I had been resisting the whole Skylanders thing for a while now. I do like platformers, and Spyro was one of my favorites on the PSOne along with Crash Bandicoot and then later Jak and Daxter, but it’s been a long while since I’d really gotten into one. I was kind of content with that actually, and to be honest, I didn’t relish the idea of collecting a bunch of figures to swap out just to play a game. I’d kind of gotten over that when I went digital with Magic the Gathering. When this came in for review, though, I figured it’s a full starter set and I hadn’t had an excuse to fire up my Wii in a while, so I’d give it a shot. Now, I’ve already bought more figures for it, and am planning to get a few more and maybe try and find a copy for my PS3 so I can play in the bedroom, where the Wii is, and downstairs in our living room where the PS3 and big screen TV reside. Suffice it to say, Skylanders Swap Force is a fun romp, but it’s far from perfect. Let’s take a look.
Now, I know this game is aimed at a much younger age group than I find myself in, but I will have to say that the background story of how the Swap Force got their ability to exchange their tops and bottoms is a little weird, and even the visuals when you’ve swapped them don’t match too well. Mechanically and gameplay wise it’s fun, and that’s all that really matters, but if you think too long about the how and why you’re going to be scratching your head over it. The idea is that the Cloudbreak Islands have Ancient Elementals that protect them to keep them from being wiped out or overrun by this volcano, and the last time around, the Skylanders protecting them were caught in an energy surge that gave them the ability to swap halves with other Skylanders that were present. Years later, and the volcano is gearing up to let loose again, so enter the Skylanders to make things happen the way they should, but of course, it’s not going to be that easy, as long-time Skylander antagonist Kaos has hatched a plan to make things go his way using Petrified Darkness to take over an Elemental by evilizing it and making it do things the way he wants.
Kaos gets Glumshanks involved, and even his mother, in his schemes to take over the volcano and eventually all of Skylands. The Skylanders operate out of a village called Woodburrow which was under siege by Kaos’ forces, and meet up with Tessa who works as their local contact and transportation after Flynn’s ship is forced to crash. Overall, it’s a fairly simple story; gather up and protect the Elementals, save the world, defeat the bad guy, you know the drill. There’s some decent bits of comedy in this, most of it aimed at younger audiences, but there are a few moments here and there where it aims for older players, and it has an overall charm to it that I remember from the original Spyro series.
Visually, I think the game suffers a bit on the Wii. That’s not to say it looks awful; it actually looks pretty good, especially in comparison to the last Wii game I reviewed. I thought the Wii wasn’t able to compete visually anyway, and it’s really kind of driven home when a game that is far more loose with its visuals, giving them a really fantastical base like this one, just doesn’t feel up to snuff. There aren’t any graphical glitches, but the visual rift between the really well done game cutscenes that are all pre-rendered and the actual game are readily apparent here. Am I nitpicking here? A little. I got used to seeing the visuals the Wii was pumping out for The Last Story since my wife had been playing that last before I popped Skylanders in, and really there’s a bit of a gulf in visual quality there. The camera is fixed to certain views, and most of the time they’re what you need, but sometimes the camera is placed kind of awkwardly. Usually this isn’t when you have to jump, but more when you’re fighting in a crowded area. The screenshots here are all supplied by the publisher.
The voice actors do a great job selling this, and I loved Kaos, who’s voiced by Richard Horvitz, who I recognized as Invader Zim. Patrick Warburton is equally smarmy and charming as Flynn, and a few other names I recognize are in the cast, include Grey DeLisle, Steve Blum, Troy Baker, and of course Nolan North. They have a great cast for this that works to sell this pretty well, even if some of the ideas they’re selling seem a little outlandish. It’s all in good fun, and the amusing cutscenes breaking up the fun gameplay weren’t a bad thing at all.
