Skylanders Swap Force – PS3
Publisher: Activision
Developer: Vicarious Visions
Release Date: Oct 13, 2013
Genre: Action, Platformer, Collectible
Reviewed by Arend Hart

Review Score: 4.5 of 5

As if the game industry had not already sucked enough money out of me – the folks at Vicarious Visions (not series originator Toys for Bob, surprisingly) have found an entirely new way to separate me from my spare cash with Skylanders Swap Force. Yes, I know that Skylanders are nothing new. We were all introduced to them two years ago as the original Skylanders, then again last year in their oversized Skylanders Giants forms – so what’s the big deal about Swap Force? Well, pretty much everything.

My apologies to the Skylanders vets out there, but because there is bound to be a handful of series newbies, parents, and grandparents checking out this review to see what these Skylanders are all about, so before I go any further I have to do a little history lesson. If you know this stuff already, feel free to skip ahead a few paragraphs. For those who have not yet been exposed to the world of Skylanders, where have you been? Skylanders have been the biggest thing in gaming over the past two years, and if Swap Force is any indication of the future, they are poised to retain that honor for years to come.

What is the secret? It’s in the collecting – because gamers apparently like to collect things. The concept was first realized years back with Nintendo’s famed Pokémon video game franchise. Successful in its own right as a video game on Nintendo’s Game Boy, Nintendo went back to its roots as a playing card company and branched the Pokémon IP off into an equally popular collector trading card franchise. Between the video game and the card sales, it made Pokémon property the second largest grossing franchise in gaming history.

But in the world of Pokémon, the card collecting and the video gaming always remained separate entities – the cards did not carry over into the video gaming, and the video gaming did not carry over into the cards. Skylanders aimed to change that, by bringing the two concepts together into a single experience – the collectibles (in these case, small anthropomorphic figurines) actually play a role in the onscreen video game gameplay. They achieve this with high-tech near field communication chips embedded within the figurines that allow the game both to recognize the characters and to store character information (stats, powers) within them whenever the characters are placed on the coveted Portal of Power that comes included with the starter pack of the game.

The Skylanders gameplay largely takes the form of a whimsical 3D platformer (based upon the Spyro the Dragon universe, if that means anything to you) in which gamers can hot-swap their collected characters on and off the Portal of Power to best address the tasks at hand. Whether it is a character’s natural affinity to certain elements (air, water, earth, fire, magic, etc.), or their level of experience and development (i.e. power), certain characters are better at performing certain tasks than others and it’s up to the gamers to decide which is best for any given situation. And by hot-swapped, it means as fast as the character can be lifted off the portal of power and replaced with another character, the game automatically adjusts to the change. So if a character is not equipped for a certain task, or is taking too much damage in battle, it takes just a moment to replace him (or her) with another character that might fare better and allow damaged characters to rest and revive.

If that is not enough incentive to win over a few new gamers and parents, well it gets even better: the Skylanders characters are what we call system-independent, meaning that if a gamer owns the Xbox 360 version of Skylanders and his friend owns the PS3 version – their characters will work on each other’s Portals of Power. So those weekend slumber parties can turn into great fun with gamers teaming up for cooperative play utilizing each other’s characters’ special powers and abilities to unlock the seeming endless quests and side quests that the games have hidden deep within.

There is a clarification that needs to be made: characters will work in their game and subsequent releases – but not in prior releases. So the original Skylanders can be used in the original game, Skylanders Giants, and in Skylanders Swap Force, but the Giants can only be used in Skylanders Giants and Swap Force. This is because each release has introduced new technology that is not compatible with the prior games.

Enough with the history lesson – Skylanders Veterans, you may resume reading.

I have to admit, when I first heard the term Swap Force I could not really picture what the developers were aiming for – I mean, the whole thing about Skylanders is the swapping. But with Swap Force, the developers have introduced a whole new gameplay mechanic that changes everything. Maybe it would be better to call the game Skylanders Mix n’ Match, because that essentially is what the gamer is doing in Swap Force. Each of the primary Swap characters is comprised of two halves (upper and lower) that are held together with small rare earth magnets. The upper half relates to the character’s personality and attack method (i.e. weaponry) and the lower half relates to the characters movement and consequently their special abilities (climbing vertically, flying, etc.).

These Swap characters can be separated into their respective halves and recombined with other characters’ respective halves to form new characters with different weapons and movement combinations. It may sound silly, but the effect is actually quite amazing. For instance, one of our favorite combinations is taking the upper half of Swap character Rattle Shake (the snake cowboy with the ranged snake shot) and combining him with the lower half of Wash Buckler (the sword wielding octopus pirate who can scale walls) – resulting in Rattle Buckler a half-snake half octopus creature which can scale walls and has a ranged weapon, basically combining the traits of each individual character into a hybrid character that can be used for one of the games numerous wall scaling segments.

