Bear with me for a bit, because this is going to get ugly. I have some serious reservations about Skylanders: Swap Force. Serious enough that I think they belong at the beginning of any conversation about this game, or “game”, or business model for selling figures. In fact, my reservations have at times coalesced into loathing. But, like many important reservations, they aren’t the full story. And they’re far from the last word.
So, after the jump, let me tell you why you might want to steer clear of Skylanders.
I’m not an ideal person to review Skylanders: Swap Force for a few reasons. The first is that I haven’t played any of the previous games. This is all new to me (for a veteran’s perspective on Swap Force, I refer you to my Skylanders Obi Wan, Rob Harvey, who reviewed the WiiU version). The second reason is that I’m not a child, a parent, or a guy who collects action figures. Skylanders is very clearly a child’s game, first and foremost, and an action figure collector’s game as a close second. It’s eventually an action RPG, but hold that thought for now.
The third reason I’m not ideal for this review is because I’m philosophically opposed to reviewing the price of a game. Price is an important factor when you consider a game, of course. But it’s so subjective that I have no business commenting on it. Are you rich? Are you struggling to make ends meet? Can you afford one game a month or ten? How am I supposed to divine that? What’s more, is the game on sale? Did you get it as a gift? Since I have no idea, a game that costs $5 should be held to the same standards as a game that costs $50, just as a movie you see at a dollar theater isn’t magically better because the ticket was a dollar. A book doesn’t get better because you checked it out from the library without paying a cent. Price should almost never be a factor in a critical discussion of entertainment.
But what should be a factor in a critical discussion of entertainment — and specifically videogames as they find their way into the wider world — is whether the business model gets in the way. When a business model compromises a game design, it’s important to talk about that. It’s important to hold accountable companies who compromise creative integrity for the sake of making money.
The business model is definitely in your face when you play Skylanders: Swap Force. Until you have a Skylander of every element, and a giant for good measure, Swap Force will remind you frequently that your roster is incomplete. Your progression will be seriously stymied if you only have the “starter pack”, and you’ll be constantly pushed towards buying more figures. You’ll constantly run into doors or boxes that you can’t open. Your stats will be raised based on how many of any given element you own. Swap Force’s global leveling — the overall metric for your progress called Portal Master Rank — is partly tied to how many figures you own. Even the difficulty level is a matter of how many figures you own, since your collection is your total pool of hit points to get to the end of a level. With the default three dudes, you only have three lives. With twenty dudes, you have twenty lives. Guess who’s going to have an easier time of it in nightmare mode?
The only way around all this is to resign yourself to spending about $150. Until that happens, Skylanders: Swap Force feels incomplete. This is the fundamental thrust of the business model and a frequent part of the design. A very “gotta catch ‘em all” mandate courses through Swap Force’s many systems. But like the $150 it costs to fully plumb this game, I consider that an issue between you and your own impulse control. If I can’t comment on your relationship to your wallet, I’m not about to make observations about how you approach the neverending hell of chasing collectibles.
But what distinguishes Skylanders: Swap Force from other business models is that it’s aimed at children. It is designed to get kids to want more stuff. For instance, collectible upgrades called soul gems unlock the most powerful skill for each character. When you find them, they show a commercial for the associated skylander. So unless you have all 40+ skylanders, you’re stumbling onto ads for characters you haven’t bought yet. I don’t mind that sort of thing in, say, Marvel Heroes, because it’s a free-to-play game designed for adults. Just like I don’t mind beer, cigarette, and junk food ads for adults. But we apply stricter standards to companies who make entertainment and products for children, because children are uniquely impressionable. The rules should be different. Yet here is Skylanders: Swap Force, aimed squarely at children and calculated to instill the desire for more.
These are the things I can’t help but think about as I play Skylanders: Swap Force, even though I’m not a parent and even though I didn’t have to pay for most of my Skylanders. Activision generously provided about $200 worth of product, but not until after I’d already spent an, um, injudicious amount of my own money. So I again invite you to read Rob Harvey’s review, or listen to him and Brandon Cackowski-Schnell address the issue on this podcast for a more informed perspective.
But I needed to get these things off my chest first, because the most relevant fact about Skylander: Swap Force is that I freakin’ love this silly little nearly unprecedented thing. Once you accept that this is a “$150 or don’t bother” laidback cotton-candy action RPG, its charm is nearly irresistible.
Visually, it’s not a very impressive game. The artwork is very World of Warcraft 1.0, with broad blocky geometry, an over-obvious palette, and a heavy reliance on reskinning the same old monsters. The real creativity goes into the skylanders themselves, and it might only emerge gradually. What at first looks like a blob, a blue warrior chick, a suit of fiery armor, or a cute dragon will be disappointing to anyone who’s come here from Rayman: Legends or Wonderful 101. But what’s remarkable about Skylanders is how these figures can eventually become lively characters with distinct personalities, thanks to the imaginative move sets. The blob has a range of strange potions he can use, the blue warrior chick has some effective area denial tactics with ice walls, the suit of fiery armor is a damage spewing powerhouse from inside a ring of fire, and that cute little dragon…well, okay, he’s the token nod to the series’ inception as a tie-in to Spyro the Dragon. I’m pretty sure he’s long since been swallowed by the commercial success of Skylanders. But there are very few characters here who don’t have an effusive gameplay personality waiting to emerge.
