Skylanders: Swap Force: The Kotaku Review

It's taken 40 long years, but it's finally happened. I've finally become an adult, and it's all thanks to the latest Skylanders game. I just don't understand the Swap Force.

The first Skylanders game gave us a batch of toys we could place on a portal to use as characters in a well-crafted action role-playing game. Using the power of magic (or maybe technology), the toys retained the statistics of the game characters, making bringing your guys over to little Timmy's house to play cooperatively a fun thing to do. It also ensured that each new toy released was a call to arms for players — you're not done until these new guys hit the level cap.

That's the basic gist of the series, really. Buy some toys, have some fun, buy some more toys because (for children) if you don't get them all it means your parents don't love you and you're adopted, or (for parents) if you don't get them all your children will grow up to be Paris Hilton. It has to be something that urgent, because I was at Toys R Us last night for the midnight launch of Swap Force, and so many carts we're filled with all of the things.

It's a formula that works incredibly well for Activision. Some call it evil, essentially selling physical keys to on-disc content. That's like calling a hitman evil for killing a bunch of people — it's his function, and a high body count is a sign of a job well done. Either the metaphor got away from me, or Activision are hitmen.

Skylanders Giants, last year's release, hugged Activision and Toys for Bob's winning formula close, introducing a race of ancient behemoths required to unlock new challenges in a game that was pretty much the same as the first. New characters, more expensive toys, and another pile of bodies for Activision to roll about on.

It's year three now, and the Madden of collectible toy video games changes things up considerably with Swap Force.

For one, the more expensive collectible figures this year — the Swap Force figures — are able to swap tops and bottoms with each other using magnets. Take the top off of one, put it on the bottom of another. Each Swap Force character has a two-part name, like Rattle Shake and Free Ranger. Swap their tops, and you get Rattle Ranger and Free Shake. Mmmm, free shake.

According to legend (or the game's story mode), the Swap Force were a special team of Skylanders tasked with protecting the Cloudbreak Islands, a region of the Skylands holding a volcano where four ancient beasts commune every hundred years or so to replenish the world's magic. Caught in the magical energies unleashed by the last replenishing ritual, the Swap Force gained the power to split in half. This helps somehow.

Mechanically it's nifty, I suppose. Instead of the single set of purchasable upgrades of normal Skylanders figures, the Swap Force characters have two, one for the top and one for the bottom. If players like the powers of a certain top, but not the bottom bits, they can just switch them out. Once all 16 Swap Force figures make it to market, kids will have more than 250 character combinations to play with.

That doesn't work for me, which is how I know I am an adult now. This is correct.

Skylanders: Swap Force: The Kotaku Review

This is obviously an octopus pirate and a one-wheeled magnet-headed robot.

Skylanders: Swap Force: The Kotaku Review

I don't know what these are, but they ain't right. The figures are designed so well, taking them apart doesn't feel good to me. *puts them back*

So I didn't end up swapping all that much as I played through the game's story, and really I didn't need to. There are elemental gates — each Skylander is attuned to one of eight elemental forces — that require two different elements. Say there's a Tech/Water gate. Swapping together squidly and magnet-head would open it, but so would hitting start on controller number two and popping on one of each. In fact, since Activision isn't releasing one Swap Force character of each element at launch (six out of eight), you have to do the second player trick (or just play with a friend) to unlock everything anyway.

That odd oversight always means that the game can't be 100 percent completed at launch. Each Swap Force character also has a travel power that unlocks mini-game challenges scattered through the story levels, and two of those are absent from the launch lineup. Puzzling.

So no, I don't get the whole swappable toy thing. I'm sure kids will love it, obsessing over the best character combinations and growing up to write questionable fan fiction about what it's like to merge with the lower half of another being. Me, I'm sticking to the amazing line-up of brand-new, non-splitting Skylanders. These are some of the best-designed toys yet. Mind the hats.

Skylanders: Swap Force: The Kotaku Review

Skylanders: Swap Force: The Kotaku Review

Skylanders: Swap Force: The Kotaku Review

Skylanders: Swap Force: The Kotaku Review

The fresh faces with their new powers are only slightly more exciting than getting a fresh Skylanders game and dragging the older toys off the shelf for another round. Every single toy released in the line since the original game works in Swap Force, from three different recolors of Spyro the dragon to the stupid little power-up items that were included in that first game's Adventure Sets.

What makes the old characters' return so exciting? For the first time on consoles, they can jump. Jumping changes everything.

After two years of complaining of the lack of vertical movement, Activision handed over the reins of console development to Vicarious Visions, the studio than made the superior 3DS versions of the first Skylanders game. The result is exactly what I expected: a platforming action RPG encroaching on Ratchet & Clank quality, only with about 100 characters to choose from, all with their own unique powers and upgrade trees.

Skylanders: Swap Force: The Kotaku Review

Hidden items are now more hidden, combat is much more dynamic, and the levels feel like they branch off in all directions. And best of all, those older characters, once only allowed to jump on Nintendo handhelds, finally get to have jumping animations in high-definition. It brings a tear to the eye.

It's not just the jumping that makes the game feel fresh. We're in a strange land here, one rendered in a gorgeous new game engine (though playing through the game on the PlayStation 3 really has me hungry for the sharper, sexier PS4 version).

The game's central hub is now a bustling town, filled with secrets and shops and extracurricular activities. Every time you load up the game after you've completed the story, a character fills you in on what you can still do — timed challenges, score challenges, bonus levels, replaying story levels to complete goals. Invite a friend overfor co-op and competitive arena modes. There's a ton of gameplay here, and with Activision getting back to releasing full Adventure Pack levels instead of just the Battle Pack arenas of Giants, there's even more on the way.

Skylanders: Swap Force: The Kotaku Review

Activision could have easily had Toys for Bob churn out another non-jumping, uninspired Skylanders adventure, and parents and children would have eaten it up. They didn't need to add jumping. They didn't need to layer on the additional content. They didn't need a musical number.

Yes, there is a musical number. It's pretty darn amazing.

The effort put into making Skylanders: Swap Force a better game despite a guaranteed customer base suggests that maybe I'm not the only one who's been maturing over the past couple of years.