There's just something that's immensely thrilling about putting a plastic toy on a magic portal and watching it come to life on-screen. You've leveled them up, developed their abilities, and dressed them up with your favorite hats. Now, with Skylanders: Swap Force, players can personalize their characters even more with the 32 total added characters to the roster--half of which have swappable parts. But developer Vicarious Visions has improved on much more than making a few new plastic figures for you to hunt down in stores. Swap Force offers more robust gameplay, tons of addictive collectibles, and a clever way to make each of the new characters your own.
The diabolical child-villain Kaos has returned, and this time the evil mastermind is trying to take over the Cloud Break Islands--the home of a powerful, magic-spewing volcano. The new setting isn't much different from Skylands world in the previous games: You'll explore a variety of colorful, detailed environments in a diablo-style action adventure button masher filled with cute themes and characters. The NPCs you'll encounter throughout the story--like a shysty, swindler shark and a German-accented, pirate crab--are memorable and entertaining enough to make you wonder what quirky characters you'll run into next.
Developer Vicarious Visions has a bigger emphasis on storytelling and presentation than any game in the series. Beautiful flybys show off each level before you hop in, and every new enemy encounter gets a short introduction scene that further emphasizes the cuteness of the characters. While the narrative sticks to a simplistic stop-the-bad-guy's-evil-plot theme, the cutscenes have gotten a noticeable upgrade in quality. The CGI scenes and voice acting on par some of the best computer animated cartoons you might see on a Saturday morning and the leading characters, like Flynn and Tessa, are charming and humorous.
The gameplay has also had its share of improvements over the previous titles. Chief among them is the inclusion of the 16 new Swap Force figures' swapping mechanic. Each character splits into a top and bottom part, which can be swapped with any other character's corresponding part. For example, the sword slashing skills of Free Ranger's top half can be combined to the teleportation ability of Hoot Loop's bottom half to create a melee brawler with a blink ability. With dozens of combinations between the new figures, players can mix and match the mobility and combat abilities to create their preferred play-style, giving you more control over your character's progression than before.
Even seemingly minor changes add a surprising amount of variety to Swap Force. Because all of the Skylanders can now jump, many of the optional Elemental Gate challenges (which are unlocked using a specific Skylander element type and combined elements using Swap figures) are now platforming stages. But the platforming elements don't present any additional challenge; missing a jump doesn't cause you to lose any health and your character is immediately transported to the closest platform. The forgiving difficulty is definitely great for younger demographics, but the jumping challenges may feel a bit too easy for more experienced players.
Additional minigames have been added, too, which correspond to the Swap Force characters' mobility skills. Players will have to swap out their character's bottom half to climb vertical walls with octopus legs, use a speedy robot wheel in a timed race, or attach rocket boost legs to take on the flight challenge. Each of the minigames do well to break up the button-mashing combat of the main game, as do Sonic the Hedgehog-style rail grinding sections and electronic lock picking puzzles that provide the necessary variety to keep the gameplay from getting stale.
Swap Force's simplistic but addictive gameplay is enjoyable for gamers of any skill level. There are still tons of collectibles to hunt down, experience points to earn, and combat abilities to unlock. On top of that, the entire story campaign features a drop-in, drop-out local co-op that lets up to two players take their Skylanders characters through the 15 plus-hour campaign and several horde-style arena modes, and the figures are compatible across all platforms, making it easy to have friends join in. However, the arena modes do come up short with a limited number of maps and only three rounds to test your leveled characters against. Swap Force's competitive element has only been slightly expanded with a Smash Bros.-style Ring Out mode, but the bland maps won't entice you to stay for long.
Skylanders: Swap Force is definitely aimed toward the younger demographic, but for the gamer parents out there, it's the perfect game to play with your little ones. Whether you're collecting the figures, grinding through the main campaign, or just swapping out Swap Force parts to find new character combinations, you'll have a blast. If you're new to the Skylanders scene, starting a functional figure collection will cost you as much as the initial game itself, but once you're in, the simplistic, fun gameplay, inventive character designs, and charming world will have you hooked.
This game was reviewed on Xbox 360.