Walk into any store nowadays, be it for groceries, music or gaming, and you’ll no doubt pass a number of shelves dedicated to hundreds of colourful plastic figures called Skylanders. Dismiss them at your peril; these are a gaming phenomenon. They may look like mere children’s toys but they’re actually the characters of one of the biggest-selling game franchises of all time.
You see, these are no ordinary toys. Simply by placing these little fellas on a special USB-connected pad, they instantly come to life onscreen, for you to control, upgrade and evolve. The colour-changing “Portal of Power” uses technical wizardry (Near Field Communication) to transport the toys into the game – a concept that was first introduced in Skylanders Spyro’s Adventure in 2011 and has since amassed global sales in excess of $1.5bn!
For children, it’s a truly magical experience that brings toys to life… for an older, slightly more grizzled gamer such as myself, I must admit I’m warming to the little critters too.
"Not only can you place any one of the hundreds of characters already available for the previous games on your Portal, now there are 16 new SWAP Force characters that have interchangeable tops and bottoms – meaning a world of opportunities and over 250 permutations."
The latest addition to Activision’s line up – Skylanders SWAP Force – adds an appealing new facet to the proceedings too. Not only can you place any one of the hundreds of characters already available for the previous games on your Portal, now there are 16 new SWAP Force characters that have interchangeable tops and bottoms – meaning a world of opportunities and over 250 permutations. This cleverly means you can combine their unique powers and abilities – and tiny chips inside each half mean that they have a memory so they retain their individual stats and upgrades too.
For the purpose of this review, I enlisted the help of my young daughter – a very discerning gamer – and clearly Activision’s target audience. Her excitement at being able to physically touch the toys and then control them virtually had her gripped from the outset and she’s been constantly nagging to play ever since.
Despite the cartoony nature of the visuals, bright colours and cheery music, SWAP Force does pack a fair challenge. Although she was initially a little wary of the various baddies heading towards her Skylander like little homing pigeons, any concerns were quickly cast aside when she realised each hero comes with various attack moves that can easily dispatch even the most persistent of foes, leaving glittering treasures on the floor. It also helped that we lowered the difficulty – Hard really does mean hard, so younger players will be grateful for the more forgiving settings.
"There are two game modes on offer: the main campaign and Arena, the latter split into five survival and battle games that can offer single player and co-op horde modes, or the opportunity to compete against a friend."
There are eight elemental categories that a Skylander can be: Earth, Air, Fire, Magic, Water, Life, Tech and Undead. Each allows access to certain areas of the map, and each has different abilities such as flying, climbing, digging, bouncing, or teleporting.
Accessed via the pause menu, the stats screen displays each Skylander’s five main attributes: health, speed, armour, a critical hit rating and Elemental Power – and a score for each, much like Top Trumps. As you progress, these abilities can be powered up to make a very formidable character indeed, with a skill tree allowing some degree of customisation.
At any time you can pluck your Skylander figurine off the Portal and the screen prompts you to add another. In doing so, an animation kicks in with booming voiceover welcoming the new character. Presentation-wise, it’s excellent – a little too good in fact, as my daughter took great enjoyment at constantly switching the figurines over simply to kickstart another cutscene.
There are two game modes on offer: the main campaign and Arena, the latter split into five survival and battle games that can offer single player and co-op horde modes, or the opportunity to compete against a friend.
"Among the many other attractions in Woodburrow is a training area to practice your attacks, a pond for a spot of fishing, and importantly an upgrade area to make use of all the treasures you collect on your travels."
But it’s the story portion that forms the bulk of the game and will eat hours of your time – particularly given the fact that you’ll need to invest in countless new figures to gain access to otherwise locked areas. The plot goes something like this: a magical volcano in the Cloudbreak Islands that erupts every century sees a group of Skylanders caught in the explosion. As a result, each of them is bestowed with the power to swap halves – allowing them to combine powers and make up completely new Skylanders (thus the name SWAP Force). It’s up to these guys and all their friends to thwart the evil plans of bald-headed antagonist, Kaos and his equally malevolent mother.
You’ll spend a lot of time in the town of Woodburrow – the hub that provides access to missions, shops, training and upgrade areas. There’s plenty to explore here, such as Tuk’s Emporium where you can buy new brightly-coloured hats, each providing not only a quirky look for your character but improved attributes such as strength, speed or attacks. Acquiring Legendary Treasures provides similarly useful boosts, while you can also purchase bonus missions should you desire.
Among the many other attractions in Woodburrow is a training area to practice your attacks, a pond for a spot of fishing, and importantly an upgrade area to make use of all the treasures you collect on your travels. As mentioned above, your SWAP Force characters have unique skill trees for both their tops and bottoms so there’s plenty to spend your virtual money on.
"There are numerous challenge areas dotted about each level too – huge elemental gates accessible only to Skylanders with certain abilities, from climbing to flying."
For example, the top half of Wash Buckler, the octopus pirate captain packaged in the Starter Pack, has numerous enhancements available, such as being able to fire bubbles that trap enemies or to create a temporary shield that reduces damage. The bottom portion, meanwhile, can be adjusted to increase the strength of his tentacle attacks or spray deadly ink clouds from range. Not only are these cool skills in their own right but switch either half with another SWAP Force character, and those skills are transferred to the new hybrid creature. It’s all very clever and in no time, you’ll have combined Wash Buckler’s tentacles with the heavily armoured body of Blast Zone – also included in the pack – for a speedy, bomb-wielding, ink squirting creation.
Talk to the various inhabitants of Woodburrow and you’ll soon be directed to the next mission. Each consists of some classic platforming fun and typically includes a couple of mini game sections and a few minor skirmishes that culminate in the main boss battle. The cut scenes are funny and progress the story well, so much so that I never felt like skipping through them – a rarity indeed.
There are numerous challenge areas dotted about each level too – huge elemental gates accessible only to Skylanders with certain abilities, from climbing to flying. And there are even some gates that can only be opened by SWAP Force characters sporting two distinct halves such as fire and water.
"SWAP Force is a fantastic introduction to the world of Skylanders for me and I’ve no doubt I’ll now be tempted to pause to look at those shelves of toys when I’m next in my local store, with a possible purchase in mind."
This really is a fantastic game; funny, addictive and great for kids and adults –with plenty to keep everyone occupied. Saying that, the Starter Pack isn’t cheap and you’ll soon realise that there are plenty of sections that can only be accessed if you buy additional characters. You can literally see the paths and treasures that lay beyond the gate but unless you have the required type of Skylander, it will remain firmly locked. It’s a clever ploy and I now fully understand how Activision has amassed such significant sales.
SWAP Force is a fantastic introduction to the world of Skylanders for me and I’ve no doubt I’ll now be tempted to pause to look at those shelves of toys when I’m next in my local store, with a possible purchase in mind. This is a game that provides great entertainment, longevity and oodles of replayability… but be prepared for some incessant nagging from your children to buy more figures!
This game was reviewed on the Xbox 360.
It’s a clever concept and immediately accessible to young and old. Children will love the tactile element of the game, being able to physically grab the toys and play with them onscreen. There are plenty of reasons to keep playing with many areas to unlock and upgrades to gain. It really is a magical experience.
Parents may rue the day their children discover Activision’s innovation… it could prove very expensive. The Starter Pack comes with three figures but it’s clear you’ll need to buy more to fully appreciate SWAP Force and access all the levels. Gameplay could get slightly repetitive, although this is alleviated somewhat with the introduction of the new characters.
The mega-selling toy/gaming franchise returns but with a twist… this time you can combine Skylanders to create new characters and access more powers.
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