Skylanders' success is borne of equal parts solid game design and marketing savvy. Its central conceit – buy small plastic figurines in order to summon in-game characters – is instantly appealing for kids, and its Gauntlet-styled action-RPG gameplay makes it a guilty pleasure for adults.
The franchise's "toys to life" mantra, despite its potential for audience exploitation, rewards dedicated fans with bonus content and unlockables that mirror the size of their toy collections. There are now hundreds of Skylanders toys to collect, but to date, the series has maintained a delicate balance that ensures a fun experience both for hardcore collectors and for casual fans.
Skylanders Trap Team, the fourth major entry in the series, is the first Skylanders game to upset this balance. Trap Team still offers a fun journey at its core, but longtime fans will be disappointed to find out that they need to purchase several new figures in addition to an expensive starter set in order to explore the game to its fullest.
Gallery: Skylanders Trap Team (10/1/14) | 10 Photos
Skylanders Trap Team introduces a new trapping mechanic, allowing players to capture and play as villains for the first time in the series' history. Trap Team is bundled with a redesigned Portal of Power platform that accepts Trap accessories in addition to legacy figures. Insert a Trap after you've beaten a boss and you can capture them and later summon your enemies to fight at your side. It comes at a cost, though – Trap Team is only available in figure-bundled Starter Packs starting at $75, and it's not compatible with any Portal of Power from previous games.
Villains are a great addition to Skylanders' playable cast, though, and the new Portal hardware makes them incredibly charming. Once you've got a villain trapped and at the ready, they'll offer running commentary on your quest via a speaker on the new Portal platform. It's a simple addition, but it makes the quest incredibly engaging.
Each of the 55 villains that can be trapped has a lot to say once captured, and their dialog often ties directly to the on-screen action. If you're getting low on health, for instance, your villain partner may chime in with something along the lines of "Hey, tag me in, coach!" They'll often pipe up after cutscenes, too, providing a sort of surreal metatextuality. It's a real treat to groan at a lame cutscene joke and then have your dim-witted villain companion follow up with a sarcastic "Ha ha! Now that's comedy!" It successfully bridges the gap between the game's world and your own living room, and the running commentary ends up defining the Trap Team's tone thanks to the exceptional quality (and quantity) of its writing.
Villains also play a crucial role in Trap Team's gameplay, which otherwise sticks closely to the formula established in previous games. Your Skylanders wander expansive levels in search of loot and equipment, leveling up and earning new abilities as they defeat enemies. At any point, you can swap your Skylander for a trapped villain; you'll want to swap often in order to minimize damage between health refills, and some areas award attack boosts to villains specifically. Villains are only active for a limited time before control reverts to your Skylanders, however, and they need to recharge between uses.
Gameplay in Trap Team feels distinct from previous series entries as a result. The trap-and-swap mechanic works well, and it makes combat more eventful and strategic than before. Villains bring their unique themed abilities into battle – Broccoli Guy, for instance, can heal your Skylanders, while the werewolf Wolfgang wields a massive guitar and plays sweet licks that damage faraway enemies. Since they don't have to strictly adhere to the standard moveset common to core Skylanders characters (ie, fast attack, strong attack, special ability), villains can serve supplemental roles in battle, making combat more interesting and varied.
It's obvious that combat was Trap Team's focus, as other returning gameplay elements are weaker compared to last year's Skylanders Swap Force. Swap Force kept up a breakneck pace throughout, bridging battles with on-rails sequences, puzzles, and freeform exploration. Trap Team feels much more rote. The game introduces interesting physics-based puzzles in its early levels, challenging players to roll boulders over rugged terrain to fill holes and unlock new areas. These sort of puzzles don't appear often, however, and gameplay feels much more action-oriented overall.
Level design takes a hit, too, reverting to the basic layouts established in Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure and Skylanders Giants. At their worst, levels can feel like a series of straightforward pathways leading from arena battle to arena battle, with little of the inventive flair found in Skylanders Swap Force. Combat is more fun than before thanks to the trapping mechanic, but I can only stomach so many battle scenes in a row before they start to become monotonous.
Trap Team is also glitchier than its predecessors. Large Skylanders frequently get stuck on level geometry, and I found myself falling off platforms a lot more often than in previous games. At one point, my partner and I managed to break the game entirely as our Skylanders fell off a ledge and into an endless void. We needed to reseat our figures on the Portal of Power several times before the problem corrected itself and gameplay resumed.
In a disappointing move for the series, Trap Team blocks off access to a large chunk of its included content unless players invest heavily in its new figures. In previous games, players could access branching paths within each level by unlocking Elemental Gates with matching Skylanders. These are a smart inclusion, rewarding longtime players with bonus content for their existing collections. I unlocked the majority of content in Skylanders Swap Force, for instance, using figures from previous Skylanders games, rather than Swap Force-specific toys.
Trap Team's Elemental Gates, on the other hand, can only be unlocked with Trap Masters – large figures that are priced at $16 apiece and are only compatible with Trap Team. Unlike in previous games, regular Skylanders, Giants, or Swap Force figures won't work; you'll need at least eight Trap Masters of different elemental affinities to unlock all of Trap Team's optional content. The single Trap Master included with the Starter Pack can only unlock a fraction of Trap Team's bonus content. Joystiq was provided with several Trap Masters for the sake of this review, and I can tell you that many of the game's most interesting platforming sequences are locked behind Elemental Gates, meaning that players with incomplete figure collections will miss out on some of the game's best moments.
Trap Masters also break Trap Team's combat balance. Perhaps as a way to justify their added cost, Trap Masters are more powerful than Skylanders from previous games – so much so that legacy Skylanders are less viable in combat. Legacy characters often cap their stats quickly, can take fewer hits, and deal less damage than newer figures, giving players little reason to stick with their favorites over Trap Team's exponentially stronger cast, especially in the difficult later levels.
Despite its many worthy additions, Skylanders Trap Team is the first game in the series to disappoint me. The new villain characters are charming - seriously, who could hate a floating, magical vegetable named Broccoli Guy? - and the talking portal accessory puts a fun spin on traditional series elements, but the uninspired level design really drags down the overall experience. Furthermore, the game's reliance on new figures is also a downer, especially for series veterans who already own a large collection of toys. You and your kids will still have plenty of fun with Trap Team, but it's weaker than last year's Swap Force, and its costly locked content sets an unfortunate precedent for future sequels. Broccoli Guy deserves better.
This review is based on the PS4 version of Skylanders Trap Team, provided by Activision. Images: Activision.
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