The controls are actually fairly responsive, and everything fired off when it should, but like all platformers, timed jumping is everything and the game does play a little slower paced than others I’ve played in the past. Starting with the portal that comes with the game, you can only have three figures on it. One figure for the first player, one for second player, and then a location piece or magic item. No, you can’t play with all three of your figures on the portal in single player. This game does require a nunchuk to play along with the Wii remote. The analog stick on the nunchuk moves you around the screen, while the C and Z buttons handle your second and third attack options, which vary on what they are depending on what Skylander you have on the portal. Now, on the Wii remote, the B button handles your main attack, the A button is your jump, the + pauses your game, the – button interacts with various objects and NPCs in the game, the 1 button brings up the menu which you use the d-pad to navigate through, and the 2 button skips through cutscenes. The only real shaking action you’ll have to do with the Wii Remote is to open chests and other items with throughout the game world.
The game plays a lot like a basic platformer, but they’ve thrown some RPG elements into it, along with some abilities tied to swapping out the figures along with the swappable main figures. You’ve got a basic attack, a special attack, a special ability, and you can jump along different levels or move objects so you can make that jump that’s just out of reach. I say it’s fairly simple, because throughout the game, I never died once, and I’m used to a fairly punishing experience from a platformer. If you fall from a platform into water or lava, you’d normally be dead, but Skylanders picks up your character and teleports it to the nearest land for your safety, which takes a lot of the risk out of it. You have a health bar, but as long as you’re actively taking out Greebles or other bad guys and getting health back, you’re probably not going to run into much trouble on that end. Most areas have an element that will be stronger when going through it and the game will let you know at the bottom of the screen which element that is along with an audio prompt as well.
The RPG elements come in from taking out enemies and collecting gems from broken boxes and chests. You spend this to unlock new abilities and customize what your Skylander can do, along with what level they’re at. This is tied to the Skylander toy itself, so if you take it to someone else’s system, it’ll have its stats and abilities that you’ve unlocked. After the first tier, you pick between which part of the second tier you want to work on, choosing between two very different ability trees, and then on to the third tier, which doesn’t have much variety but boosts what you’ve already taken before or builds on it. The Swap Force figures themselves have their ability tree, split between their two halves, and are a little cheaper to get into their abilities as a result per half, but it’s about the same as working on a core figure when you put the two halves together.
Now they do have portions blocked off, requiring certain conditions like specific elements or even two specific elements requiring a swapped out Swap Force figure. There’s also bonus abilities scattered around you can play with that are tied to abilities linked to the Swap Force’s lower halves, like climbing up a wall, avoiding getting hit using the squid/octopus legs, or using the rocket feet for flying through rings. If you’re looking to get into some chests, you’ll have to have a Giants figure as well. After you’ve completed the game, you can go back through levels and challenges from Woodburrow to get anything you may have missed, especially if you’ve only got a starter set and are getting figures over time. So aside from your basic walking, jumping and trouncing the enemy, they threw in some other options to change things up a bit, which makes it more interesting as you play through.
You can play co-op as long as you have a second WiiMote and nunchuk handy, as the starter set does come with three figures. You can have player two jump in at any time. Along with the main game, there are arena based challenges for you and a friend to play with. If you’re going solo, there’s also timed trials and the option to run through other levels again, as well as the Swap Force Power Zones that only Swap Force specific characters can get into.
With around fifty characters available at the start to work with, with this game including the three you get with the starter set, not including the figures from previous games that are also compatible, there’s a lot of variation in the gameplay in this. Add in being able to level up characters, as well as the different abilities when you’re playing through and the different areas to unlock, as well as co-op play, and you’ve got a lot of variety to come back to the game for. Granted, if you don’t buy any new figures outside of the starter set, your options will be a little more limited, but you can go tackle levels again as well as the co-op, so depending on how much money you’re going to throw at the game, that influences how much more you’ll have to go back and play through again, which is both a blessing and a curse.
Despite having parts of the game blocked out except to certain Skylander types, the game is completely finishable with just the starter set, which is a nice bonus. While I like the idea of the mixed door types, as well requiring the new Swap Force characters to get through them, this will require some significant purchases, as the Swap Force are all slightly bigger figures than the core figures. There aren’t a ton of these doors, but there are also ability pads tied to the base of the Swap Force figures. So while you can go bare bones and just use the starter to get through and level up as you go, it is a far more open experience when you’ve purchased more figures to make it through with. If you’ve got your figures from previous games, they all work here, so that gets you a leg up on someone jumping in on this title like I am, but if you’re looking to unlock everything you’re going to have to look at investing in not only the Swap Force figures, which will get you most everything, but at least one Giant figure as well to get to certain chests to get whatever is stashed in those. The game, as I mentioned before, is also very simple. If you’re looking for something challenging in a platformer, this is definitely not going to be your kind of game.
