The Skylanders series of RPG/Platformers is the grandfather of the NFC toys-to-life genre so rampant today. With the LEGO games jumping into the fray, kids/parents/gamers have a mountain of toys to buy for a variety of games. While the first Disney Infinity attempted to bring the game to the portable 3DS (and failed), only Activision’s Skylanders series has maintained an enjoyable presence on Nintendo’s handheld since the very first game. With each iteration of the Skylanders franchise something new is added to enhance the gameplay, sell more times, and convince you that $100 purchase last year is obsolete compared to this year’s bundle. On the 3DS though, the game’s offer a completely different story and gameplay experience, and Swap Force on 3DS is no exception. It’s nothing compared to the console versions, but it’s still a good play for someone who’s invested money in lots of plastic figures and portals!
Swap Force on the Nintendo 3DS offers a completely different story than that of the console version. Gone is series main baddie Kaos and in his place is Count Moneybone, a greedy skeletal pirate with a mean mustache and a plan to turn everyone in Skylands into zombies. Yikes! With the help from series stalwarts Flynn, Cali, and Hugo, you must summon forth the Skylanders and stop the evil Moneybone before he succeeds! It’s a lighthearted story you’d expect from a Skylanders game, but it is certainly nice to see someone else as the main antagonist other than Kaos. Believe me, I adore Kaos as a child-friendly bad guy, but after three console games and two other portable games, his voice and antics were getting stale. It’s refreshing to see the series try something new, while still sticking to some of its guns just in case the risk didn’t pay off. More risk in the future though would be appreciated!
At it’s core, Swap Force on the 3DS is just like Swap Force on the consoles. There are enemies every few feet that you must defeat, boxes and chests to burst open, and hidden treasure to discover if you look for it. You go into each stage with a singular story-related goal to complete, with other smaller goals littered throughout the level. Each stage has a coin quota you need to collect in order to completely ace an area. Returning in the game are elemental gates that require a Skylanders of a specific type to open. Making a first time appearance are Swap Force zones, which have you using a brand new Swap Force Skylanders to complete certain minigames. These zones utilize each Swap Force Skylanders abilities to come out victorious, such as using the dig ability to bypass spinning blades, or the teleport ability to warp around deadly spikes. It’s gimmicky and offers a small variety of challenge. When compared to the console versions, these Swap Zones unfortunately look even worse. Swap Force 3DS is a scaled down version of the core Skylanders gameplay, but it does have some charm to it.
A lot of emphasis is placed on platforming. Each Skylander can jump and double jump to reach platforms. As you progress through the latter stages in the game, the platforming gets intricate. Platforms move, spin, are set on timers, and require a precise jump to land. It was a great break up to the action having to jump around instead of just kill enemies. Sometimes the camera would switch to a sort of 2D platforming section, having you move through the level akin to the classic Super Mario Bros. games. These sections were nice, but sometimes it was hard to determine where exactly you’d be landing. Still, that’s a small gripe for an otherwise cool addition to the standard formula.
The biggest aspect to the Skylanders series is no doubt placing toys on the Portal of Power and having them appear in the game world. This is still intact in Swap Force on the 3DS, but instead of having the game save your two most recent Skylanders you’ve scanned into the game, it saves all of them. Before I started the first level, I added all 50+ of my toys to the game. They are stored in your game save, and with the tap of the bottom screen you can bring them into the game world, no more Portal of Power needed. It’s a crazy convenient way to make the game portable. Some scoffed at the idea of taking away the use of the Portal but I thought it was a great improvement: you could actually take all of your Skylanders with you on a trip and not have them bog down your carry on! Also, I felt insanely powerful knowing at any given time I could simply swap to a different Skylander to tackle a new challenge. Great addition I hope is kept throughout the portable titles.
Level design is top notch here, with a lot of diversity among the game worlds. In particular I enjoyed the heavily Asian-inspired world with ninja enemies and treetop canopies to traverse. Also of note, the undead themed world near the end of the game was equal parts Halloween-y and funny. Unfortunately the gameplay in these levels remained largely the same: kill enemies and jump on platforms. Occasionally there would be a simple puzzle thrown in, but when you boiled it down to the core, each stage in Swap Force 3DS identical to the previous. A standout from this were the handful of boss battles that punctuated each world. They had you employing different strategies to win, avoiding lots of projectiles or jumping out of the way of danger. If more thought can go into enemy design on the next game, then the portable Skylanders can truly rival the console ones.
Three games in and the portable Skylanders series shows us its best. It has its faults, including repetitive gameplay and an overall short story mode, and it certainly doesn’t compare to the console version. Despite this, Swap Force on the Nintendo 3DS makes a name for itself with some great improvements, including a new antagonist, great level visuals, and a new way to import your Skylanders into the game. It’s refreshing to see a series try something different on a less powerful handheld console instead of simply trying to make an inferior port of the home console game. Skylander fans who happen to own a 3DS should definitely check this one out. If you’re someone who just wants the best from the series, stick with the console versions. And if you’re like me and you just have a lot of toys lying around that you want to utilize, well…