A few years ago, I reviewed the original Skylanders game and was very impressed with not only the concept, the but the execution. It was a fun game, for all ages even, and the tech involved simply worked great. I missed out on Skylanders Giants, but was pleased to receive a Skylanders SWAP Force 3DS Starter Pack along with three other characters for review. Minor note: the characters in the 3DS Pack (Rattle Shake, Volcanic Eruptor, and Free Ranger) are not available in any other Starter Pack. Anyway, having seen SWAP Force behind doors at E3 (although not the 3DS version), I already knew what SWAP Force’s primary contribution to the Skylanders franchise was: the ability to mix-up sixteen new characters, thereby creating up to 256 unique combinations of playable characters. Physically, the toys have small magnets in the middle, making them easy to take apart, but they also literally snap themselves together — you can’t screw it up, and it works great. Besides the swap element, SWAP Force also adds the series’ most requested feature: the ability to jump.
As complete as the 3DS version feels, it’s missing a lot from its console counterparts and even an Activision press released describes the 3DS version as a complimentary release. Created by N-Space, players will experience a completely different story on the 3DS. Flynn, the “hero” character in Skylanders, returns, and as you’ll see in the opening cutscene, a celebration in his honor is cut short when suddenly a portal opens up and the evil Count Moneybone appears, along with a robotic, clockwork army. Moneybone is new and unique to the Skylanders series, as is Boomtown (if I’m not mistaken), the (very) small village that acts as the game’s main hub. Boomtown and surrounding areas, which include the Sky Docks, Ancient Woods, Crystal Caverns, and four other worlds are all either under attack or already under Moneybone’s control. It’s up to you, Portal Master, and the Skylanders that you summon (and control), to repel Moneybone and his ever-growing army.
While lacking a lot of the console’s other modes and depth, such as the Battle Arena, Survival Mode, Bonus Missions, and ability to choose your character Upgrades, many of the core concepts of SWAP Force are the same on the 3DS. Each of the seven playable worlds, which are unlocked consecutively, contains at least one playable mission. Mission objectives include one main story quest, and then a few optional quests like finding and destroying all of the chests, collecting x number of coins (usually at least 200), and accessing the ‘hidden’ areas that require either a SWAP Force power, or one of the elemental powers. These areas require the right toys to access, which is where the game really makes its money. Besides elemental gateways requiring fire, air, water, undead, and so on, the SWAP Force ‘gateways’ need abilities like bounce, dig, teleport, fly, and climb. Both types of gateways lead to short, alternative and otherwise inaccessible areas with a few, or perhaps several, additional minutes of gameplay — nothing amazing per se, but interesting nonetheless, I would suspect especially for the younger, targeted audience.
Part of the greatness surrounding the Skylanders series from the start is in how it appeals to gamers of all ages. Its accessible enough for anyone, yet entertaining for everyone, too. Granted, the level design does get repetitive and the difficulty (on Normal at least, but you can change it anytime from the Pause menu) may be too easy for some, but the unique and interesting cast of playable characters continues to propel this franchise forward. Taking the physical toy and placing it on the Portal of Power instantly brings the toy to life in-game, and I’m pleased to say this works as well as it did on my Xbox 360 with the first Skylanders. One big difference with the 3DS version however is that you can only use the Portal at Boomtown. Also, the Portal uses IR to communicate with the 3DS, so its completely wireless (uses the included 3x AAA). Once a toy has been read into the game, its saved, so you don’t need to use the toy again unless you want to sync up your upgraded stats to take to your console version or to a friends house. I have yet to do this actually, but not having to carry around the Portal or my toys makes for a much easier and convenient experience on the go. The only real downside is the loss of interaction with the Portal in switching out characters, but depending on how you play, this may not be a concern at all.
Now actually playing SWAP Force is enjoyable, but the experience does get to feeling a little routine after that second or third hour of play, making it difficult to play long sessions after that. It’s reasonable to expect only about six or seven hours of play out of the game for a first play-through, depending on how thorough you are. Without having access to all, or even most of the elemental and SWAP powers gateways, I probably missed at least two hours of additional play. There are other challenges for completionists though, including Time Attack modes for missions that are unlocked when you first beat them. These task you with replaying a mission against a strict timer set to five, eight, or ten minutes or so, but after trying a few of these, I realized the reward for the amount of effort needed wasn’t sufficient to keep doing them. Each mission also has Coin and Chest challenges too, and with the character level cap now up to twenty (from fifteen), you certainly could take the time to up all of your toys to level twenty.
Finding all 136 Hats, which actually translates to less than 100 since you have some forty-eight or so given to you at the start, may also entice gamers and extend their play time. I liked that players could discover what specific level a given missing hat is located in. You can do this in the Skyland Museum, which is where you can equip a Hat for your Skylanders. The Hats, which include helmets, truck driver’s hats, rain hat, and so, all give the Skylander wearing them a permanent boost in Critical Hit, Dodge, XP, Damage, etc, in addition to giving them a silly new look. The Skyland Museum is also where you can view the avatar and name for 174 Skylanders, and check your Guest Skylanders to see if you have any new playable characters that were picked up with StreetPass (which you can disable). Guest Skylanders are not upgradeable and they only stick with you for one level’s worth of play.
I have yet to mention the controls, so let me address that now. Each Skylander uses X and Y to attack (and Y to interact with some in-game objects), and most Skylanders will have both melee and ranged attacks. As you battle through Moneybone’s army, your XP meter in the lower left increases (it also increases at the end of the mission when your collected coins are tallied). Some levels yield only Health or Damage boosts, others unlock a new upgrade. The upgrades are predetermined, in as far as you reach a certain level, and then you are given one upgrade, no choice about it. Most upgrades simply tweak a previous ability; for Free Ranger for example, after one upgrade I now added a blast of wind to my melee attack combo (i.e., pressing Y a few times). Once you max out the Health and Damage boosts, the character gets upgrades for Luck and Dodge. Anyway, that tangent aside, pressing B will cause your Skylander to jump and double jump. Tapping or pressing A will make them sprint, very useful for not only getting around, but to escape some traps. When you are a SWAP Force Skylander, their special power is activated by pressing L. The two SWAP Force powers I had were a tornado and a snakes coil, which allowed the character of the upper half of the body to bounce around. The tornado ability — which I found more useful — draws breakable objects and nearby enemies in for multiple hits, and also deflects some projectiles back. Additionally, both are used to get into SWAP Force gateways that are otherwise locked. And finally, switching between your previously-scanned Skylanders is as simple as tapping the element symbol on the lower screen and then tapping the avatar icon of the character you want to use. For SWAP characters, you will then be given the opportunity to swap out the lower half.
As far as the presentation quality, I found it somewhat underwhelming. I spent the first three hours or so going back and forth with 3D mode enabled, and found it ultimately useless. I had hoped for a more eye-popping experience with my 3DSXL, but alas SWAP Force is just better played in 2D. Plus, in 2D, Anti-aliasing is enabled according to an Activision press release. I’m not sure I paid enough attention to really notice if aliasing was cleaned up or not, but if it was, it’s not really that noticeable. Regardless of 3D or 2D, I didn’t experience any notable framerate hiccups, and I did appreciate the variety of colors used, but a lot of the textures didn’t seem like they were colored richly enough. Environments look a little flat and lack that pop, that vibrance, you are surely going to see on the consoles (I realize the 3DS is technically no comparison to a console, but this to me seems more of an art direction shortcoming than a technology one). On the other hand, the voiceovers, effects, and music are more consistently positive, if not memorable, for the experience.
To the summary…