I purposefully held this Skylanders Swap Force review to see how my kids responded after playing it for a few weeks. I certainly have my own ideas as a mid-30s game reviewer, but Skylanders Swap Force is technically geared toward a younger crowd, so seeing their response was important to me. Did they lose interest after the novelty of swapping figures wore off? Did the missions stay fresh? Did the new Battle Pack and Adventure Pack keep them intrigued?
So three weeks in and with the new content in tow, I asked my seven-year-old son to give his review. He thought for a moment, then came out with this gem: “Skylanders is awesome in a way. You can have the powers of two characters put into one.” And then he walked away.
In 17 words, my son nailed the value proposition of Skylanders Swap Force, gave me his opinion after spending tons of time dynamically swapping characters, and subtly told me there was nothing more to say. The “in a way” comment surprised me, though, because that phrase indicated that on a certain level he understands that the “toys to life” landscape has changed.
The Skylanders franchise has been a billion-dollar cash cow for Activision, and with good reason. Having real-world toys come to life on the TV screen is sheer genius, and the first two outings have mixed kid-friendly glee and plots with adult-nuanced dialogue and gameplay strategy as deep as you want to make it. With Swap Force, Activision and Vicarious Visions have put that depth on steroids. No longer is it about choosing a figure based on its strengths or weaknesses for a specific area, but mixing and matching the top and bottom halves of multiple characters to create personalized toys that cater to a gamer’s play style as well as the task at hand.
That’s where my son’s comment in his brief Skylanders Swap Force review about “two characters put into one” comes in. He instantly recognized what makes Swap Force unique and compelling, and that mixing of characters was just as “awesome” to him three weeks later as it was on launch day. As far as he’s concerned, Skylanders Swap Force is one of the best games to release in 2013, and considering the demographic Activision is going after, that’s all the validation they need.
Parents will also find great reward in Swap Force, as the dynamic swappability introduces a level of gameplay strategy that’s not really been seen in kid-friendly games before. To be frank, I’ve spent many nights swapping halves of figurines and playing through the game’s chapters because the game’s fun and challenging at the same time.
Each chapter has several opportunities to tap into your previous Skylanders’ skills, including areas only accessible to Giants, and the platforming elements introduce some new level design implications. To be fair, the platforming can get a bit excessive at times, and I recall multiple times where the camera proved more meddlesome than helpful. But considering everything the game does right on the whole, I can let those instances slide. Especially since the kids didn’t notice them.
The new Swap Force Zones also add some intrigue and really help the long-term replayability of Swap Force. In the first two Skylanders games, players would encounter special bonus missions accessible only to Skylanders of a specific ability (Undead, Air, Earth, etc.). These Swap Force Zones operate much the same way, although they’re based not on “race,” per se, but on ability (spin, sneak, climb, bounce, etc.). As long as the bottom half of a Swap Force toy meets the requirement, you can access the special mission.
These missions aren’t just bonus areas with Hats and whatnot, but full-on minigames that feel like Frogger, Space Harrier and others. Once you pass them, they then become Swap Zone Challenges accessible from the hub at any time you want to play them. If content were measured in pounds, Skylanders Swap Force would be elephantine in scope. The ability to swap characters and play these new Zones and Challenges are a big reason why.
It’s admirable that Activision hasn’t rested on its laurels with the Skylanders series, because there hasn’t really been any competition. That changed this summer with the release of Disney Infinity, though. And based on the Toy Box Mode alone in that game — plus feedback from my son and his seven- and eight-year-old friends — Activision may have to jump the shark to keep their lead in the “toys to life” genre. Online multiplayer or world-creation seem to be the only routes Activision can take at this point with Skylanders, but I have no doubt the company and its stable of Skylanders developers will be able to meet the challenge.
So three weeks in, would I recommend that Skylanders Swap Force find its way onto your holiday shopping list? Without hesitation, I say yes. My kids can be fickle, and my son can be quite finicky even by seven-year-old-boy standards. To have his ongoing interest, plus that of my four-year-old daughter, and to keep me wanting to play more almost a month later, Skylanders Swap Force has achieved something special. This game and Disney Infinity are both can’t-miss titles, making it a good year to be buying games for your kids. And hey, like those old Looney Tunes cartoons, you’ll undoubtedly find something there to enjoy for yourself, too.
Score: 9 — There’s a lot to like about Skylanders Swap Force, from the uniqueness of swapping characters to the mini-game longevity of Swap Force Challenges. Activision continues to set the bar high for this series. The company may have to pull a rabbit out of its hat to stay ahead of the competition in future outings.
Platform reviewed: Xbox 360