From what I’ve read, not having played the other games, the addition of jumping is kind of a big deal and really lends itself to feeling more like a platformer because of it. The new Swap Force features are interesting and give a nice change of pace in the different areas if you have access to them. We’re in year three of what looks to be a new yearly franchise for Activision, so seeing them tweaking the gameplay and making changes instead of giving out the same old game with a fresh coat of paint is nice. Being new to the series, this is all pretty new to me, but has some very standard platforming elements to it, including the over-reaching storyline that seems to play out in every game. So while it feels fairly fresh, if you’ve played the other games there’s going to be quite a bit of sameness to it, even with the changes.
I did have a few issues that were a bit frustrating and ended with me quitting the game for a few hours before picking it up again later or the next day. When it was playing smoothly I was having a good time, and on the Wii, which is not my usual console of choice. Never was a big fan of the Wiimote and nunchuka combination, but they work well enough here and don’t have me swinging wildly all over the place while I’m playing. It’s actually quite a bit of fun to run through a level with different characters, swapping out for others when they’d work better than what you have. The only things that really distracted me from the game were the long-ish load screens, a few bugs where I had to reset the game on the Wii, and then real life issues. Despite being aimed at a younger crowd, even a grown up can appreciate what’s here.
The figures look great, are mostly reasonably priced considering they tie into a video game, and the game itself is a lot of fun to play despite a few bugs here and there. After just playing for a few hours, I ended up going out and picking up another figure my wife was eye-balling, and another a few days after that for her as well. The figures ended up being half the fun, and planning what I’ll need to play through most of the game is on the menu as well. This is one of those titles that mixes almost generic platforming with some neat characters to spice things up, and then throws in the fun of collectible card games along with it and gives you some neat figures to display when you’re not playing. It’s age appropriate, family friendly and has something for just about anyone.
While I haven’t had some of the crashing bugs I’ve read about, I did have one particular issue twice occurring in two separate areas that were particularly game-breaking where I had to restart the game to actually progress. Both times it was an area where you had to eliminate all the bad guys to activate something or clear a door to continue on. Both times, mind you these were separate areas, I had two enemies that went crazy and ran into corners and I couldn’t do anything to them. I tried swapping Skylanders and changing up my available attacks but these were unsuccessful attempts to get around the issue. The game does auto-save, but when you close out and you’re not in Woodburrow, like say half-way through an area and on a quest, you won’t get put back there, you’ll end up back in Woodburrow and have to go through the area again. Now it’s not a deal-breaker, but it is annoying and I imagine for most will be completely frustrating to have to do the same areas all over again. I actually just turned it off for awhile and walked away as I’d been playing for a few hours at that point the first time it happened and was actually getting into it and instantly wanted to throw my controller at the TV, which is a no no. Other than that it was pretty smooth sailing other than some chunky load times for the different areas and even when firing up cutscenes.
Short Attention Span Summary
Skylanders Swap Force is an interesting mix of genre. Aimed at younger players, people looking for a more involved platformer are probably going to be disappointed. As it is, what you get is a solid platformer if a bit simple, with some interesting mechanics tied to the characters you put through the portal into the game. While you don’t have to have played the previous games, having the figures and having played the other games certainly won’t hurt and other than a few weird bugs I came across the game ran fairly solid. If you’re looking to complete the game in its entirety there’s a heavy investment in figures involved but if you’re just looking to go through and have fun with it the starter figures are more than capable of getting you through the game. While it’s not a perfect game, it is fairly solid and is something that you can play with the whole family which is becoming something of a rarity in the video game market these days. If you liked the first two games, the formula is largely the same this go around with a few new interesting mechanics and abilities to liven up the experience a bit. This being my first foray into the series I have to say I enjoyed it quite a bit despite the flaws.