THE genius of Skylanders, and the reason it has become so beloved by children around the world, is its stubborn refusal to conform to any one genre.
Skylanders Swap Force - Xbox 360 (reviewed) / Playstation 3 / Wii U / 3DS / Wii
Score: 8.6 / 10
Whereas other franchises rely on well-worn tropes to create specific types of characters in certain settings, Skylanders throws the lot into the one melting pot. Its universe boldly rejects every tenet of Darwinism; dinosaurs co-exist with robots, while elves, knights, and dragons are joined by cowboys and ninjas. The result is a dizzying amalgamation of children’s entertainment, and a rousing game to boot.
Swap Force, the third entry in the series, borrows the resourceful concept of swappable characters explored in titles like The Lost Vikings and Gauntlet Legends before supplanting them in a rich, colourful realm akin to an real life episode of Going Live. The starter pack comes with the game, three Skylanders figures and a Portal of Power - in essence, a device that connects to the console’s USB port, on which players place the characters to use in-game. Ordinarily, any plastic add-on to a game is a gimmick best avoided - memories of ROB for the NES remain painful decades on - but in this instance, its imaginative design is a tactile complement to the main game rather than a distraction from it.
‘Shot through with whimsy and humour’
On-screen, developers Vicarious Visions have pulled out all the stops. Lovely rendered cut-scenes drive forward a narrative shot through with whimsy and humour, while the action itself consists of a charmingly animated and immensely detailed 3D action adventure platformer. This is improved upon by an excellent and responsive combat system. Courtesy of the Skylanders’ individual skills - all boast interchangeable upper and lower bodies which can be mixed and matched before being placed on the portal - there is a variety of hack and slash moves to hand, and the ability to upgrade your small army reveals a deceptive strategy to the fighting.
The size of that army, ultimately, is up to you. The fact that 100% completion is only made possible with the purchase of other figures to add to three packaged with the starter pack - will likely raise the hackles of some parents. The game is heavily advertised on the merits of its mini-games and special elemental challenges, and the fact is that using the three characters will only open so many of them. There are upwards of 55 Skylanders characters available, and the encouragement of such supplementary purchases is a sly - some might say sleek - marketing initiative by Activision, guaranteed to generate revenue for a franchise that is already a bestseller, even if has a few million to go before it can be compared to the publisher’s Call of Duty series, gaming’s fattest cash cow.
However, those mulling over a purchase of the game - the starter pack costs around £52 - should not assume the above restrictions means there is a glass ceiling to progress in the game. Swap Force is no exercise in cynicism. Despite a camera system which at points struggles to keep up with the action, everything has been crafted with care and attention. Even without additional characters, there is a tremendous amount of customisation and content in the basic package, allowing players to experiment freely. The wealth of ways in which levels can be approached means it is unlikely you will only play through the title once, and if the idea of collectibles appeals, this is a game sure to satisfy; from coins and gems to scrolls, hats and heaps of treasure, the world has plentiful trinkets to gather.
The refinement and inventiveness throughout ought to set a new standard for games aimed at a young audience. Copies of the title will doubtless weigh down a certain portly, white-bearded figure come the festive season. Parents fearful that his delivery will require a few action-figure shaped presents of their own to make it worthwhile should rest assured - as a standalone game, Swap Force is tremendous fun.