It’s amazing what one small design decision can do to a video game. Jumping is something we’ve long taken for granted as being a staple in any action game, but it’s something that has been conspicuous by it’s absence in the Skylanders series.
Until now, that is, as Vicarious Visions (who seem to be taking turns with Toys for Bob each year to produce a Skylanders game, a-la Infinity Ward/Treyarch on the Call of Duty franchise) have seen fit to add it for this year’s game, and it’s something that somehow makes SWAP Force seem less of a game that is solely aimed at children, and more one that is truly suitable for all.
Of course, the essential components of the Skylanders franchise are the toys themselves. This year, the titular SWAP aspect means that the 16 new toys can be split at the waist (or whatever approximates as a waist on some of them, anyway) and combined to make new Skylanders. Sixteen may not seem a lot, but it actually means there are 256 combinations, all told – and that’s before you include all the previously released Skylanders that can also be used in the game. As in previous games, certain elemental characters are required to open new pathways, but now there are some doors that require two elements to open, so you’ll need to either play in co-op, or use a Skylander than can mix and match elements via swapping.
Games aimed at children are (rightly) cast with a certain stigma attached to them. They’re usually shallow experiences targeting a generation of personalities that wouldn’t know better; but not Skylanders. By a country mile the best kids game out there, the tried and tested gameplay from Spyro’s Adventure and Giants returns, with a multitude of collectibles and unlockables to find from hats to magical trinkets that buff your skills, offering so much opportunity to replay the game, which, given an already lengthy campaign, is fairly generous.
The funny thing about Skylanders, too, is that it’s not even really a cynical franchise. Sure, there are lots of the figures out there to collect, and they’re not cheap, either. But you don’t really need to collect them all. My children (aged 6 and 8 at the time of writing) have enjoyed all three games (to date) with me, and while they have asked for new Skylanders on special occasions, that’s because they love the game, not because they need new characters. Any game that can bring the whole family together is alright in my book, and SWAP Force certainly does that.
More admirable still, is how each game is related to another. These aren’t quick cash grabs, and the story builds on what has come previously. I’m firmly of the belief that if you treat people’s intelligence with respect, you’ll reap the rewards. Favourite characters like Flynn return, ably voiced by folks like Patrick Warburton (Joe Swanson from Family Guy) or John DiMaggio (Bender from Futurama), and the story is coherent and, dare I say it, well written.
In honesty, aside from the ability to jump and the new swappable figures, not a huge amount has changed. That said, the fact you can now jump means that those annoying jump-pads are gone. It’s not all good though, as some small platforming sections can frustrate younger players as they miss the ledge for the umpteenth time. Regardless, there’s still a truly well made game under all of the peripheral wonder that surrounds SWAP Force, and one that always makes me think of ToeJam & Earl (one for the dads out there), which, in my books, is no bad thing.
General gameplay is of an exploratory nature, moving around traditional sand, jungle, water (etc) maps and shooting or attacking everything that moves, smashing up the scenery and gathering loot and XP as you do so. Upgrading your characters will strengthen abilities, and just generally make them more badass than before. As with previous games, an individual Skylander’s skillset and level is tied to the figure itself, not the game save, so you can take your figures round a friend’s house and they’ll retain their level in whoever’s game you’re playing. New to SWAP Force, however, is the ability to upgrade tops and bottoms individually, which enables even further customisation for your Skylanders.
There’s a host of new mini-games to experience, including the supremely cute door unlock game which tasks you with getting two electric currents to meet, and thus override the door’s locking mechanism. Some of these mini-games are hit, others miss slightly – the jet-propelled flying-into-the-screen one suffers from awkwardly over-sensitive controls but, conversely, the tree-climbing one invokes wonderful memories, and feels a bit like a modern day Donkey Kong game.
SWAP Force looks stunning, though, whether it’s in the gorgeously rendered cut-scenes – watching Kaos (again) try to take over the world, this time via a powerful element that turns people evil, including his sidekick Glumshanks, will give you a few laughs – or the in-game engine itself, which sincerely looks as though it’s had one hell of an upgrade since last time out. There are a few repetitive pieces of sound design, but most of them are Skylander-specific, so it’s not a big deal, and the audio on the whole is a treat. The figures themselves are still as well made as ever, and the SWAP characters snap together with a satisfying magnetic click.
The variation in gameplay means that boredom is never an issue, and higher difficulty levels pose a genuine challenge if required. Most people will have the greatest amount of fun through the local co-op, which is still similar to how the LEGO games used to work: if you go too far from your buddy, a string-like tether will stop you breaking the game and force you to retrace your steps back to one another. XP and money is shared this time around, too, which is a superb change to the series and eliminates the aeons-old argument of player X stealing player Y’s loot. It’s a minor complaint, but I’d love the next game to include some kind of online mode. Sure, most of the fun is playing these games with your kids, but it’s because the game is actually so well made that you’ll end up playing when they’re at school, too.
VERDICT: So it seems that Activision have yet another year where Skylanders should be on top of every child’s wishlist from Father Christmas. There really aren’t enough inclusive video games out there these days, and there are even fewer aimed at children that aren’t just plain bad, or full of bugs and annoyances. Give in to that inner-child and enjoy what is a terrific, entertaining game that absolutely anyone will love, because this is easily the best Skylanders game to date.
SUPERB. This is the mark of greatness, only awarded to games that engage us from start to finish. Titles that score 9/10 will have very few problems or negative issues, and will deliver high quality and value for money across all aspects of their design.