Surely the Skylanders series has burnt up the creative momentum it accumulated when Toys for Bob started the series two years ago. This third iteration must be resting on its laurels, appealing to the age 6 and up captive audience by now. Right? Right?
After the jump, Skylander aficionado and parent Rob Harvey is on the case
Few things crystallize how much the adult servitude to clocks is an adulteration of the Circadian rhythm than children. Now that October is upon us we get two awesome holidays, the sun comes up later, and despite the same number of hours slept, getting Kiddo out of bed is that much harder. However in the wee hours of October 13th, we peaked into Kiddo’s room to find him already sitting up in bed. His knees were pulled up and his wide eyes peered expectantly between two tightly held fists over the blankee that he was holding up like a veil. Slowly the tattered crochet line lowered to reveal a giddy smile as his fists came together under his chin. Sure, there is that other October holiday that involves pumpkins, candy, and a Lego Joker costume. However, since 2011 October has had a much more important holiday.
Kiddo (in whispered tones over the lowered veil): “it’s… Skyyyyylander day”
Boy is it ever Kiddo. Skylanders is fully a thing now as it returns with its third installment to downsize the “boomier” Giants in favor of bisecting plastic “Swappable” toys brought to mix and match life. While the franchise mesmerizes kids, embattles parents against scalpers, and is still mostly dismissed by Gamers (a group so hardcore that they get a capitalized category) it just might be a generational touchstone for Gamer Dads.
Outside of that one-time-that-shall-not-be-named, I have not read any of the Harry Potter books. However even in my conscripted viewing of the movies I noticed a transition of tone as the series seemed to grow with its audience. So much so that it was not terribly jarring to see Harry haunted by a gothic mother or Hermione ditching a house full of comedians to go road warrior in the apocalypse. As the 6 year olds of Spyro’s Adventure are now the 8 year old audience for Swap Force, perhaps a similar transition is creeping into Skylanders. This time out we have the dexterous requirements of padless platform jumping, achievements (which are a bit easier to do if your reading has advanced past sight words), a subtle broadening of the difficulty range, and a headliner feature that is a whole lot more engaging on the brain matter than just being bigger — the Swappables.
Kiddo: “A little bit of this, a little bit of that…”
Yeah, that’s my fault. I misquoted him Fatboy Slim’s Weapon of Choice (“you can go with this, or you can go with that”) from the Swap Force debut teaser. My Slim is about as good as my Potter — don’t praise me; you shouldn’t.
Anyway, about the only strategic elements that the Giants offered was TV hogging health pinatas and the ability to stomp on little things. In Swap Force, of the 56 figures (yes, you read that right and any parents should feel free to keep reading from a fetal position) 16 of the 32 new ones break apart at the waist to be “Swappable” like mix and match books. You want a pirate octopus body on your fire knight legs? Go for it. You want a magical owl body on your skunk ninja tail and legs? Sure, why not. You want the octopus pirate top on the fire knight top, nope; the cool magnetic lock system won’t allow such a Horrible Mistake.
Mommy (whispering): “kill me—with fire”
Rob: “Not Kiddo approved guy, sorry.” (if you missed that one, feel free to check out the disturbing reference, I will still be here when you are begging for induced amnesia)
And despite Kiddo playing endless switcheroo outside of the game, these bisected Skylanders are not just for show. Each top half tracks level, gold, and upgrade choices for the top’s two attack abilities. Each bottom half has a mobility based attack, its own upgrade choices, and dictates mini-game (think Skylander branded Space Harrier, Break Out, or a pacifist’s take on 1942) access. So you have 16 tops and 16 bottoms that all can be exchanged to offer unique attack and mobility options along with bifurcated upgrade paths. For a franchise that is arguably at its best when considering the figures as unique MOBA or action RPG “ability bundles” — Swap Force is a crazy, 256 unique options, kind of deep.
If you want your bubble disabling octopus pirate (Wash) to teleport through rings (Loop), then combine to make Wash Loop. If you want a snake sheriff that tosses out deputy snake turrets (Rattle) to be able to burst around in fiery death dashes (Zone), then combine to make Rattle Zone. Teleporting, ink rolls, damage over time poison shots, knock backs, piranha bubble crowd control, and enemy tossing — it is all there. Just determine what the situation calls for, and then make your figure. For kids it is fun, even if they don’t quite connect with the tactical modularity. For strategically minded Gamer parents, it is a hoot zone.
Alright it might sound like I am gushing a bit. And maybe I am, but just recently I did my skeptical 5600 mile walkabout/ flyabout to Vicarious Visions who has stepped in as the development lead for Swap Force. Besides the “gotta catch ‘em all” fatigue, I had real worries over Toys for Bob being pushed aside to milk the franchise. Yet the honest respect for the franchise, the beautiful new Alchemy engine, and feature evolution in all the right ways really showed me that nothing could be farther from the truth.
