From humble beginnings to being one of the most successful franchises in the world of toys and games, the Skylanders story has been one of incredible success so far, and with good reason - it's managed to link the tangible world of collectable figures with the simple fun of a game and made millions. Letting you buy a physical toy from the shops, take them home and plonk them on a mysterious portal to see them come to life in your game, ready to kick some backsides in a LEGO style co-op adventure, there's something magical about the Skylanders formula that clicked with children and grown-ups alike. With two games under their belt, though, the creative folks over at Toys For Bob faced something of a challenge when it came to that difficult third album - how do you keep things feeling fresh, while keeping things similar enough at the same time? The answer? You mix things up, Literally.
The game takes place on the floating Cloudbreak Islands, a world high up in the sky where a massive volcano erupts once every hundred years or so to replenish the land's magic. Unfortunately, a group of Skylanders characters got caught up in the last eruption and fell to the earth below – but instead of killing them outright, they instead gained the ability to swap halves with each other, teaming up to become the new swap force. These elite Skylanders now have a job to do, as the evil portal master Kaos is back and trying to take over the Skylands once more, this time by harnessing the power of the volcano to 'evilise' the islands' creatures – and only the new swap force can save the day.
What this means in practice is that the game has been mixed up in the most literal of ways. With a whole new range of figures, now, at any point during your game you can grab your character off the portal, hoik off his legs and swap those ice skates for some octopus tentacles. Or for some robot legs. Or a glowing green wheel, mysterious blue mist or some fart-powered trousers. And then there's the top half – maybe a pistol-wielding pirate or a bomb-chucking robot; perhaps the character that favours boxing gloves or the top of a ticking time bomb with rockets for hands. Each character has a magnet hidden in their torso so you can switch tops and bottoms on a whim with minimal fuss, mixing and matching their different abilities and attacks at the same time. For example, you could combine the legs of the feathered Free Ranger with the torso of the pirate squid Wash Bucker to produce a bizarre trigger-happy sea beast with chicken legs, now known as Wash Ranger. And there's an awful lot of combinations to try out, with the game boasting a whopping 256 possible combinations across the sixteen figures available on launch day - which sounds insane.
But swapping your characters around is about more than creating weird and wacky looking creatures – it means you can effectively fuse two characters together, perhaps to give you an advantage over a certain enemy type or to get through a particular locked door that'll only let the correct combination of elemental types through (each character half has its own type - water, fire, etc). Luckily for those of us without bottomless pockets, though, the pick and mix fun is mostly for cosmetic purposes, and you won't need to buy all the figures to get through the game – Activision are always very careful to make sure the whole thing can be completed with a mixture of the three figures that come included in the £60 Starter Pack, alongside the new Portal of Power and a copy of the game. For those in the know, the console starter packs will include the pirate octopus Wash Buckler, a bomb-wielding robot thing known as Blast Zone and a new version of series favourite, Ninja Stealth Elf, whilst the 3DS game comes with a different selection - the Indiana Jones-alike Rattle Snake, Free Ranger the deadly chicken assassin and a remake of everyone's favourite lava monster, Volcanic Eruptor. And even with only three figures to choose from out the box, the whole game is fully playable in local co-operative (unlike Disney Infinity).
Much like the Lego series of games, Skylanders mostly revolves around smashing stuff – whether it's bad guys, a coin-filled crate or mysterious looking rock, there's always something looking for a pummeling. During our time with the game we played a snowy, icy level called 'Winter's Keep', where an epic snowball fight was taking place between frost elves and trolls, with the former fighting on the side of the Skylanders. Two new enemy types cropped up as we played – the first, the 'Twist Pick Cyclops' that dual-wields ice-picks and has a rather deadly spinning tornado attack, but darts round so chaotically he has a tendency to make himself a bit dizzy, which is when you're best of launching into your attack. If there's more than one around, you can also use their foolhardy nature to your advantage, and lure them into each other, causing crashes and damaging them. The second baddie we met was the Cyclops Sleet Thrower, a little blue dude with antlers who uses a snow shovel to toss huge snowballs at you from a distance – although no special tactics were needed for this one besides some good old-fashioned walloping.
It's not as though there's nothing to do beyond beating up enemies though, as the levels seem to throw plenty of other little challenges your way. Whether it was using a giant catapult to pelt a number of airborne cannons under the guidance of the elf army general Duff, or riding along some rainbow rails, switching from one to the other to avoid the giant spiky snowballs rolling towards us while chucking yet more snowballs at a flying cannon as we rode along, there's plenty of unique things to see and do - and that was just in the one level.
Landing somewhat graciously in an icy plaza, we soon met up with a young frost elf standing next to a padlocked gate looking a bit miffed - it turned out we need to find the key, buried somewhere nearby, but first we need something to dig with. In fitting with the typical Skylanders humour, we soon came across a rather special looking, gold-plated shovel, stuck fast into a snow-like stone – known as the Snowscalibur, only those considered to be truly worthy are able to separate it from the stone. Being the worthy type, after having a bit of a disagreement with the snow-stone, we're soon in possession of a shovel, and a key, as we press onward through the gate.
But the Skylanders have yet another brand-spanking new trick up their sleeves for their latest games - something perhaps considered fundamental that has for some reason been absent up to this point. Something amazingly extraordinary that's sure to blow your socks off. Because now your Skylanders can... jump! That's right – the little monsters can now bend down and push themselves off the ground, rising up and over any obstacles that previously stood in their way. Every. Last. Skylander. Both new and old – giants, lightcores and swapables alike. It may sound silly, but it's something that opens up the world of Skylanders to more interesting levels and puzzles and adds much more platforming to the proceedings.
For example, further on through the level we leap up the sides of a tower onto a plataeu with a locked gate at the one end. In the centre is a laser and a couple of frozen chunks of ice – rotating the laser quickly melts the two ice blocks, but there's no key to be seen, although we do nab ourselves a spade from one of them. Behind one of the melted blocks though, you can spy a number of platforms, although the first is a little bit too high up for us to just leap straight up - which is where the conveniently placed crate comes in. Thanks to our new jumping abilities, all we have to do is push it up against the side of the first step, as we quickly climb to the top, where another pile of snow is all that stands between us and our lovely, shiny key.
Skylanders: Swap Force will hit the Playstation 3, Wii U, Wii, 3DS and Xbox 360 on the 18th October, with a version for the "next gen" consoles, the Playstation 4 and Xbox One coming the following month. The Starter Pack, which contains three figures, a portal and a copy of the game retails for around about £60, whilst the new Swap Force figures weigh in at about $15 – what that translates into in proper money though, remains to be seen.