Saturday, December 21, 2013

Skylanders: Swap Force

With the releases of Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure and its sequel, Giants, being only a year apart from each other, the Skylanders franchise seemed to have established an annual release schedule for future games in the series. The newest game in the franchise, Skylanders: Swap Force, enforces this by being released just a year after the last one, Giants. With some video game franchises such as Assassin’s Creed moving toward an annual release of sequels (to some differing results), it’s understandable if one becomes wary of a decay in quality over time. Considering the fates of Activision’s Guitar Hero and Tony Hawk franchises, I wasn’t sure what to make of it for Skylanders, especially considering it requires more of an investment than most other games to get the full experience (not unlike the series’ new competitor, Disney Infinity). Swap Force appears to be showing the new main developer, Vicarious Visions, has some interesting ideas in store for the series, including, but hopefully not limited to, introducing the ability to swap the top and bottom halves of special Skylanders figures, the titular Swap Force, to create new Skylanders and increase the possibilities (over 250 possibilities, according the advertising, assuming you have all the figures). While this is a rather interesting premise for the toys, and a new gimmick to keep a collector like me invested, let’s see if the latest game can hold up as well as the toys can.

The game opens in the past by introducing us to the Swap Force, who gained the ability to swap after being caught in an eruption from a magical volcano on the Cloudbreak Islands while trying to stop Kaos. In the present, while Captain Flynn is trying to have a vacation in the same area after his previous adventures, he runs into a girl named Tessa, who has been seeking the Skylanders to help drive attacking forces away from the village of Woodburrow. Since he has the Skylanders with him, Flynn agrees to help. Meanwhile, with the eruption of the Cloudbreak Volcano upon them, Kaos has a plan to rule over Skylands by using a cache of crystallized evil he had dug up to evilize one of the four Ancient Elementals, who gather every 100 years to have the volcano erupt magic unto Skylands. At the same time, however, Kaos must deal with a new threat aside from the Skylanders: his own evil mother.

Wash Buckler, one of the new Swap Force characters
(included in the regular console Starter Packs).
The graphics of Swap Force seem to go for a more realistic look than in previous Skylanders games, especially during cutscenes, while still managing to retain its cartoonish art style. This is evident when comparing Captain Flynn’s appearance to the last two games, since the new direction with the graphics has given him a slight, yet noticeable, change in design (he, Master Eon, Kaos, and Glumshanks are among the few returning non-toy characters). Within all of this, the game also seems to have a wider range in its color palette, though it skews brighter while using darker colors when necessary, which helps fit with the somewhat more realistic visuals. As with Spyro’s Adventure and Giants, Swap Force has some really good music in general, with some nice variety in the background music, which is composed such that it doesn’t get grating to listen to after a while. One musical sequence in the game I was particularly impressed with was the introduction to a boss fight against a puppeteer named Mesmeralda, which featured some interesting visuals paired with a very well-performed song.

Also kept up with the previous games is the quality of the voice acting. While the voice acting for the Skylanders has seen some improvement since the last game, with each of them having a variety of phrases depending on the situation, the non-toy characters also have good delivery with their lines. Patrick Warburton does a good job reprising his role as Captain Flynn, as does Kari Wahlgren as Tessa, their interactions with each other and other characters providing some good laughs to go along with the more serious moments of the game. Reprising his role as Kaos, Richard Steven Horvitz continues to make his character one of the most enjoyable in the entire game as he ups the hamminess while delivering some extremely funny lines (one of my favorites is when he refers to his own troops as a “failure buffet”).

One thing I have to give the Skylanders developers credit for is making sure the figures remain of excellent quality. The toys for Swap Force are still very impressive to look at, with small details that make them worthwhile to own, even if you’re not willing to play the game. As for the new Swap Force gimmick, I am impressed by how they were able to pull it off. The tops and bottoms of each Swap Force toy (that are members of the titular Swap Force) are held in place by small magnets embedded in the bases of each half, yet the game is still able to read what combination you have created; I’m not sure exactly how this works, but it’s still an amazing feat of technology nonetheless. Though there are an advertised 250+ combinations that can be made with these specific toys, the only toys I used from the Swap Force toyline are the 5 that come with the (limited and expensive) Dark Starter set, which includes the Dark versions of Swap Force members Wash Buckler and Blast Zone, so I have only seen 4 combinations so far, so I’m curious to see what further combinations look like in-game. Fortunately, the game keeps track of these for you with a handy chart.

