Skylanders Swap Force is the third game in the “toys to life” franchise to rule them all and offers every bit of the fun, laughs, brisk gameplay and polish that has become a staple of the franchise. Faults are only recognizable after digging far beneath the surface, and from a technical standpoint the Xbox 360 version this review was played on serves as the perfect bridge between the current and next-generation consoles.
The leap from Skylanders Spyro’s Adventure to Skylanders Giants was incremental given the relatively short development window Toys for Bob had to work with on the second game. Vicarious Visions has been developing Swap Force since before Spyro’s Adventure touched a store shelf, and their efforts to push the limits of this console generation are evident in every corner of the Cloudbreak Islands.
After playing through a few chapters on the hard difficulty setting it becomes blatantly obvious that Skylanders Swap Force is the most ambitious and robust Skylanders game yet in almost every imaginable way. This assertion only solidifies as the chase to thwart the latest Kaos scheme to rule Skylanders comes to a head.
For this new adventure, Flynn sets off on a much-needed vacation and quickly finds himself hurtling through a volcano and into the Cloudbreak Islands where his ship crashes and is presumed done for. After being taken to the town of Woodburrow by a spunky gal named Tessa who eats up his “charm,” Flynn quickly discovers that Kaos has built Evilizer weapons using petrified evil i.e. pink crystals, and plans on using the weapon to spread evil across Skylanders when the volcano erupts, as it does every 100 years like clockwork.
The design of Swap Force shares more in common than Spyro’s Adventure than its immediate predecessor, Giants. The Woodburrow hub is spacious and full of areas to explore and folks to chat with in between chapters. Throughout the campaign, four elementals must be rescued and returned to Woodburrow so the volcano can spread its magic. It’s a similar setup to recovering the various pieces of the Core of Light and simple enough for kids to follow along with the narrative.
Of course there is now jumping in Swap Force as Vicarious Visions has carried it forward from the 3DS version of Spyro’s Adventure that they developed. Jumping takes some getting used to as it replaces the former “action” button. Once the brain is retrained, it’s hard to imagine controlling the Skylanders in their world without the ability to jump over enemies and projectiles, especially on the hard difficulty in the latter chapters where bigger Skylander collections to get through a chapter come in handy.
Swap Force Skylanders, sized between regular and Giant Skylanders, and somewhat gimmicky on the surface, are the new addition to the growing roster and can split at the waist to combine the top and bottom halves into different combinations. This mix-and-match approach is delightfully addictive for kids to play around with, and adds a strategic element for older kids and more advanced gamers to tinker with based on the abilities of the Swap Force Skylanders’ top and bottom halves.
The inclusion of Swap Force Skylanders has allowed Vicarious Visions to beef up individual chapters with additional gameplay zones catered to one of eight abilities the bottom halves of the Swap Force characters possess ranging from flying to bouncing. The downside to these zones is that you must own one of each of the eight Swap Force types to access them all, and as of the game’s launch, two of the types: dig and stealth, are currently unavailable to purchase.
A big selling point of Swap Force is that all the previously released toys can be added to the game. Even the old Adventure Packs, while not playable as they were, can still be added to the inventory and offer a timed attack such as Empire of Ice raining icicles from the sky.
Playing around with the Adventure Packs did uncover an odd bug. The treasure chest item should make a buried treasure appear somewhere on the screen that must be dug up. In Swap Force, it does absolutely nothing. If this is by design then it’s a bit odd as the other items all function.
Even the Giants haven’t been left out as there are treasure crates in each chapter with a Tree Rex symbol on them. It takes a Giant to open them and unlock the pile of loot waiting inside. However, new players with no Giants in their collection can simply skip them.
There are more elaborate boss battles in Swap Force than previous games, such as battling Mesmerelda in her puppet show. Each boss battle counts as its own chapter so the total number of chapters available to play is a little deceiving.
Elemental zones are back in Swap Force and are now joined by dual Elemental zones requiring two elements to access. This is a two-prong approach that awards players for creating both elements from a single Swap Force Skylander, or for two players to enter with each regular Skylander being half of the element required.
