The new Skylanders game has arrived on the Nintendo DS, PlayStation 3, Wii U and Xbox 360. Upon writing this, there are 24 Skylander hero figurines massed upon my desk, and the Skylanders warp portal is attached to my PlayStation 3's USB port, shifting its colors as it glows, ready to accept whichever figurine I place upon it next. With the review copy having arrived late this week and a full review forthcoming, I wanted to share my early opinions.
There's no denying that two years since its introduction, Skylanders is a franchise to be reckoned with. And with the release of the third video game, Skylanders: Swap Force, it builds on its successful model of letting you play as any character for whom you've purchased the associated toy figurine. This time around, players can remove the magnetically-connected top (or bottom) half of any Swap Force figurine, attach it to the opposite half of another figurine, and create an entirely new hybrid figure that combines the abilities of the source characters. Once a new creature has been assembled, you place the figure on the warp portal and the system recognizes the components and incorporates the abilities of your Frankenstein's monster.
Not a bad trick.
The thrill of putting your figurine on the warp portal and seeing it come to life as a playable, fully upgradable character is undeniable.
Swap Force allows for some interesting combinations. My primary character sports a robot's upper torso as well as an eagle warrior's legs, and heads to battle armed with a deadly laser and a melee spin attack. The robot/eagle warrior's sombrero, which I found several hours in, combines the inherent niftiness of a vibrant sombrero with an attack upgrade you're granted upon wearing it. A tongue in cheek sense of humor lends to the fun, the game glowing with its "Saturday morning cartoon done right" style, keeping the tone light for both young and adult players alike.
Now comes the core sticking point: Skylanders: Swap Force is built around the Skylanders series of toys, which do not come cheaply, especially when you consider that certain sections of the game and their associated content can only be unlocked and explored with specific Skylanders toys. You're able to play the main story and Arena Battle modes with the standard three figures that arrive with each copy of the game, but Skylanders: Swap Force subtly pushes you to acquire whichever category of figures you may be missing. All too commonly, I find doors that can only be opened with an earth or undead figurine. True, we've received an extraordinary number of figures within our review package, possibly a few hundred dollars' worth, but we still have duplicate figures, and opening up more content requires a trip to either Amazon.com or a local Toys "R" Us.
The game's starter version retails for $74.99 while additional Skylanders figurines run the gamut from approximately $10 each to over $20 each depending on where you purchase them. The thrill of putting your figurine on the warp portal and seeing it come to life as a playable, fully upgradable character is undeniable. This is the hook, and it adds up to a genuinely fun, smart platform title that knows how to appeal to both child and parental audiences alike without being syrupy or saccharine in its approach. There's genius in this marketing technique.
If there's one element of this aspect that goes too far, it's this: you unlock "previews" of characters that can be purchased at your local toy store. Previews function as several-second ads showing the coolest aspects of the characters and listing the names to look for. The developer certainly has the right to inform the consumer of a purchase option, but previews only serve to rub salt in your emotional wounds, reminding you of how much content is still locked behind a heavily guarded door.
Even so, there's a fun game to be had here. Four difficulty settings make Skylanders: Swap Force accessible to a wide range of ages and abilities, and a wide variety of figures allow you to build a sizeable and diverse collection. If you were comfortable shelling out three figures for a copy of Rock Band and its instruments a few years ago, Skylanders: Swap Force may be worth its price tag in the long run. I'll have more to share later this week in my full review. Until then, happy swapping!