First, there was the novelty of the toy-video game combo. Then, the toys turned into giants.
Now, they mix and match with magnets.
Activision's mega-franchise Skylanders recently released its third installment, "Skylanders Swap Force." The latest gimmick — a lineup of 16 interchangeable figures — adds even more options to a series characterized by a dizzying number of possibilities.
Parents who shelled out for Series 1 ("Spyro's Adventure") and Series 2 ("Giants") know the drill and are likely wondering how in the world this new version got to the market so fast. But for those who aren't familiar with Skylanders, here's a quick primer.
Skylanders' games require tangible toy figures to import and play with characters. The starter pack ($74.99) comes with three of those characters (Blast Zone, Wash Buckler and Ninja Stealth Elf) along with the game disk and a portal to place the figures on. The game is beautifully animated, easy to play and oh so clever. Kids are enthralled by both the game and the collectible toys, and why shouldn't they be? Skylanders is incredibly fun.
And potentially expensive. But if you can get past that, it's a high-quality gaming experience.
So what's new here? First off, there's the "swap" option. Specific characters (not all of them, mind you, just the most expensive ones) detach at the midsection into two pieces. Gamers can then swap them around and create hybrids with dual elements (Life, Tech, Fire, Air, Magic, Undead, Earth, Water) and special abilities (Rocket, Spin, Teleport, Speed, Bounce, etc.). For example, the metal, bomb-tossing top of Blast Zone combines with the sliding squid bottom of Wash Buckler to create Blast Buckler, a Fire/Water Skylander with climbing ability. The leftover pieces can then be turned into Wash Zone.
Obviously, the more figures you buy, the greater the number of options. Additional swappable characters (there will be 16 total for 250-plus combinations) retail for $14.99. Activision is also rolling out a staggering 40 other characters that don't swap, including updates of previous characters — Lava Barf Eruptor being one of the most curious. These are priced between $9.99 and $12.99 each.
But all those characters would just be action figures without a great game, and "Swap Force" is just that.
Like the previous versions, it follows the fantasy storyline of a magical world protected by heroes called Skylanders. In this version, we learn that the source of Skylands' magic is a volcano at the Cloudbreak Islands. While engaged in battle there, a group of Skylanders was caught in an eruption, giving them "a remarkable new power." Thus, gamers now have a new "play pattern" called "swapability." (Yes, the backstory is a little underdeveloped, but it's a kids game, so just go with it.)
The animation is vivid and vibrant, and families should enjoy sitting back and watching the story unfold together. An unmistakable Patrick Warburton (Puddy from "Seinfeld") returns to provide the voice of Captain Flynn with ample comic relief. And he's not the only source of humor.
In fact, one of the strengths of this franchise — and a big reason it appeals to kids — is that it doesn't take itself too seriously. Random objects and silly upgrades are plentiful. Young gamers get a kick out of putting stovepipe hats on their Skylanders' heads, or upgrading to guns that shoot water bubbles filled with piranhas.
But the best upgrade of all is that the characters can now jump. Curiously, the first two games of the series didn't allow for the simple, almost universal mechanic. But this little annoyance has been remedied in "Swap Force," and hallelujah for that.
"Skylanders Swap Force" does a great job of engaging kids in the adventure. (They're addressed by the noble title of "portal master.") Puzzles and mini-games help mix things up, and the battle arena mode is a particularly fun two-player option. Game difficulty ranges from "easy" to "nightmare."
There's enough here to ensure long-term playability, which is a good thing for parents whose kids are going to be seeking new Skylanders once their birthday comes around or they've earned some allowance money. Activision has been kind enough to sprinkle introduction videos to new Skylanders liberally throughout the game, so kids will be fully aware of all the cool characters they don't own yet.
The good news is, all Series 1 and 2 Skylanders are compatible with the game. In fact, they even have an upgraded feel — though that may be because you can actually jump with them now. Unfortunately, the Series 3 characters won't work with the older games.
But that likely won't be a problem. Because with Skylanders, for better or worse, kids are always looking forward to something new.
Game: "Skylanders Swap Force"
Platforms: Nintendo Wii, Wii U and 3DS; Xbox 360 and Xbox One; PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4
Rating: E 10+ for cartoon violence