It's not a thing. It's a Wash Buckler.
When I go shopping, my local department store's toy aisle proves too tempting to avoid. Look at my life. I'm clearly still a child, but I'm bearded, and if you tried to hold me, it'd be weird. I walk the rows of brightly colored boxes and imagine how all the toy commercials scream at children in between shows about Square Pants and Adventure Time. And despite all the special attention I give to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles action figures, I always manage to walk by the Skylanders display.
But there, I ask myself, how many of these $8-$12 toys would I need to buy to get all of the best gameplay from any Skylanders game? Upgrade trees, bonus levels… the toy itself, I must have it all… or none of it. After some hands-on with Skylanders: Swap Force, I discovered you don't have to own every single figurine to thoroughly enjoy the title especially with a child. I tested Swap Force, from Vicarious Visions, by playing the game in co-op as if I were at home in 1999 cutting my teeth on the Nintendo 64 with my younger brother. Swap Force reaffirms Skylanders as next-generation toys with tons of gameplay variety.
Obviously, Skylanders is meant for kids. I'm sorry if that's soooo beneath you. The truth is there's an insane amount of development talent behind Swap Force, and the finished product really shows. Every inch of the game is slathered in a cartoony goo that feels like it sticks to your thumbs through the controller. Environments are wildly vibrant and characters beam with personality. It wasn't hard to get my significant other to try it: I just showed her the box.
"I've heard of this," she said. Her nieces are just now growing out of Activision's target age, but they were still aware of the franchise thanks to the iOS app. She picked one of the two Swappable figures and I took the other. Starter Packs come with two Swap characters and one returning character. All Swap characters are new to the series, but they're also the most expensive at $14.99 a pop.
She immediately pulled the figurine's top off and let it snap back together after inspecting the magnet in between each half. Then she did this five more times. These new Swap Force characters will absolutely be found in backpacks on their way to school. Kids will want to take their favorite characters with them, they'll distractingly fiddle with the magnetic toy, and of course they'll trade them and lose them too.
The whole elaborate setup involving the figurine—the portal of power that plugs into your console, and the game that brings toys to life—is shockingly modern. For the first few hours of gameplay, my old fear, the one about an expanding Skylanders line of credit at my bank, dissipated. There were plenty of gates that I or my SO or even the Earth-element non-swap figure could open up. I switched back and forth between Wash Buckler and Ninja Stealth Elf, but my partner stuck with Blast Zone who opened fire and blast gates as we went.
While the frequency of gates we could open seemed to decline as the hours went on, the biggest disappointment arrives at the end of any level. Scoreboards tell you how many hidden treasures, wearable hats (yes, Skylanders totally follows Valve into hat madness), and bonus levels you missed. Some bonus levels were never even seen. I expected almost every bonus level to wave its gate in my face urging me to whip out the wallet, but Vicarious Visions has hidden tons of goodies well away from view.
I tore open a few more figurines and revisited bonus levels later and found brilliant, sometimes throwback, sometimes talent-flexing turns away from Skylanders gameplay. Wash Buckler's wall-climbing levels were my favorite, but others like Magna Charge and Free Ranger had excellent gameplay distractions of their own as well, all of which are readily replayable. You can access upgrade trees at any time and much of the laborious micro-management that would be involved in a Diablo clone has been tossed.
With the price of collectable toys growing by the moment, I must mention how expensive the game can get. If you commit to the title and really sit down to enjoy it, your money will have been well spent. If you've already got a bin full of Skylanders, you'll continue to see value from those in this game. If you're introducing gaming to your child or siblings who have already learned to play nice together and share, Swap Force is the best bang-for-your-buck entertainment for families staying at home this holiday, and everyone can play.
If you're a cynical gamer with a penchant for fast and frenetic hardcore gaming, Swap Force won't speak to you. The combat can become mind-numbing, more so if you find characters with attacks you can spam and max damage with, switching between all of them on the fly. Battle Gates arbitrarily lock you from progressing until you've defeated every enemy, which doesn't mean much since you can simply mash your way through. Even on higher difficulties, smart portal-masters equipped with high-level figures will readily find a way, but you can still find a fun rhythm in switching characters and rediscovering combos.
Regardless of the simplicity, there's plenty of swappable characters (and character halves) to cycle through combat. After expanding the stable of available figures with two-piece toys, it's clear that Swap Force's best asset is its versatile delivery of fun. It's not limited by the M-rated audience gaming typically caters to. Kids, male and female gamers of all ages, and even my SO can find something to like in Skylanders and everything to hate in the virtual killing fields of Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto. You can bet you'll feel the effects of toys-that-come-to-life in other areas of gaming as the franchise marches on.
Copy and figurines provided by publisher. Review based on retail PS3. Also available on Xbox 360, Wii, Wii U, 3DS.