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Skylanders SWAP Force for Xbox 360 is my first foray into the well established world of Skylanders – the third in a series published by Activision and developed by Vicarious Visions. The premise is that all magic comes from a volcano that erupts once every 100 years in the Cloud Break Islands, and we’re sent in to save it from the dastardly plans of Kaos, the recurring Skylanders villain. I had only played the prior game once on the Wii when a friend of my son’s brought it over. I was more than familiar with the concept and it seemed like a license to print money. They created a toy-interacting-with-game genre, and the near field communication allowed the toys themselves to be impacted by the game, and vice versa.

If you’re well aware of the way the Skylanders series of games works, skip ahead a few paragraphs. I write this section for any newcomer, since I was new to it. In a nutshell, the game is played by placing a toy on a USB connected pad called a portal. This character is then represented in the game, and whatever experience and unlocked abilities were stored in the toy are carried over into the current play session. This makes the toys universal to each version of the game, whether you’re playing SWAP Force on any of the current or next gen consoles. It also allows Activision to sell each of the character toys at retail while remaining platform-agnostic for all but the starter kit.

It also means that the current iteration of the game is compatible with the existing characters from the prior two games: Skylanders Spyro’s Adventures (SSA) and Skylanders Giants (Giants). If my math is correct, you’re looking at well over 150 playable characters, not including the 240 variants of the original 16 SWAP Force models. There are 16 new core characters, 16 series 2/series 3 Skylanders each with a new Wow Pow power and 8 LightCore variants. Suggested retail prices ranges from $10 for the core/LightCore/series 2/series 3 heroes to the $15 SWAP Force ones. Calculating the base version at $75 including three toys, it would cost you $685 dollars for a complete collection of the new game and toys. I don’t even want to imagine what it would cost to have all the Giants and SSA collectibles. I think the only other game that could run a bill so high (currently) is Rock Band with a vast amount of DLC content – but this is far more tangible in value as it represents both the game and physical toys as well.

When the review copy showed up, it included a smattering of characters, including at least one of each type of new figurine. The only thing not included in the kit they sent were any Giants representation – I ended up picking up one on my own to ensure I could experience any of the gameplay that was hidden behind Giants-based locks.

From this point forward I’m going to exclusively refer to the new characters with this caveat: the major differences to the older SSA and Giants toys is that they have had a jump function added within SWAP Force, tuned the in-game character models and art to match the current batch, and have also raised the level cap for all Skylanders to 20.

As mentioned above, the first and most distinct type of Skylander is the SWAP Force team – a group of 16 Skylanders that were caught in a magical storm that gave them the ability to swap powers with their brethren – that is, the top half could be fixed to the bottom half of the other. I focus on the top half, since that is where the money, experience and character voices lie. It is also where the primary and secondary attack modes reside – and what the stat-altering hats travel on.

The bottom half is far from useless, however. Not only is movement determined by the type of legs you have, but there is an attack associated with it, as well as a certain kind of power. For instance, Rattle Shake’s “Shake” half carries with it the ability to swing the tail out, summon a ground attack, or even bounce in the special gated mini-games scattered throughout the Cloud Break Islands.

Each half is also independent of the other when it comes to leveling up and has three standard upgrade slots, a choice of two more skills (you can pick two of four, and that’s it) and a soul gem upgrade which is locked until you find the matching gem in-game. As your Skylanders gain in experience, they carry this data inside the toy themselves – which means that you can pop them together and keep the upgrades for the legs while using a different top.

Then there are the new characters – Skylanders with distinct personalities and skills, such as Fryno or Grim Creeper. They also have three attacks, but unlike the SWAP Force, their upgrade paths are not separated. Instead, you have a total of four initial upgrades, a choice between two sets of three additional skills, and then two soul gem upgrades. This method also holds true for the series 2 and 3 characters as well as the LightCore variants.

They aren’t much different in that regard, but when put on the base, the LightCore statues have an LED embedded that turns on and makes them glow throughout. The series 2 and series 3 models have new Wow Pow powers – something that differentiates them from the earlier versions of themselves (or so I am led to believe, having no personal experience to compare). An example of a Series 3 would be Ninja Stealth Elf – one of her upgrades gives her a ninja outfit and some neat power upgrades such as summoning a tiger ally while in stealth mode.

The toys themselves are hardy and well made. I found the quality of the characters sent to me are slightly better than what I bought in the Giants series, but that is a general observation and may not hold true for all older Skylanders. Included with each one is a sticker to put on your collection poster, as well as a card giving you info on the toy and their powers relative to the other Skylanders. The SWAP Force characters use two magnets which force the top half to align properly with the bottom half. This works surprisingly well. The 360 starter pack comes with two SWAP characters – Wash Buckler and Blast Zone. A third character, Ninja Stealth Elf, is also included along with the USB portal, the game and collectible cards, stickers and aforementioned collectible poster.

But what about the game? Yes, well, much like the toys, the game is aimed squarely at kids in Elementary school – that isn’t to say an adult can’t have fun with it, but expect it to be a kid’s ride. The game certainly contains mild cartoon violence, but it’s not something I would be uncomfortable in having a child play. For reference, the ESRB rated it E10+.

The graphics themselves are decent, but there is a caveat to this: I have already seen this game on next-gen hardware, so it’s hard for me to be excited for the current generation. If compared to existing games, they’ve done an excellent job of bringing the game down to the current hardware level. Graphics are smooth, controls are, for the most part, solid and responsive, and the visual effects of light transitions and character models are great. If I were to nitpick, there are some moments where the voices don’t line up exactly to the animation. This is something you don’t have to look too hard to find, but it’s a stretch to say it takes away from the game. The graphic fidelity is somewhat muddy – I can’t say I’m surprised though.