Dual Elemental zones are one way that Swap Force caters to cooperative play more than the previous two games. Yes, the tether between two players is still there so there will be disagreements about which way to go first when a path offers multiple options. There’s no way around that unless Skylanders goes to an open world concept and I don’t see that happening.
One big change to support clean cooperation is that during cooperative play, all treasure collected and XP earned is shared by both players. Anyone with kids will understand how crucial this is to limiting living room fights when one kid grabs a treasure chest before the other. In addition, there is now a Team Survival Arena challenge with multiple Achievements and Trophies associated with finding success in it playing with a friend.
The cooperative concept isn’t going to please everyone, especially when it comes to adding experience and stats to individual Skylander figures. In the previous two games, Heroic Challenges were completed that would add small boosts to the attributes of the Skylander toy that completed them. Those attributes would then travel with the toy when taken to play with at someone else’s house.
In Swap Force, attribute boosts are a global occurrence that affects both players and is tied to the game, not the individual toy. For example, Legendary Treasures collected can be placed on pedestals in the Woodburrow hub to gain boosts. These boosts affect whatever Skylander is on the Portal of Power within that exact game save. Aside from hat boosts and a name change, there is no way to further personalize each individual Skylander toy.
Heroic Challenges have been replaced with a variety of options that greatly lengthen the replayability of Swap Force. Once the game is completed, Score and Time Attack options are unlocked that allow each chapter to replayed with either a time or score to beat in order to earn stars. Bonus missions, found hidden in chapters during the campaign, can also be played from the Woodburrow hub to earn even more stars.
The purpose of earning stars ties directly into the Legendary Treasures. Each pedestal in Woodburrow where a treasure can be played has a number underneath it. In order to place a treasure on a pedestal, your star count has to be at least as high as that number. Seeing as how the star count goes up to at least 80 and the campaign ends with a star count around 9 or 10, there is still “much to do,” as Master Eon would say, once the campaign is complete.
Vicarious Visions has also built in an accolades system to earn even more stars. Accolades can be as simple as defeating X number of enemies to creating all 256 different Swap Force combinations. Several of the accolades award players who have piles of figures from the previous two games, so there is an advantage to be had there. For example, one accolade offers a few stars for adding 32 green-based Skylanders to the game.
It is important to note that Skylanders Swap Force has been built from the ground up in Vicarious Visions’ Alchemy Engine. Every previously Skylander and item has been visually improved, and every previously released Skylander now has a jump animation. The art style is a bit different than Toys For Bob; it has a more cartoony look to go along with the development team’s goal to create a game that looks like a CGI-animated film. I personally like the style, but others might miss the more simplistic look of the previous games.
The technical achievements in Swap Force are a sight to behold and will actually get better with the release of the Xbox One and PS4 versions next month. The Frostfest Mountains in particular is an amazing chapter with blowing snow and some incredibly complex lighting at play. It’s a standout achievement amongst many other fantastically designed and rendered chapters.
The Swap Force cut-scenes are a mix of CGI and rendered in-game. The latter, unfortunately, suffers from lip-sync issues a little too often for my liking. In an otherwise perfectly polished game with no stuttering or lag, it’s odd to see the lip sync problems pop up regularly.
I have to note that Kaos and Glumshanks are at their best in Swap Force, and that is saying something. The dynamic between Kaos and his mom is fantastic, and the dialogue writing is top notch. The Swap Force sequences with Kaos could have been a separate animated film and a successful one at that. The sky is the limit for Skylanders 4, especially considering the little twist presented during the final act.
Even after you strip away the new facade, the swapping, the new music and new gameplay modes that max out this console generation, Swap Force is still the same fun Skylanders game at its core that anyone can pick up and play with no introduction. There’s still a sense of excitement and wonderment when placing that physical toy on the Portal of Power and watching it appear in-game. Above all else, Swap Force is incredibly addictive and satisfying to play, and that lure to keep playing causing me to miss having this review ready for the game’s release date is the greatest compliment I can pass along.
– Dan Bradley
Skylanders Swap Force was reviewed on Xbox 360 and provided by Activision for this review. It was released on October 13, 2013 and is also available on PS3, Wii, Wii U, and coming soon to PS4 and Xbox One.