After giving us a pleasant tour of their studio and taking us step-by-step through the development process
of Skylanders Swap Force, the cool people at Vicarious Visions cut us loose to go hands-on with the game. They had a number of demo stations running near-final builds of the game, both current and next-gen. There was only one PS4 available so sadly I didn’t get a chance to try that one, but I did spend some quality time with the 360 and 3DS versions of Swap Force. What I found was both familiar and a bit surprising.
Skylanders Giants last year for Wii U so I was already familiar with the main concept behind the game: collect plastic figurines of the various Skylanders, place them on an NFC “portal” connected to your console through USB, and the figure spawns into the game as a playable character in a colorful Gauntlet-like adventure. Naturally, Swap Force preserves this concept; all of your previous figures, including the giants, are forward-compatible with Swap Force and the new game even carries forward any and all experience you’ve built up on your figures’ internal RFID chips. This means you can pick up where you left off with your figures and even gain a leg up if you’ve leveled them up significantly.
The main improvement this time is, like in Giants, a new line of figures with new abilities. This time they aren’t just big and powerful though; the new Swap Force figures separate at the waist via magnets, and different heads and torsos can be swapped for a whole slew of new character combinations. This doesn’t just mix the various classes’ elemental assignments, but creates drastically different new Skylanders. The idea is that the torso decides how a Skylander fights, and the lower body (legs, wheels, jets, etc) dictates how that Skylander moves.
In-game, this has some interesting effects. There are once again special areas that can only be accessed by specific elemental types, but new to the game are locations only accessible by a certain type of movement, such as a spring or jet. As long as your Skylander has the correct bottom half you can access these areas, but these special doors and pads are keyed to a variety of different movement types adding another layer of "gotta-buy-em-all" collectability. Thankfully there are only 16 new swappable Skylanders (for now), so you won’t need to bankrupt yourself to complete your collection…that is unless you plan to track down the rare special editions and colors.
As for gameplay, the swapping does some weird and cool things. For one it changes animations drastically. Swapping a drill robot’s wheel out for some legs changed him from a gyro-stabilized posture to walking and running like a gorilla. It also lets you make some very creative weapon and power combos. At one point I swapped a fire-based knight’s legs out for an octopus character’s tentacles. This allowed me to throw up a wall of flame and then squirt ink through the fire, setting the ink ablaze and imbuing it with fire damage.
While these new features add a lot of potential variety, the core Skylanders experience remains largely the same, at least from what I experienced. Vicarious has added some light platforming with a new jump ability, which cuts down on the annoying bounce pads from the previous games. It’s pretty basic and elegant stuff so you don’t have to worry about your kids running into Mario Galaxy 2-difficulty platforming. Jumping adds some depth to the levels but you’ll still be hacking your way from one end to the other, hoovering up XP and loot, and occasionally taking a side route to retrieve a key or novelty hat. Vicarious has kept the level design fun but safe this time around, which is understandable when they’re introducing a drastic new character concept that could’ve broken the game if they hadn’t been careful.
The 3DS game is interesting in a different way. Developed by N-Space, a studio famous for their pioneering work on the original DS and the highly underrated 3DS dungeon crawler Heroes of Ruin, Swap Force on the 3DS has the same mark of quality N-Space puts into all of their games. The graphics are excellent as I expected, and while the 3DS version has its own unique story separate from the console versions, it’s pretty cool to have a similarly-featured gameplay experience.
Skylanders Giants on 3DS was the same way—a completely separate, self-contained game and story—so a lot of fans bought it to complement the console versions. Activision expects the same to happen with Swap Force, so they’re packaging the 3DS starter bundle with a different set of figures that are unique to the 3DS pack. This avoids the duplicate figures that a lot of players got buying both the console and 3DS starter packs for Giants.
Giants had another limitation as well: you could only store a couple Skylanders to your 3DS to take with you. If you wanted to play with your whole collection, you had to keep the 3DS linked to the miniature infrared NFC portal that came in the starter bundle. Swap Force completely does away with this. You still need the portal to scan in new figures, but once they’re scanned they are all stored in the game permanently. This goes for swappable characters too; selecting different Skylanders from your collection and even swapping torsos and legs is all controlled by an easily navigated menu on the touch screen.
The best part is that the game saves all of the stats for each figure. For example, say you take a trip and play a lot of Swap Force on the plane. In the process you level up a healthy number of your Skylanders. When you get home, you can transfer all of that experience back into your figures by putting them on the portal and linking it up to your 3DS. Now I’m a jaded, efficiency-minded (read: lazy) 20-something so this feature is particularly attractive to me. Having to walk across my living room to swap little plastic figures back and forth always broke the flow of gameplay for me and seemed unnecessary, although I fully understand how it’s pretty magical for kids. On 3DS, however, now I can have my entire collection literally at my fingertips. Putting all of my Skylanders on a readily-available touch interface is so handy that I kind of wish they put that feature in the Wii U version.
We still have a few weeks to wait for Skylanders Swap Force but I’m finding myself eagerly anticipating it, especially the 3DS version. Both Vicarious Visions and N-Space have added some important new innovations to the series while keeping the base gameplay tight and familiar, which is especially important for the series’ legion of younger fans. After getting to see how the game was put together, actually playing it put a nice cap on my trip to Vicarious Visions’ studio. This may be a “kids” franchise but the people at Vicarious take their role as its stewards very seriously, and they certainly aren’t resting on past success.