Let's start at the beginning. Spyro the Dragon burst onto the original PlayStation all the way back in 1998. In the 15 years since, he's appeared in 13 different games. While he personally doesn't play a big role in Skylanders: SWAP Force, the character's late-90s arcade adventure puzzle roots are clearly showing.
The story is simple: Lord Kaos is plotting to find the ancient guardians of Skylands and turn them evil, and it's up to the Skylanders to stop him. You, as a Portal Master, must find the right combination of fantasy creatures to overthrow Kaos - and his mother - before he can condemn the world to certain doom!
By "combination", I don't just mean picking the right character from a menu. Swap Force - like previous Skylanders games - uses real-world toys and a real-world Portal of Power. Choose the Skylander you want to play with, pop it onto the Portal, and it will appear in-game, like magic.
This time around, the characters are swappable - you can take the top from one and the bottom from another, and combine them into an all-new Skylander, each one with its own special abilities.
You'll use these special, swappable skills to progress through the game. Some regions can only be completed by using Water-type Skylanders, like Wash Buckler, others need Fire, like Blast Zone - and then there are some that need a character who is both water *and* fire, like Blast Buckler or Wash Zone!
There are 16 Swappable Skylanders that you can get for Swap Force, adding up to 256 possible combinations - and the in-game marketing department doesn't let you forget that you really should pick up every single one as they all have their own parts to play.
While it was technically possible (although difficult) to 100% Skylanders: Giants with the single figure you got in the Starter Pack, there are areas of the Swap Force world that you simply cannot access with the three figures you already have. This means, either you have to do away with your notions of completion, or you'll have to pick up extra characters in order to find all of the Winged Sapphires, unlock all of the gates, and wear all of the hats. (Your old characters will work, by the way - in fact, some gates do not require swap features, and others actually need Giants to open them!)
But - back to the game itself. Swappability isn't the only new thing added to Swap Force. Your Skylanders can now jump! Finally, no more relying on bounce pads. The game now feels much deeper and more multi-layered, not to mention more interesting to explore. Wander through lava-filled caves, misty grottoes and lush jungle scenes, each one filled with treasure chests, collectable items and plenty of objects to smash.
And it's stunning. The game is a joy to look at, all bright colours and flashing lights - the animation glitches of previous titles are well and truly fixed. This year's new issue: A camera angle that always seems to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Maybe I'm spoiled, but I found myself reaching for the right analogue stick trying to move my viewpoint around.
There are 17 different stages to Skylanders: SWAP Force, and each one's different enough to keep us interested. None is particularly challenging - even on higher difficulty settings - but then again, we've probably played a few more games than the target audience.
If you look carefully, you might see evidence that Skylanders: SWAP Force boasts a detailed action/RPG tucked away under its child-friendly platformer exterior. Each character - each *half* a character, top and bottom - can be upgraded as you progress through the game, resulting in a unique skillset tailored to your gameplay style.
The longer you play, the more new levels your own Portal Master Rank will achieve too - and with those new levels come new things to buy in the in-game shop. From a less-retail-centric viewpoint, you'll also unlock more pedestals to show off treasures you've collected, too - and these in turn unlock more new skills.
This is Vicarious Visions' first time at the helm of the Skylanders Series - and the Swap Force concept came out of an idea for a completely different, standalone game from the studio. Reassuringly for fans of the series, the new team has not fixed what ain't broke - instead introducing new and overdue elements and polishing old favourites.
It might not have something for everyone, but what it does have is pretty special. Kids are - inevitably - going to fall in love with Skylanders all over again. Grown-ups might not feel the need to hunt this one down for themselves, but more than a couple of mums and dads are going to be playing this one at night after the kids have gone to bed. There are three save-game slots now, by the way, so you can keep your adventures separate.
Skylanders: SWAP Force is probably best described as a combination of video game and real-world toy collection. The game comes with a Portal of Power, and three new figures - Wash Buckler and Blast Zone, who are swappable, and Ninja Stealth Elf, who is not. The single-player storyline is able to be completely finished with just these three characters.
To unlock more of the SWAP Force world, you'll also need at least five more figures plus a Giant, to cover all eight elements and Giant-specific tasks. These are available in games retailers and are also popping up around the place second-hand, if you want to save a bit of money.