The drop-in-drop out gameplay is fantastic and is exactly where it needs to be, and having arena challenge modes means you’re not always forced to play game segments simply to build up experience. Having a portal big enough to satisfy the Giants toys as well as the SWAP Force Skylanders is as expected, and the colour-cycling lights add a simple-yet-interesting visual appeal for the toys and the portal itself.

There are four levels of difficulty: easy, medium, hard, and nightmare. Difficulty can be changed on the fly from the pause menu, and nightmare is locked out until you’ve beaten the game which is just as well as I found myself dying occasionally on hard, especially with unused Skylanders. Major differences in the challenge level are expected – not only do we see stronger enemies who can take more damage as well as dish out more – the health recovery from food and leveling up has less impact on the harder difficulties. Risk doesn’t come without reward though – there is also a 10 and 20 percent boost to both gold and experience when you bump up to hard or nightmare (respectively) – something that appeals to older gamers who are looking for more from the combat and may well be playing with higher level Skylanders from earlier games.

As I mentioned above, there are elemental gates where you need to meet requirements to pass. There are also puzzle gates, where you need to get Shock and Bolt together – a mini-game along the same vein as ilomilo where you need to get both controllable characters to come together. Not only have the eight types of elemental gates returned (e.g. fire gate requires a fire character on-screen), but there are now multi-element gates. As long as both elements are represented in either the the top or bottom of your SWAP Force character or in a multiplayer setup, you can gain entry to these zones. The only gates that absolutely require you to have new characters are the unlockable mini-games that depend on the special powers of the bottom half of your SWAP Force heroes. Of the sixteen SWAP Force characters, there are eight special bottom powers (or two of each kind in the entire set). These activities are optional, but can be fun and distracting. I found myself stopping for them rather than passing on, and while I have my favorites, there were two I didn’t get to play since I don’t have a spy SWAP Force character or a driller in the collection sent to me.

I bring this up not because it’s an knock to the game or the kit provided, but because this very gap drives me to compulsively want to buy one of each. That’s $30 on something I don’t need, but definitely want. If it were my wallet that was reviewing the game, it would get a failing grade. Good thing it’s not – it’s a sign of a good game when I want more of it.

The Skylanders aren’t the only thing to level up – you as a portal master also gain levels via completing challenges and being rewarded stars, and unlock things like pedestals to place legendary trophies you find along the way – and each one has special abilities that add to the buffs on whichever character you’re playing. This works really well for times where you start off with a new toy and don’t have much in the way of experience – this buff, along with a hat, can bring your character a little closer to the rest of your collection and perhaps play on a harder level rather than starting off all over.

A situation occurred to me where my savegame became corrupted – now before we start hitting panic buttons I believe it may have been a combination of using the online storage and a bad Internet connection, but I lost everything. All my collected hats, all my portal master experience, and my gameplay progress. What I didn’t lose, however, were any hats my Skylanders were wearing (if I take them off I lose them until my savegame has them in stock again) and all the money and experience each of them carry in the toys. If nothing else, I am grateful for this.

One thing I found lacking is that there is no backstory or personal link to each Skylander – you’re counting on the toy and the combat to connect you to them, and for me, some were either sub-par or couldn’t stand up to being tossed fresh into the hard setting. But then I remind myself – I also don’t pick up Cat in the Hat and expect deep character development either – and when I consider the “he looks cool” factor of the character and toys, that’s all that kids need to make those associations. The task of creating intro videos for 150+ characters is also a big job, and on top of that the space required to store it on a standard Xbox 360 disk is pretty limiting, so it might be me wishing for the moon on that.

I’d like to wrap this particular review up touching on a few things that stuck with me, and may well be due to the preview and the behind-the-scenes look I got back in September. One, you can’t help but hold this up to Disney’s Infinity – and when it comes to the *idea* behind the toybox, this game doesn’t have any response to it. The execution of Skylanders SWAP Force, however, has nothing to worry about as the actual game is fun and gameplay is truly king.

Secondly, the music and sound effects are better than expected especially if you have a full sound system, and the storytelling is on par with cartoons that my kid watches. I really do enjoy hearing Patrick Warburton (Rules of Engagement, Emperor’s New Groove, Family Guy) playing Flynn, who likely has the most lines in the game, but I also found segments with Kaos, voiced by Richard Steven Horvitz  (Invader Zim, Psychonauts, MGS4),  had me laughing out loud.

As for presentation, I got to play this on a PS4 dev kit back in September, so when I look at this on the 360 I’m not seeing the fidelity that impressed me. This is not a bad thing but simply a reality of the transition we’re about to go through. Given that I’ll be getting at least one next-gen system in just a few weeks, I’d personally consider waiting for the next-gen version which we’ll hopefully see before the end of the year- but if you’re not going there yet or your kid isn’t willing to wait there is nothing wrong with grabbing it for the current generation hardware. There is always the supplemental 3DS version, which is more than just a retread of the same game on a different platform, and complements the console version nicely.

I don’t think there are any weaknesses in the story or its delivery – the plot is fairly simple, as is the combat. I think Vicarious Visions does this series proud in carrying out a new and challenging role – take a genre-defining product and bring some freshness to it while maintaining the consistency and imagination of new characters balanced with the old. I’d recommend this to any parent or kid who likes to play cooperative games – there is enough here to enjoy *with* your child – I just ask that you keep me out of the toy store until my obsessive collectors gene calms down.