This review was created in collaboration with a five year old from South Wales called Owen Phillips - his opinions have influenced both the text and the score of this title.
For all the flak Activision continuously receive year on year, most of which is justified, they sure as hell know how to make money. Case in point, Skylanders - the absolutely genius idea of marrying toy collection with a colourful, Saturday morning cartoon like console experience. A formula so good in fact that Disney recently spent a small fortune copying the formula with the releases of Disney Infinity. Not to be outdone Skylanders are back for their third outing and this time the figures can be mixed and matched. What does this mean to mums and dads across the land? Well, your kids are going to want this and it is going to cost you a small fortune, but be comforted by the fact that it’s actually really quite an excellent, charming little title which has enough going for it that you won’t mind in the slightest picking up that second pad and joining in the fun.
Moving for the first time in the series away from the development team that made Skylanders what it is, Toys to Bob, across to brand new developer Vicarious Visions it would be easy to predict that this latest iteration of Skylanders was a bit of a cash in - a must rush something out, developed by some-one to counter any traction that Disney Infinity was getting in the marketplace. Interestingly though Skylanders Swap Force is actually the best outing in the franchise to date, marrying the kid friendly gameplay with new, interesting mechanics, lush backdrops, the now expected deadpan almost adult humour and you have a game that is perfect for some father son co-op action. Imagine if you will taking your five year old to a new animated flick, as the parent you are just wishing there is enough in there for a grown up to make enduring a kids movie more bearable - the principle is exactly the same with video games and Skylanders Swap Force nails it.
The newest addition is indeed the characters themselves, whereas before they were solid single figures, they are now two part, top and bottom, quite literally and held together by some cute magnets. Not only is this an interest aesthetic change it fundamentally changes the way in which your characters can be used. Want to mix the bottom with the top to create new wacky variations? That’s exactly the point! The new ability to create a ton of random characters along with the ability to level up the top and the bottom independently is the main evolution of the franchise along with a subtle yet brilliant gameplay tweak we will discuss later, hell they even package in a wall chart with all the possible character variations.
The format for Skylanders Swap Force remains more or less the same as with the previous titles. A group of Skylanders must save the floating Skylands from Kaos and his ever increasing band of whacky cohorts and to do this they must battle through a series of similar missions through rich, colourful landscapes, racing against time to collect the ancient guardians of Skylands before Kaos can turn them to evil. It’s nonsense of course but kids and adults alike didn’t flock to the series for its narrative, it is but a means to an end. As with previous outings though your main companions provide enough quips and one liners to make any adult gamer raise a smile, all the while the younger counterpart has no idea what’s going on except that baddies need to be bashed!
The core gameplay remains just about the same as previous efforts, it’s a brawler for kids with light and heavy attacks dominating proceedings, although this time our adventurers are aided by the simplest of tweaks… jumping. Amazing how such a simple concept can fundamentally improve an experience, providing level variation never seen before in the series. Multiple levels along with a series of concealed areas open up the game providing not only a number of ways to tackle certain objectives but often subtle twists on the plethora of collectibles which can be sought out.
Speaking of level variation, there are still many areas which are only accessible by placing certain characters or certain combinations as a result of the swap force characters to enable access. The game, with its character previews, is always pushing you to buy more - the starter pack even comes with a wall chart of all combinations, which for any young kid is like having a shopping list on the wall, allowing them to tick them off one at a time. The game reinforces this at every opportunity, areas are fenced off for certain combos but a lot of these areas can be accessed if you kept your characters from previous games. Luckily for all parents out there, all your old characters still work, even though it’s a completely new portal so some of those hidden areas are accessible with your old toys, though sadly later in the game you need swap force combos for entry.
As with previous outings a hub world is present where in which you can upgrade your characters, assign magic items found out in the field and open up randomly placed gifts to aid you in your quests. The RPG elements add a little, particularly with the character movesets but there is nothing particularly deep to be found, it’s all pitched just about right for the target audience. The inherent gamers desire to level up is there but it’s neither taxing to achieve nor a brain teaser when deciding what powers to improve. There is just enough there to keep people coming back for me and plenty for the parents to keep shelling out for - are you seeing a common theme?
Skylanders was the pioneer of the toy gaming cross sell and it continues to innovate through iteration, proving beyond doubt that whatever people say about Activision, they know how to exploit a market opportunity and once they get in there, they know exactly how to milk that cash cow for everything it has. Skylanders is a solid purchase for young kids, or young kids playing with a parent and has the advantage of physical toys which the kids can discuss over a dairylea sandwich in school. Sadly for the parents it’s a pricey endeavor but at least they too will have some fun along the way.
The best Skylanders game to date and a must for all fans of the franchise, young and maybe old - apologies to the parents out there.