With the holiday gift-shopping season close at hand, a pretty good battle is shaping up between two powerhouse franchises: Disney Infinity and Skylanders. The latter has had the previous two seasons to itself and has made hay at retail, taking kids – and some adults – by storm and literally creating a franchise from scratch. With Disney Infinity now on the market, there’s some pressure on Skylanders SWAP Force to hold its own against a significant competitor. After spending some time with the final product, I can honestly say that the game delivers and actually improves on the addictive and fun qualities that the past two games have offered. It’s not a perfect game for all ages, but it is a blast to play… even with just the Starter Set and without dropping serious cash on extra figures.
Skylanders SWAP Force has two key differences from previous games. One is the ability to use SWAP characters either as they are or by taking the head and torso off of one character and replacing it with another. This creates new character combinations and adds dual elemental affinities. Depending on how many SWAP Force figures you have, the possibilities for unique characters can be quite impressive. For example, I prefer Wash Buckler’s sword attack and Blast Zone’s speed (driven by his lower body). I created the perfect character for my style of play by combining Wash Buckler’s torso with Blast Zone’s bottom. The figure looks a little odd, but the results on-screen have been perfect. Unfortunately, the Starter Pack only comes with two SWAP Force characters… so the initial combinations are a bit limited. If you’re willing to spend money on more figures, though, the combinations increase and it’s fun trying different ones to see how they look and how they fare in the game. The other difference is that SWAP Force requires a new Portal of Power, meaning that buying the Starter Pack for $75 is necessary… even if you own a Portal from past games. This is in stark contrast to Skylanders Giants last year, which didn’t require a new Portal to play if you’d bought one for Skylanders back in 2011.
The rest of the SWAP Force experience is familiar, but that’s not at all a bad thing. The game still feels very much like a Diablo Jr. offering, with tons of enemies to take down, treasure to find, and quests to complete as the Skylanders team up with Flynn (voiced once again by Patrick Warburton) to save Skylands from another plot hatched by Kaos…with an unwanted assist from his mother (voiced by Christine Baranski). It’s possible to play straight through the story and not engage in any side quests or missions, but it’s not recommended since experience and coins are rewards for almost everything you do and will make later parts of the main quest line a bit easier. Each level also has its share of hidden items, including hats, legendary treasures, and soul gems. The soul gems are particularly significant because they are final upgrades for each Skylander’s special moves and can only be found, not bought at a shop. If you miss items before finishing a level, you can always replay that stage later. SWAP Force is very much a button masher, with a few light puzzle-solving elements, but it’s also very accessible for players of all ages and skill levels and offers a lengthy main quest of 8-10 hours.
As much fun as I had with Skylanders SWAP Force, there’s one recurring nitpick that probably bothered me more than it will other who play the game. When I play games like these, I tend to comb each area and leave no path untraveled. In Skylanders SWAP Force – as we’ve seen throughout each of the games in the series, there are pathways that will be locked unless you spend the cash on extra figures that have the proper affinity to open each area. In the Skylanders SWAP Force Starter Pack, Fire, Water, and Life elements are represented. If you don’t have a figure with an air affinity, for example, any area with an air affinity lock can’t be accessed. SWAP Force characters also have their own talents, aside from having elemental affinities, and some locks require those abilities to be opened.
It’s important to note that it’s not necessary to own any more figures than what’s included in the Starter Pack in order to play through the main quest line and a fair amount of the side quests and missions; however, if you’re a completist, it won’t be long before these locked areas convince you to either buy more figures or lament that you’re missing out on some content. It’s also important to note that all previous Skylanders figures work in SWAP Force, so if you have holdover characters from past games that have elemental affinities you need to unlock certain areas, break them out of storage and use them.
Skylanders SWAP Force looks and sounds great. The visuals are a bit on the cartoony side, but there are still some nice lighting and particle effects. The new character designs are nice, too. The game runs at a steady 30 frames per second, with only a few instances of slowdown. The story-telling cutscenes are amusing to watch, too. The music is quite good, with changing tempos and styles. The voice acting is top-notch, which has become expected with games in this series, and the voice cast is a mix of familiar video game voice acting talent along with a few Hollywood surprises. Overall, the production values in SWAP Force are very strong and shows that Activision and Toys For Bob put serious effort into this sequel.
It’s hard not to compare Disney Infinity and Skylanders SWAP Force; however, it’s important to note that the two games really aren’t that similar. Yes, each game revolves around placing figures on a USB-connected portal. Yes, it’s possible to spend a ton of money on additional figures to see everything that each game has to offer. Outside of those similarities, though, Skylanders SWAP Force is more of an accessible game right from the onset while Disney Infinity is as much about being creative and building your own experience as it is a pre-built game. Infinity has more replay value if players are willing to build more levels and activities, while Skylanders has everything laid out for players and it’s a matter of picking up the game and playing…with additional replay value based around buying extra figures and unlocking certain areas and quests in the game.
I had a great time playing Skylanders: SWAP Force, and I do recommend it despite the somewhat steep cost of entry. It doesn’t take long for the game to become addictive to the point of deluding yourself by saying, “Just one more level and I’m done for the night.” That’s always a good sign.