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Skylanders Swap Force (Xbox 360) artwork

Skylanders Swap Force (Xbox 360) review

"If you're okay buying more figurines, Skylanders Swap Force offers a meaty adventure with a hefty amount of content to justify every dollar spent. Just don't expect to get away with your wallet intact."

Sometimes, it’s okay that someone just wants to sell you a bunch of plastic toys. It worked fine when Hasbro had that in mind for its G.I. Joe and Transformers properties, and it suited a bunch of other products. In the video game realm, it led to Skylanders, which now is enjoying its third proper release thanks to Skylanders Swap Force.

Though the previous two titles in the series were developed by Toys for Bob, which took a struggling Activision property and turned it into a monster hit, this newest installment comes courtesy of Vicarious Visions (previously best known as a port house that has had some of its most noteworthy successes with portable versions of other people’s games). That fact might cause you to worry that the new Skylanders game is a half-hearted effort, a quick cash-in from a company that is no longer worried about providing genuine entertainment, and I can sympathize with those fears. I had them myself when I started playing.

Skylanders Swap Force asset

I wish I could say that extended time with Skylanders Swap Force proved those fears to be completely unfounded, but the truth isn’t quite that awesome. This third outing is every bit as refined as its predecessors and features a wealth of great content that should appeal to youngsters and possibly older siblings or parents who play at their side, but it can’t entirely push aside the nagging sense that really the franchise only continues to exist so that people will buy more plastic figures. The sense has existed before, but it was never quite so pronounced. That puts a damper on things.

The game begins with a story that explains why the old figures just won’t do. Flynn, the pilot from the previous two games, is taking a vacation to see a volcano, only it turns out the volcano is a magical gathering place where four elemental guardians gather every hundred years to redistribute the magic that fills all of Skylands. They’re about to come together again, and that has given recurring villain Kaos a plan: he’ll “evilize” one of the four guardians and thus spread the power of evil throughout the realm, casting everything into eternal darkness. Now it’s up to Flynn to save the day, with help from you and from a recently rediscovered group of Skylanders known as… the Swap Force.

You saw that coming, didn’t you?

The Swap Force is a special new breed of Skylander, like the Giants before them. Due to some hocus pocus that resulted when they once saved Skylands from great evil hundreds of years ago, they’re now able to chop themselves in half and switch torsos with one another, with no nasty side effects and with lots of perks. For instance, a fire-based character can now merge with an air type, gaining improved mobility while also retaining the ability to burn through stuff like nobody’s business. Besides the standard eight elements, though, the special new breed of Skylander also can use one of the same number of special abilities. These allow them to access special gates that lead to mini-games.

Skylanders Swap Force asset

The Skylanders Swap Force starter kit comes with two members of the Swap Force team: a fire character (Blast Zone) and a water character (Wash Buckler) . Their top and bottom halves are kept together by small magnets, but you can easily pull them apart and then mix those two heroes to produce a third option: Blast Buckler. Also included in the bundle is the Stealth Elf, who is of the Life element. He is not technically part of the Swap Force team, and so he cannot be split in half unless you take a hacksaw to him or something (which is not advisable). In fact, most of the toys in the third generation lack the ability to easily be torn asunder, but they can still be pretty cool… if you have money to burn and aren’t worried about getting the most gameplay bang for your buck. You are also able to use any Giant characters you may have around from a romp with Skylanders Giants, though their role here is now limited almost exclusively to opening chests before you switch them out again for someone more useful. They basically come in handy once per stage, just barely guaranteeing that you can’t do everything in the new game unless you own at least one of those figurines (it doesn’t matter which one). Also, the original characters from Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure also work, just in case, though they also will see limited use.

If you’re interested in spending as little money as possible, it plays out like this: you work your way through the very first stage, and you’re able to do almost everything using the characters that come with the Starter Kit. However, you can’t open one oversized chest without using a Giant. There’s also one area that you can’t access unless you have Grilla Drilla, a “dig” character that I wasn’t able to find in local stores. I had to order it online, and it apparently is a rare figurine in other regions too because I had to pay more than the usual $15 or so that the premium Swap Force figures retail for under normal circumstances. He’s an awesome character that lets you plant a turret to mow down enemies while you move in close with your drill arms, but it sucks that I had no way to play through any areas locked behind certain gates until I made a third-party Amazon seller’s day. I also hear that the “stealth” characters still aren’t available, which means there are still some areas in the game that you can’t reach no matter what, even if you’re ready to spend money.

Skylanders Swap Force asset

The good news is that if you do invest in those other characters--albeit with some grumbling, if you’re poor like me--you get a fair bit more than you might expect out of the deal. Each character you add to your collection expands your options significantly, until you have one swappable figure with each ability. For instance, I bought a “spin” character and gained access to numerous bonus stages throughout the game, where I then got to play a mini-game that resembles the Chaos Emerald bonus stages in Sonic the Hedgehog. Those aren’t available if you don’t have a character of that type, and they’re actually kind of cool.

Once you do have the various character skills, you can unlock a greater percentage of each standard campaign stage, which affects your ranking and gives you access to important items such as hats (for armor boosts), emerald butterflies (for cheaper character upgrades in shops) and so forth. The stars are actually a great deal more important than you might imagine, thanks to a new twist: you can now gain levels as the portal master. As you rank up, you gain access to additional equipment at shops, and you can also place items on pedestals in the home hub that grant buffs, such as a 10% increase to attack power or elemental damage. Stages that you find while clearing the campaign--and using the special characters--then become available from the hub and can earn you even more stars and content, which really opens up the game like never before. So I’m torn as to whether or not this is a good thing. The default game you can play through without initial investment is satisfying and expansive, but there’s so much more to see if you buy more plastic figurines.

Skylanders Swap Force asset

That’s the nitty-gritty, then, but how does the game fare in more general terms? It mostly does just fine. Skylanders Giants introduced some interesting puzzle segments that I praised it for at the time, and that stuff is basically gone here. However, the levels are now more vibrant and inviting in general, and a bit more action-packed with less down time. Boss battles are also distinct and memorable (in particular, I like one that involves a villain putting on a stage performance; that was cool). Most of the more frustrating elements from the last two games have also been toned down or removed entirely, so that in general I would say the game is more polished but offers just a touch less personality than I’ve come to expect from the IP.

Ultimately, Skylanders Swap Force is clearly a means to an end. The goal is to get you to buy a bunch of plastic figurines, just like you surely thought it might be, but there’s definitely reason to take the plunge. If you’re new to the series, this is a great starting point, and playing with your old characters remains enjoyable if you’re a returning veteran. There may come a time when the Skylanders becomes a total cash-in or stops offering anything new enough to warrant continued investment and consumer interest, but it hasn't arrived yet. I would recommend picking this title up ahead of the fairly disappointing Disney Infinity any day. There was reason to doubt that things would work out, but Skylands is worth amassing a plastic army to save. Again.


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Staff review by Jason Venter (October 31, 2013)

Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.

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