This brings me to another point. As with Giants, this game requires you to have invested in the new line in order to get certain in-game achievements, or Accolades. For instance, some are obtained by placing a certain number of figures on the Portal of Power, while some are gained by making Swap Force combinations. There’s even one that requires you to have obtained one of the promotional Sidekick toys distributed by Frito-Lay (because you got one, right?). However, these Accolades do have a purpose, in that they give you stars to increase your Portal Master Rank; depending on your current Rank, you can place Legendary Treasures scattered throughout the game onto pedestals in Woodburrow, each one granting you special in-game benefits.

Are these worth paying for a bundle of chips and/or the aftermarket prices?
You decide!
On that note, the game has an added feature wherein you can gain certain advantages depending on what day of the week you are playing. This includes, but is not limited to, increased armor and health, among other things. Personally, I find the best day of the week to play Swap Force to be on Sunday, since on this day your Skylanders figures can gain twice the amount of experience they would normally get, allowing them to level up and reach the current cap (30) faster than usual. This can really go hand-in-hand with the new arena challenges, which includes the usual Battle Arena mode, but also adds Survival challenges that can be played either single-player or local co-op, in which you fight against a few waves of enemies until either you lose or they run out (there is another arena mode, but more on that one later). Each of these survival modes independently gives you stars to increase your Portal Master Rank, so it’s good to play with a friend or relative to gain more stars. With this in mind, I found it best to play the co-op version of the Survival mode on a Sunday with lower-Level Skylanders to not only help max them out, but also gain more money for the Skylander to give them further upgrades; which upgrade path you wish to take for them depends on your preferences. (Note: Swap Force Skylanders have two sets of upgrade paths, one each for the top and bottom halves of each figure.)

As with Skylanders: Giants, Swap Force (the game) has special features for the Swap Force (the group) toys to help make purchasing them worthwhile. To wit, toys with the Swap Force gimmick have special abilities in the bottom half, each represented by a symbol (ex. Wash Buckler has a ladder symbol, meaning he has the Climb ability; Blast Zone has a rocket symbol, meaning he has the Fly ability). Within each stage are special Swap Zones, which can be unlocked by having a Swap Force figure whose symbol on the bottom half of the combination matches the symbol needed to unlock the Zone. Within these Zones are special challenges that can only be performed by members of the Swap Force; once these are successfully completed, you can replay them in the Arena to gain more stars for your Portal Master Rank. While this helps provide some replay value for the game and creates some incentive to use more Swap Force toys, I didn’t find that much need to use the Swap Force during gameplay, though some of that might be that I only have the two Swap Force figures that come with the Starter Pack.

Dark Wash Buckler, the Dark variant of Wash Buckler
(included in the Dark Edition Starter Pack).
To access further Swap Zones however, you are at the mercy of the availability of certain Swap Force enabled toys. While some may or not be harder to find depending on where you go to buy these toys, there are two in particular, Trap Shadow and Stink Bomb, who (at the time of this writing) don’t appear to be available right now. This renders the Swap Zones requiring the Stealth ability impossible to access, meaning you have to wait a while until they become available. This is on top of the fact that single Swap Force Skylanders cost about as much as a single Giant, so if you desire to collect more of these figures, it is best advised to tread carefully with your wallet.

This is Stink Bomb. At the time of this review, he
and Trap Shadow are not yet available.
On that note, I wish to break down how backwards compatibility works with Swap Force in relation to the Spyro’s Adventure and Giants figures. In order for the toys representing members of the Swap Force to properly function with the new game, they require a new (wired) Portal of Power, which comes with every Starter Set; the older (wireless) Portal of Power will not be able to register these particular toys. Aside from this caveat, every single Skylanders toy released so far will work with the new game (with Series 3 versions of Spyro’s Adventure toys being compatible with every game and Series 2 versions of Giants toys presumably being compatible with Giants). Items from previous expansion packs will work as they always have, with some improvements over their respective updates for Giants (such as a different layout and placement of their gauges), however location pieces from Spyro’s Adventure will no longer unlock a new gameplay level, rather they only provide their secondary effect of raining destruction upon enemies. This was most likely to get players to purchase the new expansion packs made for Swap Force, namely the Tower of Time set (available now) and the Sheepwreck Islands set (not available yet), which makes sense from a marketing standpoint, but may provide minor disappointment for long-time players (at least the older sets still have a purpose).