And still, I had not really seen the final product. I can honestly tell you I was worried about same-y feeling Skylander abilities, watered down combat as more mini-games were tacked on, and the ever present fear of marketing’s influence on the brand. However, combat to mini-game pacing is surprisingly good (plus cooperative this time) and it would take a second novel worth of digital ink to expound on the tasty character abilities that seem to be lifted right out of MOBA games. The marketing worry is a stickler though. If anything kills Skylanders over time, it will be marketing’s overreach as they bury consumers with increased price points and packaging manipulation while also decreasing the value per figure with reposes and “levels” that add almost nothing to the function of characters that are now twice the level of Spyro’s Adventure.
Mommy: “Don’t you dare forget the loss of connection to your figure.”
Yeah. So while I am grateful that somebody won the internal fight to keep bonus missions on the game disk rather than tied to the newer blue based figures, it exposes an interesting dilemma. Now that the figure locked heroic missions that allowed individual advancement are out, we are left with game wide bonuses such as extra armor or elemental power to all Skylanders. I can certainly see the reason as slogging through 80 unique Skylanders plus reposes on all of the heroic missions is somewhere south of waterboarding while on a bed of nails.
Kiddo: “What is waterboarding?”
Rob (cringes): “Did you open all your Skylanders, I think I see one over there…”
Without the heroics, the meta bonus system leaves no way to increase the statistics of a single Skylander. Now the last thing I want is for the old heroics (and marketing move) of tying content to the orange bases of the second game, but some move to bring back a sense of ownership is needed. I imagine a per character statistic boost chosen at level up could do the trick.
Another major misstep is in the sound. One of the main feelings of connection to your Skylander was the ‘thump-thump-thump’ as they became critically low on health requiring you to physically snatch them back from impending doom. That is gone in Swap Force to be replaced by a nearly inaudible bell chime that has me looking for an ajar door more than a wounded Skylander. While it ups the chances of Skylanders getting knocked out, it also kills one of the best tactile reasons to have a physical representation of the character.
“Red Skylander needs food badly. Red Skylander, is about to die.”
Not all is lost on the physical front though. I strongly feel that the right way for an adult to play Skylanders is to crank up the difficulty and limit yourself on figures. As such, I now find myself browsing the models the same way I might look over my games tab in steam before a play session. Another physical plus that is really setting in with the rollout of another Skylanders property is that we now have three games worth of content in which to use all of our figures. Original figures can play in three games, Giants in two, the new ones in Swap Force and beyond. While it sounded like a gimmick before, I am really appreciating the ever expanding content.
Kiddo: “And I can take my Skylanders over to EJ’s house!” (his favorite part of the Giant’s podcast) Yep. Or EJ can bring over his such as in the huge Skylander battle brawl we had on two systems (Wii and 360)on two TVs in the living room.
Kiddo: “Can EJ come over?”
Rob: “Not now Kiddo, we need to finish our review.”
Some Grizzled Grinchy Gamers (how is that for some 3G coverage) might try to point out that the game is relatively short — although it is still substantial unless they are trying to “finish” the game with 23% completed. Look, a game of Contra can be completed in under 12 minutes. As the Elder Scrolls franchise seems to rely on gamers to govern themselves, some creative folks can blast through Morrowind in 8 minutes. Glitches and exaggeration aside, if someone is playing Skylanders to get to the end credits, I argue that they are doing it wrong. The library of ability bundles, an all new and expansive achievement/ portal rank system, friends-list leader boards, and post game modes like score attack, nightmare, and time attack all beg for play and replay of every nook and cranny of the game. Heck, even the random daily modifier hi-lights varied experiences in replayed content. Skylanders Swap Force has more in common with Geometry Wars or League of Legends than it does with Zelda.
Lastly, as this is a WiiU review, I want to mention the off-screen feature. If someone is in a household where they have full control of any or all TVs, then this will be a mute point. However, I found it a delicious feature on an often disregarded system as I can shoot the game over to the gamepad as I am tortured by Days of Our Lives on the DVR.
Or I can take it upstairs to play while lying on the bed which is just above and just close enough to the WiiU to maintain connection. This is a fantastic feature when the household is getting a bit too chaotic and I decide to go upstairs to, um, “work on taxes” or “take a nap.”
Kiddo: “Mommy, don’t bug Rob when he is taking a nap.”
What about the portal? Usually I pick something that won’t require switching like the arenas, but since you don’t need the TV, I can just hook up the WiiU to any old outlet upstairs and have the portal and the gamepad next to me. In a multi-person household this feature cannot be over sold.
Kiddo: “Can we play Swap Force now?”
Rob: “Well Kiddo, we need to tell folks if we like it.”
Kiddo: “It is my favorite because it has blue bases and blue is my favorite color,”
Rob: “After all this, you are going with a Monty Python rating system?!”
Kiddo: “If you don’t like Swap Force, then b-b-b-b-buh-bye. Click.”
Mommy: “Please tell me that is going in the review.”
Rob: “Good job guy. You still can’t have a cell phone though.”
I don’t know how many years the magic can keep on coming. Two years in a row I have been caught off guard by how much Skylanders has improved over the previous product which is saying a lot in an industry all too full of lazy annual sequels with nil to zero improvements. I really hope Toys for Bob can follow up their follow up just as well next October. The biggest negative about Skylanders is the expansive price point with figure packs. This is a totally fair accusation. However, at this point, I have learned to stop worrying and love the plastic.