As much as I try and tell myself otherwise, it is a kids game, and if you’re in the 18-30 bracket, there’s no way you’ll ever convince your mates that having a shelf full of toys is cool. But that isn’t to say it’s a bad game like, say, Disney Infinity. In fact, on the whole, Skylanders is far better than many give it credit for, even if this year’s game doesn’t quite live up to the expectations set by the last.
If you’ve never played Skylanders, it’s best described as a combat-action game with RPG-lite elements. The majority of its levels are built around brightly-coloured islands in the sky, with each figure in your collection unlocking as a playable character once you place them on the physical portal. Each character has access to its own unique move set and upgrade path, with its stats improving every time it levels up. Combat remains simplistic throughout: there are no complex combos, cooldowns or stamina bars here, although the elemental character types (Air, Water, Magic etc.) can occasionally provide a brief sense of strategy. Think of it as a Beginner’s Guide To Diablo with a touch of platforming and you’ll have a good idea of what to expect.
This year’s game introduces the option to capture (and play as) bosses using traps, those small key-shaped objects you may have seen that slot into the front of the new Traptanium Portal. Much like the Skylanders, each trap is themed around a specific element (Water and Grass traps are included in the box, for example) and can be used to capture enemies of the same type at specific moments in the game. The first is a rocket-launching sheep, the animal comically bleating through the new portal’s built-in speaker once caught, with others, including arch enemy Kaos and a wisecracking magical broccoli, also obtainable provided you purchase the appropriate trap.
It’s a gimmick, sure – the enemies rarely play any differently to the standard Skylanders, and Toys For Bob doesn’t do as much with them as it really should – but the developer’s use of the built-in speaker is superb. Hearing a villain being sucked out of the game and into the real world for the first time made the requirement to splash out on a new portal feel immediately justifiable; quite the achievement given that long-term fans will now be on their third piece of Skylanders hardware.
While it succeeds on its promise of ‘bringing life to toys’, then, a greater issue Trap Team faces is in how overt the series has become at asking the player to spend more money. Skylanders has often been accused of being a cash-grab, but the introduction of Trap Masters (a new Skylander type that, based on the one included in the Starter Pack at least, barely feels any different to the regular characters) has given Activision the excuse to bolt on another unnecessary barrier to its Elemental Gates. Previously restricted to characters of a particular element, these hidden areas now require a Trap Master belonging to that element to access. Your old Skylanders, unfortunately, are no longer up to the task.
There have always been artificial barriers throughout the series, of course (and these areas are entirely optional, it’s worth remembering), but it’s never felt as cynical or intrusive as it does in Trap Team. Up until now, players had never been forced to interact with characters they weren’t able to control without buying additional equipment. Here, you often have to actively reject trapping a villain simply because you haven’t yet purchased the appropriate trap. And if you find a Soul Gem (a preview video of another character disguised as an in-game collectible), the villain trapped inside the portal will tell you how amazingthey think that new character is. It’s relentless commercialism.
To add insult to injury, the revised focus on the new toys can make your previous investments feel disappointingly redundant. You’re still able to use all your existing characters in general gameplay, of course, but with its sights set so squarely on traps and Trap Masters more content feels locked behind the new toys than ever before. If you want to get the most out of Trap Team, be prepared to invest in a substantial amount of new kit.
It can struggle to live up to the heights of last year’s excellent Swap Force, too, and while a younger audience will still find it wonderfully entertaining, Trap Team can often feel like a step backwards, delivering worlds that aren’t as fun as it’s predecessor’s, level design that suffers from repetition and a lack of inspiration, and a presentation that, while beautiful for the most part, could occasionally do with a little more polish. Some of that could, perhaps, be put down to development being handed back to Toys For Bob, the developer of the first two Skylanders games. But after four titles in as many years and only novel gimmicks to separate them, there’s a real risk that, unless Activision has some major plans in store for next year’s game, the magic of Skylanders may soon start to wear a little thin.
Version Tested: PlayStation 4
Second Opinion – Tom Orry: Is Trap Team on tablets the real console experience?
As well as the usual home console and handheld releases for Skylanders this year, Trap Team is also available for a number of tablets, including the iPad and numerous Android devices (check compatibility here). The goal has been to replicate the console experience on tablets, and for the most part that has been done pretty well.
The Tablet Starter Pack appears almost identical to the kit you’d buy for your PS4 or Xbox One. You get a portal, two Skylanders, two traps and the same game as on consoles. The hardware itself is slightly disappointing, though. The portal, which makes noises on home consoles, doesn’t for tablet, meaning you miss out on the feeling that the characters are actually caught inside the little traps. It’s a shame, but perhaps done to save on battery juice – the device needing three triple-A batteries. Home console version buyers also get a better looking portal, that’s both bigger and more ornate.
Interestingly, the kit also comes with a tiny bluetooth controller that fits under the portal. Early impressions were good. It comes complete with two analogue sticks, four face buttons, a d-pad and four shoulder buttons, offering the console experience but for a tablet. Issues, sadly, rear their head once you actually start playing.
Before you begin the game properly you’re asked to download a rather hefty extra load of game data, bringing the file size up to about 6GB – quite a lot for devices that aren’t blessed with loads of storage space. We also had to contend with numerous errors while downloading, and restarted the app twice before it finally loaded into the main game.
The controller itself doesn’t quite live up to early hope, with input lag being a big problem. Skylanders doesn’t require twitch reactions like a shooter, but it’s still disconcerting to press a direction and then have a noticeable pause before it’s reflected in the game. I actually found the touch controls to be the better option.
Visually (on an iPad Air) Trap Team looks very nice, and offers the same content as on consoles. At times the frame rate could be smoother, but this is one of the best examples of tablets running the same titles as dedicated games consoles.
So, Skylanders Trap Team on tablets is very close to being the full console experience. Lag-free input and a smaller file size would have made it easy to recommend, but it’s a decent effort wrapped up in a nice package.