Going To The Top With A Swap
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Skylanders is certainly an industry success story. Released at first under the aging Spiro brand as Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure, it showed how to marry action figures and games in a way that nobody else had ever attempted. That title was followed up by Skylanders Giants, which won the GiN Wii Game of the Year award for 2012. Between the two games, there were over a billion dollars in sales.
The secret to the success of those games was the fact that there is a portal which is used to take real-world toys and warp them into the game. Players become "portal masters" by setting their toy onto the portal, which activates that character and makes them available within the game. The Giants game added to the first by introducing larger toys, which were also larger within the game. The Giants were able to access areas that the smaller toys could not, adding a new element to the game. And the core game was a lot of fun to play as well, with lots of shooting, puzzles and a comedic story that appealed to both children and adults.
We actually wondered where the Skylanders series could possibly go next. The answer came in the form of Swap Force, which takes the figure and game marriage to a whole new level. Although all the Skylanders toys get upgrades, the biggest thing is the new swappable heroes. These guys have detachable top and bottom halves. In general, the top half controls how they fight and the bottom half controls how they move, though the bottom half can also trigger attacks which are mostly defensive in nature. What you can do now is remove a top half from the actual toy and place it onto the bottom half of a different toy. This creates a new creature which is able to portal into the game as modified.
So for example, one of the new heroes is Wash Buckler, who is an octopus pirate. Another is Blast Zone, who is a fire-based robot who hurls bombs. But if you put Blast's torso onto Buckler's body, you get a totally new hero named Blast Buckler. This allows you to throw powerful fire bombs, but also move across the water and smack people with Buckler's tentacles. Besides giving you a huge tactical advantage where you can bring in exactly the right hero for the given situation, the combos can be used to unlock content in the game that can't be accessed any other way.
One negative to the new heroes is that you have to buy a new portal, since the old portal can't recognize the two-part heroes. That means that you have to purchase a starter kit, which comes with the core game, the new portal and three heroes, two of which are the new swappable kind. The kit sells for about $75, so it's not a cheap investment. The good news is that your existing heroes from the older games also work with the new portal and the new game, and most are given serious upgrades to boot.
Specifically, toys from the series two set have improved animations and are just as fun to play within the new game. Toys from the series three set have been given new powers and abilities that make them pretty darn powerful within the new environments. So those of you who love your characters from before can happily bring them along for the ride. Many of them also bring unique story elements into the new game, and it's really nice to see the older characters that players have already fallen in love with are not left by the wayside.
Not all the new toys are swappable, but even the non-swappable ones are really cool. Take Roller Brawl as an example. She's an undead roller-skating girl who slices and dices her foes with both her blades and her witty comments. Then there is Clobber Tooth, who packs a mean punch with his boney tail to make up for what seems like a bit of a lacking in the intelligence area. Or Countdown, who is more or less a walking bomb. All of the new heroes seem distinctive and are lots of fun to play.
Another unique type of new hero that is also non-swappable are the ones in the lightcore line. These heroes also have pretty amazing special powers within the game, but they also light up in really cool ways. When you place a lightcore hero onto the new portal, the toy itself lights up and glows with a cool electric blue light that is pretty mesmerizing. They also light up within the game itself, which is a nice extra feature, and works well for darker levels by helping you to navigate a bit better. Our favorite in this series was Flashwing, who is a dragon, not unlike Spiro, but whose entire wings light up in a grand fashion when activated. Another cool one we liked was Grim Creeper, who looks like a cartoon version of the Grim Reaper, but whose sickle glows when in contact with the portal. In the game, his spinning attacks look really amazing with that same sickle flashing like lighting in combat.
But of course, the real wow factor in the game are the swappable heroes. We found ourselves experimenting with all kinds of tops and bottoms. At different points we had tentacles, bird feet, a rattlesnake tail, a tornado, wheels and even a stinky skunk as our bottom half. That combined with top halves that featured sling shots, bombs, magical staffs and blades to use as weapons. Besides being able to configure the perfect hero to suit your preferred gameplay tastes and the environment you happen to be adventuring though, there are also lots of mini-games that become available depending on, mostly, your bottom half that controls your motion. There are climbing games where you have to dodge stuff being thrown at you, fighting challenges, races and even aerial obstacle courses. There are also new elements that work with pretty much any character, like puzzle games where you have to use your brain to pick locks in order to proceed.
