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Toys To Life and Death To Wallet

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    Skylanders Swap Force

    Rating: 2.5 – Playable

    Toys To Life and Death To Wallet

    The Skylanders series of games is evil. Not in that sort of "stick your pet kitten into a wood chipper" kind of evil where they twirl their mustache in front of you while tying some poor damsel to a railroad track. Theirs is more of a sneaky evil, a cute corporate mascot that wants to great you with a giant hug so it can sneak the knife into your back when your guard is down. Skylanders popularized the "toys come to life" genre of games, a.k.a. the reason some parents had to take out a second mortgage on their house. For those of you lucky enough to not be aware of this kind of game, you essentially have your base game, and then you have like fifty other little toys that you can buy that will also interact with the game in some way. It was a way to get people to spend hundreds of dollars on what was a single game, and Skylanders was always the best at grabbing you by your ankles and shaking every last dollar you have out of your pocket. While their toys were wildly successful, I always wondered how the games themselves were. Luckily, Skylanders: Swap Force answers that questions with a loud and resounding "MEH".

    While I haven't played any other titles in the series, the Skylanders seem to have ongoing rivalry an evil portal master (and guy who isn't too great at executing his evil plans, apparently) known as Kaos. He still hasn't learned his lesson though and the Skylanders idea of punishment seems to be a stern look and a request to maybe not do that again, please, because Kaos is back and causing trouble. This time he comes prepared with his most DEVIOUS EVIL PLOT OF DEVIOUS EVIL DOOM, something we know because he likes to loudly yell that every time he gets on screen for more than two seconds. His plan is sure to succeed this time though, because he's managed to find where all the magic in Skylands comes from. It turns out that every time magic is used, there is some left over because of reasons that aren't entirely clear but maybe magic is just a prime number, or something. All this leftover magic makes its way back to this place known as the Cloudbreak Islands, where four divine creatures make a volcano explode to shoot that magic back out into the world. Kaos, however, is going to infuse the volcano with EVIL and expired hot pockets and make a mess out of everything. It falls to the Swap Force, a team of Skylanders that can swap their tops and bottoms with each other, to stop him.

    The plot here feels like something you might find in a decent direct to tv movie made for kids, where it isn't horrible enough that you want to bash your head in, but it isn't so good that you're actually going to do something silly like watch it. Since Skylanders can be swapped in and out whenever you want, they aren't even really the main characters of the story. The Skylanders are characters like the swords in Game of Thrones are characters, because their only real purpose here is to stomp out all the baddies. The story really focuses around Flynn, played by Patrick Warburton, and Tessa, played by someone who isn't Patrick Warburton. There are a couple of smiles to be had here or there at Flynn's buffoonery or Kaos and his over the top attempts to make sure that everyone knows how evil he is, but I certainly wouldn't classify this as a funny game. The game was clearly made for kids and that is reflected in the plot, because this is a very basic by the numbers sort of story, without any real surprises or high points along the way. Kids around the age of ten or so might get a kick out of it, but I don't really think ten years olds are very good judges of anything besides "what's the most fun activity to do in gym class" so that isn't a real ringing endorsement. The characters here are sort of one dimensional and the story itself is just kind of boring, and this is the kind of plot very few people are going to pay attention to or actually care about. It isn't egregiously annoying like some media aimed at kids, but admittedly that is a very low bar to aim for.

    The role you play in the story is the most important of all, as you are responsible for deciding which Skylanders get thrown out into battle. They refer to you as the portal master, a title you earned by fearlessly picking up a four-inch piece of plastic and putting it on a circular piece of plastic. It isn't a very arduous testing process, apparently. This portal comes packaged with the game itself, and by putting one of the Skylanders on it they get "transported" into the game where you can then control them to attack whatever needs attacking. The appeal here, of course, is seeing your little toys come to life in the game you're playing, transforming a lifeless piece of plastic into a lifeless video game character, but at least it is YOUR lifeless video game character. This format was an extremely popular fad with kids for a while, like fidget spinners or picking on the kid that was different from you. The toys themselves are fairly well crafted and there is a good variety in appearance and type. As toys, I can definitely see the appeal. It is the execution of the game itself here that I find far more questionable.

