When Skylanders Giants came out, I figured maybe the series had hit a wall. It was different from Spyro's Adventure, but not different enough to keep fresh. It was fun, but the series was in serious need of finding a new direction, maybe change up in gameplay and someway of keeping the characters in general interesting. So what in the world could Vicarious Visions do to basically keep this series from becoming stale?
Let's dig right into it.
When you boot up the screen, you'll have to selections to choose from: Story Mode and Arena Mode. Let's begin with story mode, which will be the main draw for the younger audience. The story in this one is that Kaos is back (shocker) and has a new evil plan to evilize everything in the Cloudbreak Islands. You'll find Greebles, bats and whatnot evilized and helping to destroy the land and its inhabitants. The Skylanders Swap Force, a band of heroes that gained the magic power to swap halves because they were caught in a magical volcano's eruption, must band together to save Skylands before it's too late. The story is quite suited for the younger audience, though you will find some fantastic humor embedded that will make you (adults) chuckle. I thoroughly enjoyed the story, as it moved pretty quickly, cleverly and concisely.
Anyway, the very first thing you will notice when you begin your story mode in Skylanders Swap Force is how much the visuals in the game have changed. Vicarious Visions rebuilt their models/environments/look/feel from the ground up and the cartoony, pixilated-at-times models that you found in the last games have been glossed over with new skin. You simply stunning textures, a higher frame rate with this game and lots of gorgeous animation. For example, my favorite character to play during my review time was Wash Buckler, a Davy Jones from the pirates movie kind of fellow with tentacles for feet. His movements are smooth with tentacles suctioning and un-suctioning as he rolls through stages. All of his parts seem to be moving and alive on their own. Nothing looks sketchy or choppy. It's all very beautiful to watch and he's just one of many examples of how good the characters look in the game.
As for the environments, the backgrounds, foregrounds and characters have all been upgraded with smooth detail and it looks absolutely superb. Starting with the background, in the Terra-squid stage of the story mode, where a gigantic god-like squid is residing in the center of the level, as you're jumping from platform to platform, the giant squid in the background is following you with its eyes. The squid also has a follow-focus effect on it that gives the distance between your Skylander and it much more depth. Again, it's visually stunning. As you progress through this stage, your character is shrunk down to fit inside of a large evilized crystal, which you have to destroy. When you're inside the crystal, you can see everything outside in its actual size (huge) and all of it's properly distorted because of how the crystal is shaped. Quite frankly, this is visually amazing and just has a nice attention to detail about it. It's merely one set of examples on how well the environments look and they're pretty darn unique from one another.
Another welcomed treat in the game in terms of presentation is the music. Orchestrated, unique on each level and fun to listen to while you are having your Swap Force adventure. There's little more you can ask for, especially when you end up humming the tunes during gameplay. I know it's not a huge deal for most people, but getting the music right is important for me. This game was built on the idea of adventuring and action, and you get that feeling through a very adventurous composition.
While the look and feel of the game is definitely a step up from the previous games in the series, what about the gameplay? The actual gameplay has been stepped up a bit in several areas. The first big thing you'll notice is the ability to…wait for it…JUMP! Who would have imagined how expansive the game could become by simply adding a jump feature to all the characters. What this allows you to do is explore a bigger world, jump down and up to different side/secret locations and make the game feel a bit less linear. Again, it's a simple addition to the series, and one that should have been done well before this game, that allows for the gameplay to expand a bit more. I'm not saying this is some sandbox type of exploration happening because of the jump feature, but I'm definitely willing to bet the developers had a lot more ideas on what to add in the levels because of 'jump'.
In the same category as jump addition, the control scheme is pretty simplistic, so that kids will be able to pick this game up and go. I'm not shocked that it is this way, but I am continually impressed about how simple, yet complicated, the controls have been made. For example, my favorite character Wash Buckler was able to spit ink and do a rolling attack through the O button. If I pressed and held the O button for about 1-2 seconds then let go, he would spew ink that delayed enemies from attacking. If I just pressed quickly on the O button he would do an attack roll. All through the same button and incredibly responsive. That is pretty much the way the controls work in the game and work well they did. My son and daughters had no issues with the controls, which speaks volumes about well they work.
Shifting a bit to characters, another big plus in the game is the ability to use ALL Skylanders. That includes Spyro's Adventures and Giants, which is a very big deal -- especially if you're a parent not wanting to drop $100 to get caught up with new characters. Much like jump, I'm not sure why this hasn't been the case in previous games, but regardless it's a welcomed addition to the series and one that hopefully is maintained in the future.
Staying with characters, the entire 'swap' idea brings up some interesting predicaments in Skylanders Swap Force. One thing you should know right off the bat is that all Swap characters don't work well together. For example, one of the fire elements called Blast Zone has some pretty cool bomb abilities and some neat firepower from his feet (it propels his movement across the levels this way). When swapped out with my favorite of the new bunch, Wash Buckler -- a Davy Jones/Octopus with tentacles for legs, it just doesn't work that well. Wash's upper torso is fantastic, but the speed of Blast Zone's legs downgrades the mobility of Buckler. Reversed, the tentacles of Buckler seem to be a more effective weapon than Blast Zone's bomb throwing torso. In the end, it's a clunky mix, at least for me. Having said that, mixing Wash Buckler together with the likes of Magna Charge, a tech element, produces much better Swap results. Magna Charge is a magnetic robot that has a single magnetically generated wheel below him. Once attached to Wash Buckler's torso, the results can be speedy devastation to whoever gets in the way. On the flip side, the tentacle attack mixed with Magna's plasma firing arm is equally as devastating. The point is that while you can Swap out 200+ ways, some simply don't work as well as others. Is that a knock? Depends on what you expect. For me, I think it's fine to have an unbalanced character that simply isn't good. It makes you think a bit harder about what works and what doesn't within the game.