This latest Skylanders, the third in the series, is named after its swap gimmick, whereby you can pull the top off a skylander and stick it onto the bottom of another skylander. Which strikes me as pointless, even though each half has its own skill tree. For me, the Swap Force gimmick just makes the skill trees more unwieldy by splitting them among different menus. I’ve been told, and I’ve observed with my roommate’s eight-year-old, that this is mainly a kid thing. Kids apparently love to stick disparate halves together.
Skylanders’ silly hat system has the same appeal. There’s no traditional inventory management, but you can give each character a hat for some sort of stat bonus. There are 147 hats to be found. Yep, 147, each dopier than the last. Oh, sure, I can min/max by choosing the hat that gives my skylander another 50 hit points. But at what price? Am I willing to play a skylander with a turkey perched on his head? I guess kids don’t mind this stuff because they haven’t yet formed an appreciation for aesthetic consistency. That probably doesn’t come until later. Like, say, thirty years later. Also, my lawn? Get off it. And I don’t want to hear one word about having a turkey on my head. Do you hear me? Now take the top half of Rattle Shake off Wash Buckler and put it back on the bottom half of Rattle Shake where it belongs. I mean, seriously, what are you thinking?
But as a guy who loved the mix-and-match vibe of Titan Quest, the original Guild Wars, and The Island of Dr. Moreau, I appreciate that Swap Force has the option to let me mess with the templates if I’m so inclined. We’ll see. Right now, I’ve got plenty to do playing each skylander as God intended. For all my up-article kvetching about the business model and the gated content, this is an undeniably generous game. There’s the story mode, a whole slew of challenging minigames associated with specific skylanders, collectible bonus missions with clever twists, timed challenges and score challenges for each story level, plenty of horde mode arenas, and plenty of places to pit two skylanders against each other. All these ways to play are tied into a wonderfully effective collection and leveling system new to Swap Force. If you need incentives to play, collect, experiment, explore, and try harder challenges, here is a game that will oblige you for a long time to come. Now multiply that by however many skylanders you have.
What most surprises me about Skylanders is the effectiveness of these little toys. I mean, dolls. I mean, uh, action figures. Whatever you call them, I can’t deny that picking up pieces and moving them onto the base is a surprisingly effective hook. I’m sure this is old news to anyone who got on board with either of the earlier games. Hey, have you guys also seen these cool iPhones and seen those Lord of the Rings movies? As for me, I haven’t collected dolls since throwing away my Star Wars figures after someone made fun of me in junior high for still playing with them (I’m not sure what else you’re supposed to do with action figures). As an adult, I don’t really get the appeal. I have no desire to clutter up my desk or my bookshelves with molded plastic dolls. But I can begin to understand the appeal as I play Skylanders.
The base that comes with the game is sitting on a little end table in front of my couch. It’s surrounded by a lively crowd of weird creatures. They’re all frozen mid-gesture, a snapshot of some imaginative otherworldly mob prepping to bust into a game world as soon as I put them on the base. This must be what’s behind the whole “I choose you” concept in Pokemon. Maybe it’s even how all that fantasy sports league stuff works. I don’t know, because it’s not my bag. But I can begin to understand when I reach out and move my hand among the freeze-framed mob of weird things. Who will I pick? Who’s going in? Who needs leveling? They fix me with their frozen looks expectantly. These are the best 3D graphics I’ve ever seen in a game.
And then there’s the matter of actually playing each of these weird little creatures. All that variety that bubbles up when you don’t expect it. Okay, let’s see what this unassuming little puffer fish can — holy cats, he’s spewing deadly rockets everywhere, like some sort of maniacal Finding Nemo version of a Katyusha launcher! Zoo Lou? A polar bear with a tribal outfit? Really? What a dumb — whoa, he gets a wolf, a crazy bucking boar mount, and homing bird missiles! So this Slobber Tooth thing is some sort of half-assed armadillo who — hey, he just swallowed another monster whole, just like one of my witch doctor’s giant toads in Diablo III! That’s pretty much the process with every character. You consider it cynically. So that’s what someone drew and someone else coded into the game and someone else poured into a plastic mold? Whatever. Let’s give it a try and find out — holy cats, so that’s what it does!
Toys for Bob, the folks who conceived Skylanders, pitched it to Activision, and made the first two titles, thrilled me years ago with Star Control and Unholy Wars, both games about weird imaginative things beating each other up. When Slobber Tooth gobbled up a monster, I couldn’t help but recall my delight with prana devils in Unholy Wars. They were nimble little lizards with disproportionately big toothy mouths. A prana devil could run around the map laying eggs that would sprout smaller prana devils, which would then harry your opponent while you lined up a powerful bite. Slobber Tooth doesn’t really have that much in common with prana devils, but discovering his different abilities, seeing them put into action, and them using them in sleek arena battles is the same delight I felt figuring out prana devils. Take a creature design, give it three special abilities, tweak them with a series of variables, and drop them into a cheerful gladiatorial combat.
Ultimately, this character design is the world of Skylanders. Not the blocky levels, unmoored from any meaningful context or world-building, floating stagnantly on islands in the sky over nowhere. Not the quests, not the town hub, not the collectible hats. The world is these figures and what they become when you drop them into the game and move them under your fingers, like little action RPG puppets (the best part of the all-too-kiddy storyline is a musical number and then boss fight with a puppeteer mesmerist named Mesmerelda). When you play an action RPG drawn out for endless grinding, you have to spend hours leveling up and sifting through loot to achieve some sort of gratifying character build. Skylanders is that sort of gratification compressed into a much shorter time span and situated inside a plastic figure that looks at you expectantly. Is it worth $150? I couldn’t begin to tell you. But once that part of the discussion is over, here’s an action RPG I’ve absolutely fallen in love with.