Half of the game’s fun is in combining the different characters and seeing how the resulting characters look and perform in all of the various upper/lower combos. Mixing magical birds and flaming nights to make flammable winged magicians is really a hoot (pun intended), and seeing how each of these characters can be incorporated into the gameplay is astounding. And speaking of the gameplay, Swap Force’s story mode is easily the best gameplay the series has delivered. Swap force delivers polished production and innovative gameplay that is reminiscent of Insomniac’s original Ratchet and Clank trilogy – paying homage to the heyday of 3D platforming in the early 2000’s. Each area brings new and exciting challenges, tasking gamers with making meaningful character decisions at each and every obstacle. While it may seem like work at times, it really is exciting to swap characters to exploit their special powers and weaponry.

The best way to play any Skylanders game is with a friend, and much like the previous two releases, Swap Force provides seamless integration for local two-player cooperative gaming. It is as easy as turning on a controller, and placing an additional character on the Portal of Power. The two characters are shown simultaneously in the same frame that zooms out slightly as characters separate, eventually stopping characters that fall too far apart. This is similar to the early Lego games, which have since gone to a dynamic split screen as characters separate. I like the single screen, but my son was wishing that the screen would split since I seem to “explore too much” for his liking.

As for the presentation in Swap Force, it is absolutely spectacular. Featuring the voice work of everybody’s favorite voice man, Patrick Warburton, as well as Invader Zim’s Richard S. Horvitz, Swap Force’s story is told with all the polish and wit of a Saturday morning (or Adult Swim for that matter) cartoon. The visuals are bright and colorful, and the cutscenes are surprisingly cinematic with great depth of focus effects and beautiful lighting. Again, I reference the fantastic Ratchet and Clank series as a comparison to the top-notch storytelling in Swap Force. I know it all sounds good up to here, but there is one issue. The cost.

The Skylanders Swap force Starter Pack comes with two swappable characters, Blast Zone and Wash Buckler, as well as one non-swappable (but highly effective) “Series 3” character called Ninja Stealth Elf. Activision has released an army of additional swappable characters already, with promises of more to come in the future.

At a cost of $16 each, the proposition of collecting characters can get quite pricey – looking at a total of about $300 simply in Swap Force characters alone. Add to that the additional Series 3 characters, and the total investment can easily reach $600 to $800 dollars in order to unlock all the secret areas and missions in the game.

Sadly, whereas Giants reused the original Portal of Power, Swap Force requires gamers to upgrade to the redesigned Portal to recognize the two halves of the characters. This new Portal is included in the Starter Pack, but it means that there is no cheaper-priced “Upgrade Pack” available like there was with Giants. The new Portal also seems thinner and less-detailed (i.e. cheaper) than the previous model, which is a tad discouraging. Still, as my son pointed out, it looks cooler than Disney Infinity’s portal, and you don’t have to put your character in one particular spot.

And that segues perfectly into my final discussion. This year has already seen the release of the Disney Corporation’s attempt to jump on the Skylanders bandwagon with Disney Infinity. I had the awesome opportunity to review that game as well, and I have already been barraged with a ton of questions from friends and family as to “which one is better?” and “which one should we get for our kids?” Here’s my take:

I think both games are fantastic. Seriously. But based on the gameplay I have experienced, I really would have to lean towards Skylanders Swap Force. The reason is that I have a few issues with the way Disney has been heavy-handed in making gamers invest more money in their system. Don’t get me wrong, both companies are very good at taking your money, but Disney just seems a little sneakier about it. For starters, out of the box the Skylanders Swap Force is immediately playable cooperatively through the entire main arc of the story mode. With the three included characters, gamers have plenty of options (4 overall combinations of the two Swap characters and one Ninja Stealth Elf) to make it through the game – gamers just don’t get all of the “extra” stuff in the game unless they buy more characters.

Disney Infinity on the other hand, is not playable cooperative through the story mode out of the box. Its starter pack comes with Sully, Jack Sparrow, and Mr. Incredible – and you are technically getting three single player games (Monsters University, Pirates of the Caribbean, and The Incredibles) – but you can only play those games cooperatively if you have additional characters from the same movie. So if you want to play Monsters University story, you need to buy a Mike character, otherwise you are rendered to the free play mode. The free play mode is awesome, but none of the story modes in Infinity are as amazing as Swap Force.

I also like that Swap Force allows me to use my original Wii-borne Series 1 characters in this game, complete with their stats and leveling from two years ago. I understand that Infinity will allow this in the future as well, but for now Skylanders has the edge in longevity. I look at it this way – if you are someone who likes Little Big Planet, than Infinity is absolutely for you with its focus on user creation over core gameplay. However, if you are a Ratchet and Clank kind of gamer, especially one who likes to play with a friend, then Skylanders Swap Force is the way to go. It delivers more visceral bang for the buck than Infinity.