    Ignoring the army of plastic toys you can purchase for the title, Skylanders: Swap Force is actually a fairly standard action game. There is a little hub area that has a couple shops and people to talk to, and the action is divided up into seventeen different levels that are a mix of platforming, exploration, and combat. The levels are very linear and fairly basic, although there are some different paths here and there to check out to find extra goodies. As you make your way through the levels, there will be enemies to fight and simple puzzles to solve, in additional to a handful of elemental or skill specific gates that only specific Skylanders can open. Completing these will nab you something like a hat to put on your Skylander that ups their stats or a map that unlocks a side quest in the main hub. They do a decent job mixing up a variety of different gameplay elements here, even if there isn't one specific element they do particularly well.

    What is annoying here is just how they pick you up by your feet and shake out every single dime you have. Their mission statement was like just a bunch of dollar signs and a picture of a sobbing parent taking out a second mortgage on their house. This is the concept of DLC stretched out to its most cruel, but most people are willing to overlook it because you get some actual physical toys that come with it. There are elemental gates all throughout the adventure that can only be opened by a Skylander of the right elemental type, so you need one of each to get through all of these. But then there are the swap elemental gates, which only open if you have the top portion of one element and the bottom portion of another, so you actually need one of each of the eight elements of the Swap Force Skylanders. But then there are the skill specific gates, like teleport or climb, so what you actually need is eight of the Swap Force Skylanders with one of each element but also making sure you have one of each skill type as well. You can accomplish this with just eight if you're careful, but unless you plan out your purchases ahead of time (and are ok with maybe not getting one of the ones you actually want), then that's fine. BUT THEN there are the giant chests that can only be opened by a Giant Skylander from the previous game, and things start to add up here in a crazy way really quickly.

    The Swap Force Skylanders sold for $16 initially at retail and only three come with the starter set, one of which was a non-Swap Force Skylander and thus about as useful as a half-eaten piece of toast in getting behind most of the gates. The starter set already cost $75 so if you wanted to see everything and didn't want to wait the year or so for things to go on sale, you're looking at well over $150 on this game alone, and that's just the bare minimum to see everything. If you want a specific Skylander, well that'll cost even more and it's worth pointing out there are 80 total as of this set so if you're some sort of collector I hope you don't mind selling a kidney or two. I get that there's a certain appeal to the toys to life concept, and that Skylanders did it better than anyone else, but what you're looking at here is ridiculous in terms of cost. It should not be anywhere near $150 just to see the content in the actual game and this almost feels like extortion. "Oh, you want to see all the game parts in the game you just paid for and not just the pieces we decided to show you? Well, in that case it'll be an extra $100 and one of your teeth" All sorts of new characters is a great idea, but hiding content unless you actually have these characters is not. People always lose their mind when some DLC is locked on the disc, and this is basically the same thing but you get a little plastic figurine to stare at you while you sleep. Luckily, when I started playing this game the toys to life concept was basically dead, and I was able to nab the game for $10 and the extra figurines were actually buy 1 get 4 free. At this price it was worth it, but I also know that somewhere out there is a parent that literally spend hundreds of dollars on this just to have their kid abandon it like six months later.

    And what is behind these gates? Well, that sort of depends. Behind every one of the skill gate is the same sort of skill challenge, just increased in difficulty each time you do it. The Skylanders with a climb ability will need to climb up a wall that some sort of garbage keeps falling down, while one with the speed ability will race forward on some sort of track while avoiding obstacles. The elemental gates or the mixed elemental gates, in contrast, will have some sort of unique challenge beyond them. Most of them are some sort of platforming challenge, although there are others that are more combat based and still others that just sort of fall into their own weird category. In one of them, a sentient block asked me to push it back for forth like three times and then just gave you the prize. I would like to think the programmers forgot to design one of the gates until right before the game was about to ship, because I can't really think of another reason for them to include the "push the block back and forth a couple of times I guess" minigame unless they were just really big block pushing enthusiasts. There is a good amount of gates here, usually somewhere between six and eight each level, and a decent amount of variety in what the game wants you to do in them.

    Unfortunately, all the extra Skylanders simply aren't worth it if you're buying them for the gameplay alone. While there are plenty of gates in the game, the number that any one Skylander will unlock is fairly negligible. Unfortunately, without any extra Skylanders a lot of the levels can feel somewhat short because you're likely missing out on around a third of the content if you skip the gates entirely. The game is sort of in this weird middle ground where there probably isn't enough content here in the base package by itself, but buying any one individual Skylander doesn't unlock enough unique stuff to make it feel worth it. You aren't getting entirely new levels for the $12 or whatever it costs to get a new one, you're getting a couple little side areas in a couple of levels that reward you with some prizes that are basically pointless. The levels are fine but certainly not spectacular, and there just isn't a strong sense of design that went into anything here. If you tackle all of the gates and all the additional challenges, suddenly the game feels much more complete and engaging. But to unlock all of this you have to pay a small fortune, and the "fun" here is simply not worth the price of admission.