One major upgrade in the gameplay department is that heroes can finally jump. It seems strange in a game series like this that there was no jumping. Before, you had to find a jump pad to be able to leap into the air. Now you can jump whenever you want, and this has obviously been added into the gameplay. The addition of height brings a new 3D like element to most levels and ratchets up the fun quite a bit.
All heroes can be leveled up as you game, and the swappable ones have different upgrade paths for both halves. So it's possible to have a really leveled up Hoot Loop bottom and a newer Rattle Shake torso for example, though you will likely level up both halves that you play a lot. The figures have internal memory which stores all their upgrades too. As before, if you play the game on your PS3 and then take your figures over to a friend's house who owns a Wii or a 360, and they also have the game, you can just drop your figures onto their portal and they should work fine, and have all the upgrades that you have already earned. The figures can even be taken over to the 3DS version of the game, which is a totally separate adventure from what is found on the consoles.
The game itself takes place in a new area of the Skylanders world called the Cloudbreak Islands. The plot revolves around our old friend Kaos, who is trying to mess with a volcano that erupts every hundred years and restores magic to the world. You will spend most of your time battling his minions. This time Kaos brings his mother along for the ride, and it's easy to tell very quickly who is really in charge of things over on the evil side. The mother character is great and you will probably like her better than Kaos himself, especially since she gives him just as much grief as the Skylander heroes do most of the time.
Graphically the game has been given a tremendous upgrade. Not only do all the heroes have new animations (even the ones from the older games) but gameplay is smooth and colorful. In fact, Swap Force is one of those games that probably could have just come out for next generation consoles and everyone would have assumed it looked good because of the new hardware. This looks like a next generaton title running on a 360 or a PS3. However, Swap Force is also planned as a launch title for both the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One too. It just looks like the graphics have already made the next generation jump somehow.
While Swap Force is a lot of fun to play, at higher levels the difficulty ramps up quite a bit. While the game is suitable (and in fact designed for) children, younger players may have a little difficulty clearing later stages of the game. Of course this is a perfect opportunity for parents to jump in and help out. Opportunities to become real heroes alongside your kids is a rare thing that should not be passed up. Also, jokes in the game can be taken at different levels. While I'm sure kids will enjoy the base humor, I think adults will find themselves snickering in places too, probably just different places. There is no reason why any gamer of any age couldn't have fun with Swap Force. We tested it with a lot of kids from GiN family members and they all loved it, but so did the adults when the kids were away. You just might have to explain to them why Star Strike, or your other favorite characters are so leveled up when they come back to play later.
Multiplayer has been given a big kick too, which is nice. There are now survival modes where teams can compete and play together to achieve high scores. And there are special battle modes where the goal is to either beat up your opponent or knock them out of a large ring. It's just one more thing to love about this game.
The only possible drawback to the new series would be the price. Having to purchase the new portal and a new starter kit for $75 is a big investment for most families. And if you end up also buying all of the new heroes currently available (swappable and normal) it tallies up to about $375 by our count. However, this is countered by the almost unlimited gameplay options the heroes themselves offer. There are 250 combinations which can be made from the swappable heroes, and these are much more than just cosmetic changes. Even the normal one-piece heroes are pretty amazing, and in some cases like with Roller Brawl and Lightwing, we kind of liked them better overall for different reasons. Looked at a different way, a family could collaborate on gifts, with parents buying the core game and letting uncles, aunts and friends purchase the much less expensive individual figures. Adding a new figure to the game is a great experience because not only do you get to enjoy the new character's quirky traits and storyline, but it could also possibly open up new areas and mini-games too. As such, I think the high price of the new portal can almost be forgiven. At least you know you're getting a heck of a lot of bang for your buck.
Skylanders Swap Force did the impossible. They improved on the figures and game collaboration idea started by the original title. Glowing heroes, new powers and the cool swappable heroes combine with a beautiful core game that is not only suitable, but also fun, for children and children of all ages. It earns 4 and 1/2 GiN Gems for what is sure to be a glowing collection of awards.
Dominic reviews odd games for GiN that don't exactly fit into main categories. He loves the odds and ends of the industry, and sometimes finds a real gem.