Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure, released in 2011 (it seems so long ago, and yet . . . isn’t), took the incredibly obvious and yet never before attempted step of merging toys and videogames into one hodgepodge of entertainment.
Aimed simultaneously at kids’ hearts and parents’ wallets, the idea was simple; buy the game and a special peripheral, and you can teleport the (sold separately) toys into the game world. That “sold separately” bit is key; you get a couple of toys in the box, but that’s just the start - if you want to play every aspect of the title, you’re going to need to buy a bunch of the toys and they’re not cheap - up to $27 each, with advanced sets going for as much as $40 (depending on what’s in the box.)
Skylanders SWAP Force, the third in the main series of games (there have been some on iOS, too), doesn’t stray too far from the basic “platform action” formula. The key differentiations are a new class of figures that can actually split in half and merge with other (similarly capable) figures, and - wait for it - the ability to jump. Oddly, you couldn’t do that before, but now you can - and it’s great. This one feature makes the game feel much more at home in the genre, happily taking its place alongside the likes of Ratchet & Clank or Spyro the Dragon in terms of “platformy” feel.
The “action platform” description really only partly describes the game. In reality, it’s actually an action-RPG for kids; you find loot, level up, and even have to choose specifications for your characters, forever locking them to one particular skill tree. If you’re worried it sounds complex, don’t be; it’s executed incredibly well and fits the action perfectly.
Previous Skylanders games, in my opinion, have stuck too rigidly to their “design for the kids” instructions from Activision central, resulting in games that lead you around like an idiot and lead little room for emergent gameplay. Not so with SWAP Force; here, while the game does still make it clear how to proceed, it’s forced down your throat much less, and there’s plenty of opportunity to explore and find new things to do.
In addition to the core, narrative-driven story aspects, there are loads of arena modes (the wave-based survival mode will be familiar to anyone who’s played a “horde” mode in another game, and it’s great fun here), side quests, and collectables to track down - participating in all of this stuff helps to level the player character (called a “portal master”, and separate to the leveling and upgrading of your Skylanders toys), which further feeds back into the addictive nature of the constant improvement.
Another thing that’s impressive and keeps things interesting is the variety; the game seems to find the perfect balance between giving you things you’ve perfected to demonstrate prowess in, and mixing in new mechanics that keep things fresh. As a result, you can have some seriously intense encounters and experiences, without ever feeling like you’ve seen it all before. You’ll be firing cannons, running up walls, grinding on rails - even fishing, and it never gets tiresome, which is good news as there’s heaps of game here to play.
To get access to it all, however, you’ll need to buy plenty of the toys; even if you already have a pile of ‘em, there are loads of areas (like the new challenge zones) that you can only access with the SWAP characters that are new to this edition of the game. If you’re the type that isn’t satisfied unless you 100% a game, either get yourself involved in a group you can share figures around with or… gird your loins, as the sky really is the limit when it comes to spending money on this one.
Fortunately, the characters (I only have the starter characters from all three Skylanders console games, so that’s all I can really speak to) all feel fun and different to play, and all have their own strengths and weaknesses. The hats you can equip them with, too (and there are HEAPS of them), have a great combination of helpful stats and hilarious looks that will have you thinking hard about which one you choose for which Skylander.
It also - finally - looks really good, often rivaling a decent cartoon in terms of visual charm and enthusiasm. There are loads of characters but none seem to have been cranked off of a production line, with strong use of colour and silhouette helping you to distinguish between them. Sure, it’s still not going to push your console to its limits, but ultimately the art style (and it is artistic) looks nice and it should age well, which will be good news to those who know their kids will still be playing it for years to come.
It’s not all fun and games, though, as a few little quirks have snuck through QA testing. A couple of the challenge modes (the rocket one in particular) have pretty naff controls, and occasionally the fixed-position camera can lead to some awkward level traversal (particularly when backtracking.) There are other minor niggles, but most of them are of the sort that only a tired, cynical reviewer would note - there’s nothing that severely hampers enjoyment.
SWAP Force marks the point at which Skylanders really finds its groove; it’s still super approachable for all levels of gamer (the hard difficulty will challenge even the very best out there, believe me) and finally worthwhile for those of us that like something with a bit of meat on it. There’s heaps to do, and levelling your characters is compelling - mixing in a new skill or noting an increase in power is addictive. Just be very sure you can either afford it or control yourself before jumping in. Highly recommended.