Skylanders SWAP Force (3DS) Review
Handheld versions of big games are easily dismissed. More often than not, development is farmed out to a nameless studio and a handheld port is released with a whimper. The Nintendo DS and 3DS have seen more than their fair share of shoddy ports.
Thankfully, the Skylanders 3DS series continues to defy convention with their latest release, Swap Force, demonstrating that third party publishers can make a great handheld version of a winning franchise.
Skylanders Swap Force tells a story unique to the handheld featuring a new villain, (the rather excellent Count Moneybone and his plot to turn Skylands into an Undead realm), a returning Scooby-gang led by buffoon pilot Flynn (voiced by the magnificent Patrick Warburton) and access to the newest addition in the Skylanders range, the Swap Force.
Swap Force figures are two-part modular toys connected by magnets, and can be separated to mix and match different tops with bottoms. Like normal Skylanders, Swap Force figures are grouped by their element (Magic, Undead, Fire, Water, Air, Earth, Tech and Life) with an additional subset being their traversal abilities (including climbing, flying, rockets, bouncing and more). Traversal abilities are marked on the bottom half of the Swap Force figure, meaning it is possible to mix a Life/Climbing bottom half of a Swap Force figure with the top half of an Undead Swap Force figure to create a totally different character.
Aside from providing additional variety, the Swap Force characters can access challenge gates specific to their traversal type. For example, in his complete form, Swap Force Air character Free Ranger has the ability to hurtle across the landscape with his tornado legs, and using this traversal ability can also enter challenge gates featuring his whirlwind icon.
Players can substitute Free Ranger’s tornado legs with fellow Swap Force figure Rattle Shake’s coiled snake tail to create Free Shake; an Air/Undead Frankenstein monster with the upper body of a blade-wielding chicken and the bouncing ability of a rattlesnake tail. Importantly, mix-matched Swap Force combinations count as two different elements, so Free Shake can enter both Undead and Air elemental gates.
All Skylanders figures from the previous games are compatible with Swap Force 3DS, including level packs from Spyro’s Adventure that unlock area of effect attacks.
Even obscure figures like my Skylanders sidekicks work in Swap Force, allowing my tiny Terrabite to follow my Free Shake around the level. The Skylanders series sets the bar for forward compatibility and rewards the investment players have made in the series.
Unlike previous Skylanders 3DS games that allowed only two characters to be stored in the 3DS at any one time, players can now swap in and out all of their own Skylanders via the touch screen. Once a Skylander has been placed on the 3DS Swap Force portal, it is stored in the game profile for later use. With minimal load times for switching between characters, it’s an excellent use of the touch screen and provides a welcome character change mid level.
Importantly, Swap Force characters can be modified in the character selection screen, meaning you can mix and match combinations without having to place a mix-matched Swap Force figure on the portal. The decision to include this feature makes sense, but did mean I spent less time mixing and matching my Swap Force figures.
As with previous games in the series, Skylanders level up by collecting treasure and offing enemies. Skylanders unlock new abilities automatically; great for younger players but removes the joy of choosing character upgrade paths that make customisation so appealing in the console versions.
Daily bonuses are rewarded for completing levels using certain elemental Skylanders and each level also includes challenge gates specific to elements (consistent with previous 3DS releases). There is reason enough to play through levels again and again, if only to level up your characters and unlock new abilities. Any levels figures earn on the 3DS version carry over to console versions.
Exploration is further encouraged in Swap Force with the inclusion of expansive levels unseen in previous Skylanders 3DS games. The portable version emphasises platforming over dungeon crawling, and thankfully the time limit for level completion that hurt Skylanders Giants 3DS has been removed. Swap Force wants you to play, and play it again.
While more cynical minds may dismiss games like Skylanders as a money-grab by publishers, they are missing the point. Skylanders combines two things I love: exploring and collecting. Skylanders Swap Force has put my entire figure collection onto my 3DS, offering me incentive to go back and level up figures from Sypro’s Adventure and Giants.
The inclusion of Swap Force figures takes the collectability one step further and while the console gamers are excited their Skylanders can now jump, 3DS owners in the know have been double jumping with Skylanders since 2011. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some figures to level.