As for the new Portal of Power itself, it actually has a pretty nice design (which of course is how it appears in-game), and it seems to work better than the older version. While using this new Portal, I didn’t experience any of the problems I did with the first one, which can probably be attributed to the fact that it is wired instead of wireless (this might also be why it can read the Swap Force members’ toys while the other one can’t, but then again I’m not entirely sure how this technology works the way it does). It should also be noted that the new Portal of Power is compatible with all three games, while attempting to use the previous Portal will result in an error screen. While this may be a little unfortunate for some, I would still recommend using the new Portal anyway, since it works better than the other one. Also, depending on where you normally place your gaming consoles and whatnot, I wouldn’t worry too much about the new Portal’s wire, since it actually has a pretty good length to it, so playing in a medium-sized room shouldn’t be too much of a hassle.

Speaking of playing, one thing I had mixed feelings on was the level design. Similarly with Giants, the levels in general seem to be somewhat larger than last time. This means they can take a little longer to get through, though I don’t know how much of that was me having enough figures to want to try out as much as I could in a level. Regardless, with the additional areas I could access, it would take me at least an hour or so (maybe even up to two) just to get through one level, which could get a little exhausting after a while. Thankfully, the Boss fights were a little easier to take (even after having to go through a rather large stage to get to them), and some of them could be rather clever and challenging at times (special mention goes to the fight against Kaos’ Mom).

However, there is still some creativity in the level design, in that some gates leading to certain areas require two Elements to open, rather than just one, allowing you to get creative with your Swap Force combinations to get through (although since I only had two figures from the Swap Force team, I often took the other option and used two figures, one of each required Element, to unlock said gate). The lock-picking minigame from the first two games has also been replaced by a different one, in which you must reunite two creatures named Shock and Bolt, switching between controlling each one to help the other advance (bonus treasure is rewarded for collecting the Bolts within each one of these as well). Though the special Giants areas in the Giants game are absent, there is still some use for these toys, since within each level you can find chests which only a Giant can open, which adds replay value to your collection (assuming you have at least one of them in the first place).

Your wallet will not escape the pull for long.
(Pictured: Crusher, one of the Giants.)
Before I end this, I would like to give one last bit of praise to the inclusion of a jump button. Since I played the PS3 version of Swap Force, I thought the ability to jump would be omitted like in Spyro’s Adventure and Giants (though it was there in the handheld versions from what I have read), but I was genuinely surprised by its inclusion with the console version of this game, and I wholeheartedly welcome it. The decision to include this was likely to make things work with the larger level design and the increased amount of jumping and to not clog the levels with Bounce Pads, but having this feature in general (to me) opens up a little more freedom when controlling each Skylander. I know I’ve been devoting an entire paragraph to this single feature, but it’s something I really missed from the first two games.

In the end, Skylanders: Swap Force is a creative and welcome addition to the Skylanders franchise. Sure, the levels can take a while to get through if you have enough of the figures to be able to access certain areas, but the interesting ideas brought about by the Swap Force mechanic really help to make the game stand out, even amongst the other Skylanders games, and helps the series feel less formulaic in the long run (which hopefully continues in a potential sequel). Fans of the Skylanders series, especially those in the younger player base, would definitely find some enjoyment in this game, including trying to get more mileage out of the Swap Force gimmick. If you are a newcomer to the Skylanders series, I would recommend at least playing through the Story Modes of the first two games first, if only to get a handle on the overall Skylanders story to better understand the plot of Swap Force. While I do wish to get more mileage out of the game by collecting more of the figures, I would still probably try to spread them out over time so as to go easy on my wallet.

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