Skylanders SWAP Force (Activision: Xbox 360, Xbox One, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, WiiU, Wii, 3DS) is the third installment in what is easily the most popular new series of games since the first Call Of Duty came out in 2003. And by all accounts, it is the most accomplished and engaging game in this series so far.
But what if, like me, you’ve never played a Skylanders game before, or only played one of the others ones briefly, and are intrigued by all the positive press?
As it turns out, you shouldn’t believe the hype. Well, okay, maybe a little.
For those even less familiar with this series than I am, the Skylanders games are cartoony action-packed adventures that are kind of like Diablo III if it was made by Pixar. But unlike Diablo III and similar action-RPGs, Skylanders doesn’t have you just playing as a single character for the whole game, or switching between a couple of them. Instead, you play as a whole bunch of colorful characters, switching on the fly when you think one of your warriors might be better suited for a battle than the one you’re using.
The kicker being that you don’t switch characters by hitting a button or using an in-game menu, but by putting a different toy on The Portal Of Power (which, admittedly, looks like a hot tub you might see at The Playboy Mansion). Each character has their own attacks, and even level up individually, with all that info being stored in the toy itself.
They’ve even, for Skylanders SWAP Force, added new toys that have separate top and bottom parts which connect with magnets, which lets you mix and match them. It even gives you totally different characters if you mix the same two characters in different ways. Putting Blast Zone’s upper body with Wash Buckler’s lower half, for instance, gives you Blast Buckler while combining Blast Zone’s lower half with Wash Buckler’s upper body gives you Wash Zone (the latter of which, admittedly, sounds more like a Laundromat than a warrior).
Having so many characters, and being able to switch them on the fly, is what makes Skylanders SWAP Force kind of engaging. By being able to mix it up, even within the same fight, you can not only tailor your attacks to specific enemies, but you also just keep yourself from getting bored by doing the same thing over and over.
Which is good since so much of this game does just have you doing the same thing over and over. Regardless of how your character attacks, be it by whacking an enemy or shooting them, this is pretty much a simple button masher, with the occasional bit of platforming thrown in for good measure.
Sure, there are some brief interludes where you might, say, grab a turret and start shooting, but these are few and far between.
The diversity added by the characters is also, of course, limited by the number of toys you own. Especially since certain areas can only be unlocked by certain kinds of characters. Each warrior is aligned to an element (wind, fire, etc.), and while the main quest is open to all, you can only, for example, open a windy door if you have a windy character.
I get that this is so you’ll buy a windy character (and a fire character and a magic character…), and I don’t begrudge Skylanders SWAP Force for doing this. And, to be honest, most of the side areas I did get to go to — thank you fire character — were rather unsubstantial and just more of the same. But that doesn’t stop me from wishing I had a windy character.
There’s also one aspect of Skylanders SWAP Force that’s annoying regardless of which character you play as: how slow they move. I enjoy a good saunter now and then, but in my games, I want to move and move fast. And these guys don’t move fast.
It’s also odd that while this flirts with having a darker edge, it never quite commits. Some of the jokes made by Captain Flynn — who’s voiced by Patrick Warburton from Family Guy and The Venture Brothers — are funny and weird, but always in a very obvious way. And the same goes for Richard Steven Horvitz, who voices Kaos here much like he did Zim in the far edgier and weirder cartoon Invader Zim. Similarly, while Kaos’ facial make-up makes him look like the singer of a Norwegian death metal band, it seems more like a happy accident than a sly nod to metal fans.
But the real problem that I, as an adult, have with Skylanders SWAP Force is how it dumbs things down way too much. Yes, I get this is a kids’ game, and thus over explaining everything in a slow, deliberate way makes perfect sense. I wouldn’t change any of it. But as someone who’s not a 10-year-old, or even a 10-year-old trapped in a 45-year-old’s body, I still found it to be irritating.
That said, playing what is essentially a call back to such old school action-RPGs like Gauntlet was still fun for a while, mostly because the characters were rather inventive. While the story didn’t grab me, and this never made me wish I had more characters than the ones that come in the starter set, just getting to run around, mashing on the buttons, kept me entertained for a couple of days.
Though it also got me wondering if an adult version of this game would even work. Sure, it would be easy enough to do with characters from Star Wars or Marvel Comics or even some darker original characters, especially if they made the world darker and put more depth into the combat, but would it still work with the mechanic of having to put a toy on a hot tub-looking contraption?
Honestly? Yeah. Because while the game did feel childish at time, moving the toys around never did. It oddly felt more like moving a chess piece than playing with a child’s toy.
Ultimately, Skylanders SWAP Force didn’t win me the way I was thinking it might, but it also didn’t irritate the fuck out of me the way I was worried it might, either. It’s a bit too childish, and I decidedly prefer the darker edge and deeper gameplay of Diablo III. But, at the very least, I get the appeal.