    Most of the game fits under the category of "playable but not overwhelming". The combat certainly fits that almost perfectly, a sort of slap fight back and forth against a handful of uninteresting baddies every once in a while. How much fun you have in combat largely depends on which Skylanders you have, because each one has a different move set. It is actually quite impressive how each and every one of this huge cast of characters has a unique move set that doesn't just feel like it was sloppily copy pasted from the last Skylander you've played as. There are actually some interesting characters here, and my personal favorite was Spy Rise, a robot/spider/spy hybrid that seemingly got thrown together by pulling three random words out of a hat. He can disappear off screen to avoid damage while firing a laser, or shoot a stream of webbing that both damages and freezes enemies in their tracks. He is tremendously useful and actually fairly fun to play as, which made things awkward when I tried the next character and he was about as fun to play as a tube of toothpaste propped up on one wobbly wheel. He could slowly throw traps or disappear, and I always hoped that he would somehow disappear and just not come back. There is a huge variation between the characters, and you can't really get a grasp of which ones are fun to play as and which ones are smelly dumpster fires pretending to be toys without buying the figure first. A huge cast of playable characters is nice, but it would've been better if there weren't so many that kind of felt like duds.

    Depending on the Skylander though, the combat almost sort of works here. It isn't a complex masterpiece or something that is really going to keep you coming back, but as a means to get you through the game I've certainly encountered worse combat systems. Each Skylander starts off with a couple of simple moves which can be upgraded as you get more money. There are various pods in the game that let you upgrade your characters, and you unlock new and more powerful moves as the game progresses for a small fee (luckily the game isn't totally evil and this all uses in game currency). While some are fairly useless, the game does an impressive job at giving most Skylanders a useful (and unique) set of skills. There is a decent variety in the enemy types as well, some with a specific pattern of attack they use that you will need to take advantage of. Admittedly, these can get a bit drawn out on higher difficulties. Their health can be quite high and you are essentially dodging the same attack over and over again to the point where you almost feel bad for attacking them because they're trapped in an endless loop. The combat is just sort of serviceable but not really engrossing, and most Skylanders will just have a "best" attack you wind up using regardless of situation. Even the variety isn't as much of a benefit as it may seem, because even though there is a tremendous amount of variety between Skylanders, you will likely only end up playing as one at a time so you don't really get a good grasp of it while you're playing.

    The other major element of the gamepay seems to be a small dose of platforming, but this is barely worth commenting on. The controls feel a bit floaty, so there really aren't any interesting platforming challenges here. Every once in a while, there will be a couple of platforms you need to jump to in order to get to the next area, but almost without exception these are the simplest jumps you can imagine. Geriatrics look at the jumps and are unimpressed, and this is platforming like deep fried celery wrapped in bacon is technically a vegetable. Yeah, I guess, but you're really stretching the definition here a bit, aren't you? And, just to take out any little semblance of residual fun you might have during these segments, you aren't even able to fail at these part, because if you do fall you are immediately transported right back to where you were with absolutely no damage taken. The only way to get hurt is in combat, so it makes these platforming segments feel even more pointless. There are a couple of interesting parts in some of the bonus areas behind the elemental gates, including a couple of tech gates that have you use a ball to throw in order to teleport you to the next areas. I don't consider these a true part of the core game though, and I'm not reviewing this as a title that you could maybe play if you bought every single one of the toys out there. This is another example where hiding away a bunch of the content behind doors causes a meaningful problem, because some of the best areas are behind these doors and very few people will be able to see them all.

    There are some other interesting aspects to the gameplay, but none of them work all that well. There are some additional customizations or power ups for all of the Skylanders, and the characters themselves get stronger as they level up as well. There is an experience system, but as you level up the only stat that I noticed that actually increased was the character's health so it doesn't really feel like you're growing that much over time. There are also hats that can be collected that improve a variety of stats if worn, and some other items that offer general stat increases to all Skylanders. This combined with the new moves you can purchase do help to make it feel like there is a sense of progression to your characters even if it does feel somewhat rudimentary.

