Skylanders, the franchise filled with both dungeon-crawling fun and rampant consumerism, is back for a third installment. The second, Giants, suffered from a series of half-steps, from a largely-recycled engine and hastily-put-together levels to mechanical innovation that’s largely limited to “what if you were really big?” It was also fairly short. Thankfully, Vicarious Visions steps in as lead developer for Swap Force, bringing in some fresh concepts as well as a desire to both prove itself and sustain a retail empire that could collapse without proper care.
The most-marketed change this time around is the new Swap Force type of figure. These have top and bottom halves, and can be mixed and matched to your heart’s content. Each half has an affinity, and the top carries most of your attacks while the bottom focuses on mobility. Each half has a name, too; if you take the top half of Wash Buckler and the bottom of Blast Zone, that’s Wash Zone. Each mobility has its own special areas like the elemental ones from other games, but these are tied to specific challenges. Climbing Skylanders scale a tall cliff while avoiding falling debris, and rocket ones zoom through the air and dodge obstacles while steering through rings. There are also regular elemental zones that require a combination of two, but those can also be triggered by separate figures and a second player.
Supporting these new features means a new portal, but that’s not so bad, because new console options and a significantly-upgraded engine mean now’s a good time to switch platforms. We played on Wii U, with its off-TV options making play nice and easy. The old engine was largely designed for the Wii, so while the new look isn’t particularly impressive, it’s miles ahead of what it used to be.
The largest difference to gameplay is the addition of jumping, which you can tell Vicarious Visions has been hoping to get into the main game since it developed the 3DS companion to the original. The largest change is cosmetic, allowing for environments that are less flat and combat that takes place on multiple platforms. In the normal areas, this is the extent of the innovation, but more traditional platforming areas are incorporated into the elemental side areas and secret locations. It’s no accident that a Stealth Elf variant figure is included with the game to complement the two Swap Force ones: her movement style and speed make her well-suited for these areas.
The minigames this time, following in the footsteps of the lock puzzles and Skystones games of titles past, are hit-or-miss. There’s a fishing one reminiscent of Operation: touch an electric eel, and you drop your fish as you reel it in. It’s a bit slow and tedious. The Shock & Bolt puzzles are way more interesting. You alternate between moving two blocky characters, one green and one blue, around a grid area, hitting switches and navigating paths to join each other. That primary goal is often very easy, but you get a large gold bonus if you can get each to collect its corresponding lightning symbol, which requires fancy maneuvering and avoiding meeting each other too early.
There’s an incredibly long path to finishing all the elements of Skylanders Swap Force, which will be a nightmare to completionists and a relief to those worried kids might get tired and move on. (And a nightmare again to parents who didn’t intend on buying everything.) The campaign is about as long as the original’s (so slightly longer than Giants), with levels that can sometimes take quite a bit to get through. Playing through it unlocks lots of arenas and side missions, accessible through the hub, that don’t have story hooks but are just as gameplay-filled.
Outside of that, all figures can get to level 20, which can be tough to do with the huge amount of required experience and no real incentive to after unlocking all the abilities. Portal Masters can themselves rank up through various tasks to unlock shop items and extra boosts, and this involves getting lots of figures and doing lots and lots of things with them. Individual figures themselves have their own sets of quests to complete, too.
If you just want to play the game (or need an excuse to dive back in and complete more quests), there are four difficulty modes. If you’ve played one before, start with Hard, assuming you have a few more figures around; you take a lot of damage when you’re hit. (An even harder difficulty, Nightmare, can be unlocked.) Swap Force also seems to have learned from the effective elements of free-to-play titles, like replenishing areas of gold in the hub to get you to play more and more, as well as no end of bars to work on filling.
What’s nice here are the small touches. You can nickname both halves of a Swap Force figure and mix and match those, too, and devising the names can be a lot of fun. (I gave the top halves titles like “Admiral” and “Doctor,” which proved quite effective.) The upgrading process is slightly sped-up, with closer hub locations, a quicker re-entry and even mid-level points strategically placed to appear right after you’ve collected upgrade-worthy loot.
What’s less nice are the touches that just haven’t been made yet. Why still rapidly mash buttons and shake analog sticks to open chests and such? Is there a reason to not allow skipping constant boxes of chatter? Can we better handle gold that gets stuck on a fully-upgraded figure, instead of just finding something dumb to spend some on and wasting the remainder? There’s still room to grow here, and maybe the next game will address some of these issues.
I should note just exactly how much you’re going to have to buy. To access all of the first game’s core content, you just needed one of each element, and the second game also required at least one Giant. This time, you’ll need each of the game’s eight mobility types, too, which means a heavy investment. Giants are very, very limited this time around, so if you skipped the second game, you could probably get by without one. You can technically play and beat the game with the included three figures, but frankly, if you’re interested in Skylanders, that’s probably not the experience you want to have.
In a lot of ways, Skylanders Swap Force feels like the sequel the original game deserved. It makes visual upgrades and mechanical tweaks that were really needed, and brings in the fun new figures to try out as well. Unfortunately, it has a bit of a higher bar to clear after the momentum-slowing Giants, so these advancements may not be enough for everyone to overcome the inevitable fatigue of the formula. Still, if you’re okay with losing a very large chunk of your income to the nearest retailer (or if you have incredible self-control and don’t need to experience everything the game has to offer), Swap Force makes a compelling case for itself.
Pros: Swap Force figures are fun, visual upgrades are nice, jumping is fun
Cons: Still suffers from tedium, consumerism hooks feel like too much