Related to the characters, the leveling system in Skylanders Swap Force is pretty darn impressive. To level up, you must collect coins throughout your adventure, which are plentiful. The coins purchase you top/bottom upgrades for the characters you are playing. This does include upgrades for swapped characters, so if you wanted to upgrade Magna's speed with a better sword for Wash Buckler's torso, you can do so. It's incredibly flexible and this actually ups the ante a bit with the swapping decisions. To do the upgrades to your Skylanders, there are strategically placed leveling pods placed throughout the game. The main one can be found in the city of Woodburrow, which you'll spend most of your time in when you're not off saving the world. Anyway, you'll simply get into this pod, the game will ask you if you want to upgrade the top/bottom and you select the upgrades you want for your respective parts and characters. It's a neat dynamic that makes the Swap Force a bit more interesting and provides a bit more depth.
Other upgrades you can find is through soul gems scattered throughout levels, which contain new abilities and powers that are unlocked upon discovery. These are fun to collect and the preview of the power is something of high-end entertainment value that breaks away from the initial gameplay. Seeing a giant killer whale used as a weapon really puts a smile on any Wash Buckler's face. They are fun little discoveries to make through out the leveling.
Additional items of interest you can find during the game include special presents for completing Swap Zone challenges (which are short side quests featuring climbing, speeding down race tracks and flying), such as goofy hats (My boy, Wash Buckler, is sporting a peacock hat at the moment). These presents aren't simply used for adding 'goofiness' to the characters in the game, rather they actually upgrade the skills for players. For example, the peacock hat actually adds more defense to Buckler, which helps tremendously in some of the harder levels. Another neat set of items to pick up are the Legendary items, which (if you didn't know) can be used to unlock more upgrades to the leveling stats of your Skylanders. All of these upgrades and leveling abilities are impressive considering this is a kid's game. The neat thing is that you don't have to do anything you don't want to do in the game in terms of leveling. All of it is up to the gamer and they will progress in the game regardless. Lots of nice choices and ways to go for a big title like this, and all of them apparently well thought out.
Now, let's talk a bit about the Skylanders Arena Mode. This mode features smaller modes that are broken down as such:
- Solo Survival Mode: While the kids were asleep in the house, I was able to jump on and enjoy Solo Survival Mode quite a bit. Basically, you've got multiple arenas to play in where waves of enemies come at you. Playing the first arena was a fun challenge, but by the second arena it became brutal work. Vicarious Visions doesn't hold back, which concerns me a bit when younger kids are playing this mode. I died twice on the second arena, and most of it was towards the end of the final match. It was incredibly frustrating to experience as an adult, so I'm not sure how kids are going to take to it.
- Team Survival Mode: It's just like Solo Survival mode in arena, except you're playing with a second player. It's so much like solo that the enemies actually don't increase in abundance, so the game doesn't compensate for the extra help. Is that okay? You'll think it's easy for the first two rounds, but that final round will be brutal regardless of player count. For the kids, it's a great way to get help with completing levels in arena.
- Rival Mode: Rival mode is fun, but a little anti-climatic, as you simply have to kill more enemies than your teammate. The more enemies you take out, the better your score will be and whoever has the most points at the end of the match wins. It's just a slightly modified version of Team Survival mode.
- Battle Arena Mode: Here's where you must protect your controllers from being thrown. In this mode, you go head-to-head with your teammate in a no-holds bar match. The one who survives is the winner.
- Ring Out Mode: This mode is fun, as you go head-to-head again. When you continually hit your enemy (your teammate) a meter starts building. Once the meter is maxed, you gain (be it briefly) a super punch to knock your opponent off the board. Whoever gets knocked off the board loses.
The arena mode is interesting, as you've got a large variety of levels to play on in each mode featured. There's lots of different challenges and obstacles to look out for in the levels, so it never ever gets boring. It's also a wonderful break from the story mode. The one caveat to this mode is that once you have your Skylanders in place, there's no changing them out. If you start with Wash Buckler, you must end with Wash Buckler during a match. It makes sense, but it certainly makes the game a bit tougher.
With all of this included in one package, is the game fun? As an adult, my completionist side was in need of gathering everything and finding all the nooks/crannies that were contained within the story mode. Even as I type this, I'm still finding new items to gather and new places I hadn't noticed the first go around on levels. So, in short, yes It's fun as heck as an adult. As for kids, they will adore the adventure, the characters that have been added and the different personalities that go along with them. They will find the level design right up their alley and not have a difficult time with it (well, not often). The entire week I've had with this game, I've been fighting my five-year old son for time with it. It's been frightening how badly has wanted to play this, and not just the game, but also just with the toys. So, again in short, kids will adore this game. It's far better than Disney Infinity and definitely more refined.