    It is also possible to swap out the characters on the fly in game, although most people likely won't be doing that unless they get to some gate that requires another character. You can take off a character at any time to put another one in, something that is required if one of your characters falls in battle. If you run out of HP, that character can then not be used again until you return to the hub area, but any other Skylander you have kicking about can jump in for fun. The game starts you off with three, which honestly should be enough to get through just about any level except maybe for a couple of areas on the hardest difficulty. It works fairly well to give the game some challenge but to not make things too frustrating if a single character falls in battle, but honestly beyond that there isn't much of a point to swap out Skylanders at all. Likely you'll be playing as your favorite most of the time and building them up, so to then swap out for another in your collection feels a bit like taking out Tom Brady to put in Hank, the peanut vendor in section 112. Making 80 or so different characters is fun and all, but you really only will be playing as one or two your first time through. It is to your detriment to actually keep swapping out randomly, and there isn't enough here to really warrant multiple playthroughs so most of the extra characters you buy are likely to just wind up collecting dust.

    There is also a handful of different stuff you can do back in town. You can replay any of the skill challenges to get more stars, which in turn ups your portal master level. Portal master levels allow you to buy new and more powerful stuff from the store, although again there is a real question as to if you even really need any of this because the benefit feels kind of negligible. On top of that, there are arena challenges where you fight waves of enemies, special maps that provide an extra little mini-level, and even player vs player combat if you really are in to that sort of thing. There's even a fishing minigame and a special kind of chest lock that is kinda sorta a puzzle (albeit an extremely basic one). There is actually a lot to see and do, which is great, but everything is fairly basic, which is not so great. Most of this stuff needs to be unlocked in the levels themselves first by finding specific items (or completing the ability based challenges), so a huge swath of content is going to be missing if you just play with the base set.

    Skylanders: Swap Force is probably the most greedy title I've ever played. If you have everything and all the right Skylanders, this is actually a halfway decent game if you are willing to look past the simplicity of it all. That is the game at its absolute best though, and without the extras it feels extremely lacking with much of the best content is locked away behind these paywalls you simply can't see without shelling out for yet another Skylander toy. Even if you do have everything, this is a very basic title, although admittedly a well-made one. It will certainly have appeal for the younger crowd, but if you roll your eyes at the thought of having to buy little toys to see all the gameplay you are likely already too old to get its appeal. Everything works, but nothing stands out as particularly interesting other than the toys themselves. Combat is satisfactory, levels are fine, and the exploration is pretty alright overall (if you have all the toys that allow for it, that is). At its best, this is a perfectly average experience. At its worse, it is a money grubbing pirate that is sneaking into your house and pilfering your jewelry box and refrigerator while your back is turned. I'd say if you have some younger kids it might be worth looking into, but on second thought maybe try your best to hide it from them while you still can. Your wallet will thank you.

    Portal of Power (THE GOOD):
    +Very large cast of characters with accompanying toys, if that's your thing
    +Toys look fairly well made for the collectors out there
    +Good variety from character to character, and even with such a huge cast they do a good job making each one feel unique
    +Combat is fairly mindless, but can be fun depending on which character you're using
    +Decent exploration and lots of stuff to find in all the levels
    +Plenty to do and a decent amount of diversity in all the gameplay elements

    Circle of Trash (THE BAD):
    -Absolutely brutal with how much it costs to see and do everything
    -Buying one specific Skylander doesn't add a tremendous amount to the game, so the cost benefit analysis doesn't always seem to work in your favor
    -With a huge chunk of the game hidden behind paywalls, the core game doesn't really feel worth it
    -Very basic gameplay, and while everything works nothing works particularly well or stands out
    -Level design is very basic and there is no real creativity
    -Some battles drag on much too long, and a lot of the flights blend together after a certain point
    -Platforming is floaty and unremarkable, with all the decent platforming portions hidden behind gates you might not be able to access

    Nickles and Dimes (THE UGLY): I think I forgot to mention there are two entire levels you can buy with accompanying toys if you so desire. So, I think the entire total if you add everything up together is WAY TO FREAKING MUCH, JEEZ, WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU SKYLANDERS. I've seen bookies that do less work to get all the money out of your pockets than this game.

    THE VERDICT: 5.00/10.00

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