you're willing to invest depends on how badly you want to collect all of those eye-catching figures.