While these days we love to consider video games to be interactive tools of artistic expression, there was a time when games were just toys, and that’s not a bad thing! Toys are important. They help to foster creativity in young developing minds and remind adults what it was like to be a carefree adolescent. There is, perhaps, no video game better at owning its toy-like identity than Skylanders. It’s fairly obvious to all that Skylanders: Swap Force is basically just a vehicle to sell more action figures, and that alone would make it a success, but Activision goes so far above and beyond the call of duty to create a brilliant action game experience that reinforces the things that make toys great. It’s exactly what a toy should be, rewarding creativity in children while providing a sense of nostalgia for adults.

In Skylanders: Swap Force, Kaos has returned! He has found a new magical area called the Cloudbreak Islands, home to a volcano that erupts with raw magical power. His evil plan this time around is to use the magic from the volcano to power his Evil-izer, and turn all of the denizens of Cloudbreak Island into his peons. Richard Steven Horvitz (the voice of Invader Zim) returns as the voice of Kaos, and he is as hilarious as ever. He is the perfect, goofy, non-threatening villain for the series, and he only gets funnier as the story progresses. The plot of Skylanders: Swap Force plays out like something of a Saturday morning cartoon, with loosely related quests being tied to defeating some vague yet evil plan, and its (almost) episodic nature is really a perfect fit.

For those of you who have lived under a rock for the last few years, Skylanders is a series of games that makes use of NFC (near field communication.) Basically, there is a little chip inside each action figure that allows a reader to “scan” the action figure into the game. The big twist this time around are the Swap Force figures, which consist of an upper and lower half. Players can mix and match these halves to create horrendous and hilarious abominations that combine the abilities of two figures. A skunk ninja with tentacles? You can do that. A robot with a whirlwind for legs? You can do that. A vampire with a snake tail? You get the idea.

Each upper and lower half has different abilities, with attacks tending to fall on the upper half and movement abilities falling on the lower half, with a few exceptions. You might enjoy the ranged abilities Rattle Shake but prefer the teleportation movement of Hoot Loop. Simply snap the top of Rattle Shake onto the bottom of Hoot Loop to create Rattle Loop, a teleporting, keep-away, kiting machine. By swapping characters in and out often, you will easily be able to handle just about any enemy encounter. Slow-moving enemies are better faced with fast-moving characters with powerful attacks. Hordes of faster enemies may be faced better with a heavily defensive character with an area of effect attack.

Activision could have stopped there, but they decided to integrate the swapping mechanic into the very levels themselves. Scattered throughout each level are gates that have specific element symbols on them. Gates with single element symbols can be passed by any Skylander of that element. However, gates with two elemental symbols require both elements to be present to open. As you can only summon one Skylander per player, you have a limited amount of choices available to you. You can either use a swap force figure with a top half of one element and a bottom half of another, or you can bring along a friend in two-player mode and bring two Skylanders, each of the appropriate element.

The best part about these gates is they are entirely optional, never acting as a monetary barrier for game progression. It’s an ingenious game mechanic that not only gets people to buy more action figures, but also gets children to be more social and play with other kids who may have action figures that they don’t. In addition, these gates spur creativity by making children consider what combination of Skylander halves will best serve the area beyond the gate as well.

There are also special mini-games that are available only to Skylanders with a certain movement type. So once again, you can make any top half take on these games, as long as you have the right bottom half attached. There is a huge variety here, from racing mini-games, to platformers, to wall climbing events and more. There is even something I can only describe as a throwback to the original Sonic: The Hedgehog bonus stages.

But to be fair, Activision isn’t being totally altruistic here. These special gates, mini-games, and several other secrets are everywhere in every level, and you can only unlock them if your selection of Skylanders is vast enough. At the end of every level you are told about about all the secrets you miss, poking and prodding you to go out to the store to get that one more figure that lets you get through the gate you saw at the beginning of the stage. Some of these secrets even award you with wearable hats… just in case the compulsion to buy all the Skylanders wasn’t strong enough.

Though the elements above bring some fresh qualities to the Skylanders franchise, much of the game follows the same formula as previous entries. Attacks are still spammable and enemies are decently easy to defeat. There’s still a bit of a grind in leveling up your figurine’s abilities (though thankfully only the upper half of figurines determines a characters overall level). Outside of the new swap mechanics, you are basically just playing another Skylanders title with a new story. In fact, you can even use all of your older Skylanders figures in Skylanders Swap Force. Yes, that does mean you can take Spyro into the action, which is still my preferred way to play from start to finish.

If you haven’t tried Skylanders yet, Swap Force is a great place to start. It’s fun, addictive, and has a hilarious story. It really brings out the kid in you. Heck, you’ll have tons of fun just clicking the two halves of the magnetic Swap Force figurines together. If you actually have kids, even better. Swap Force will present them with challenges that will force them to adapt and be creative. Just know that the price of entry is fairly high. With figurines going at $8-12 a pack, you’ll likely spend enough to buy a new console by the time you complete your Skylanders collection.

This review was based off a publisher supplied copy of Skylanders: Swap Force for the PlayStation 3.

8.5 out of 10 arcade sushi rating