Over the course of four major console releases and various mobile titles, the Skylanders franchise has become one the most successful series of all time – both critically and commercially – for good reason.
Previous installments Skylanders: Giants and Skylanders: Swap Force somehow managed to avoid the typical, iterative drop-off in innovation that plagues most sequels, and both games struck an impressive balance between standalone adventures and the “collect ’em all” appeal of the franchise’s primary hook: Players’ ability to purchase colorful, sculpted figures that can be brought to life in each game.
Skylanders: Trap Team feels like a soft reboot of the franchise.
It’s an elusive formula that the Skylanders developers have seemingly perfected – and it makes the lack of balance in the latest installment of the franchise, Skylanders: Trap Team, that much more conspicuous.
As in previous Skylanders adventures, Trap Team puts players in the role of “Portal Master,” the defender of the world of Skylands and the gatekeeper between the Skylanders’ toy figures and their active, in-game counterparts. Players place the figures on the peripheral “Traptanium Portal” device and the characters become playable (using a near-field communication interface) in the game.
Instead of battling the diabolical machinations of franchise villain Kaos this time around, Trap Team tasks players with saving Skylands from a host of even-more-diabolical villains that have escaped from Cloudcracker Prison. True to its name, the latest installment of the series gives players the ability to “trap” enemies using shards of “Traptanium” (translucent plastic pieces that can be slotted into the portal device) and play as the villains during the game.
Of course, each installment of Skylanders is accompanied by a new line of collectible figures, and Trap Team continues that trend with its over-sized, translucent plastic weapon-wielding “Trap Master” characters. As impressive as the new figures are, though, it’s the villains that are the true stars of the game.
It’s clear early on that Skylanders: Trap Team developer Toys For Bob focused much of its attention on the game’s villains. To “trap” a villain in the game, players must first defeat the enemy character and then insert a shard of Traptanium corresponding to that villain’s element class (i.e., air, water, fire, etc.) into a new slot on the Traptanium portal.
Naturally, villains aren’t thrilled about the prospect of being trapped, and the captured character’s on-screen protests can be heard moving from the television’s audio channel to the tinny speaker embedded in the portal device as the character is transferred from the in-game world to the digital confines of the plastic shard of Traptanium. It’s a clever audio trick that adds another level of personality to the characters.
The villains feel like the most fully fleshed-out characters in Trap Team.
Once trapped, villains offer a steady stream of advice, criticism, and random observations about the player’s on-screen activities, using the portal’s speaker. Instead of being annoying, the commentary is actually pretty entertaining, with each villain providing a unique spin on the situation. (Broccoli Guy is particularly amusing company, with his laid-back attitude and funky soundtrack whenever you tag him in for some action.) Even though they’re lacking their own plastic counterparts, the villains feel like the most fully fleshed-out characters in the Trap Team experience, with their own, unique perspectives on the narrative and skill sets.
However, the game’s focus on its villains and other new elements – like the new line of Trap Master characters – is also at the root of one of its primary issues.
Skylanders: Giants and Swap Force both gave players the option to use characters from their existing collections to play through most of each game’s story campaigns, thus minimizing the need to have the latest line of figures. In most cases, the unlockable sidequests or restricted items encountered in the earlier games were only restricted to certain classes of characters – allowing figures from any iteration of the game (as long as they fit the corresponding class) to unlock them.
Skylanders: Trap Team takes a different approach and restricts most of its unlockable areas and items to specific villains or characters from the new, more expensive line of Trap Master figures. The decision to ratchet up the restrictive aspects of the game is one that will certainly frustrate players hoping to use their favorite figures from earlier installments to progress through the story campaign. Using them is still an option, but there’s little for the older characters to do beyond making a straight-line run through the story campaign without engaging in any of the sidequests or collecting many of the unlockable items.
Both villains and Trap Master characters also tend to do more damage against in-game enemies than their friends from earlier releases. So as the game progresses and enemies become tougher, there’s almost no reason to use any other figures.
More than any iteration of the game so far, Skylanders: Trap Team seems intent on forcing players to open their wallets if they want the full experience of what the game has to offer. The starter set for Trap Team comes with the game itself, the Traptanium portal, a pair of Traptanium shards for trapping two classes of villains, one Trap Master figure, and one additional “Mini” Skylander figure. Playing through the game with just these figures and your collection from previous games can be a frustrating experience as you’re forced to pass one inaccessible area after another.
That’s not to say Trap Team doesn’t offer some inclusive elements for players who have amassed a small army of Skylanders. The new “Skylanders Academy” offers a central hub for various minigames and challenges accessible to all the characters in your collection. The hub’s offerings include the returning battle arena and exploration challenges that let players earn coins for upgrades, with the addition of a new, rhythm-based challenge and the clever Kaos’ Doom Challenge minigame.
A hybrid of tower-defense and battle arena challenges, the Doom Challenge has players fending off waves of enemies using characters in their collection and a series of upgradeable towers. It’s a fun, welcome addition to the array of minigames available to players outside the story campaign.
At its core, Skylanders: Trap Team feels like a soft reboot of the franchise, with much of its focus on the new characters and story elements introduced this time around. It’s certainly the most narrowly focused iteration of the series so far, and the end result of that focal shift is a game that feels more independent than any of its predecessors.
While this might not be the game that collectors had hoped for, it does provide a convenient – but expensive – entry point for anyone new to the world of Skylanders.
This game was reviewed on a PlayStation 4 using a Starter Set provided by Activision.
A simple, fun adventure with a gentle learning curve
Packed with clever dialogue and personality.
Bright, beautifully rendered environments.
Not much in-game action available to older characters.
Starter set offers bare minimum game experience.
Available at Amazon