As most families with children of a certain age know by now, Skylanders is a video game that uses toy figures to unlock on-screen characters and automatically save progress. It is a controversial concept, relying on the fanatical enthusiasm of children for fresh content and collectibles, and gating elements of the experience that require new toys.
And with this year’s iteration, the publisher wastes no time in underlining its business model. As with 2013’s iteration Swap Force, Trap Team requires a new “portal of power” (the near-field communications dais that the toy figures are placed on) – so that means players will need to discard their existing peripheral (or trade it in for the new game at a few savvy retailers) and buy the complete starter pack.
Why the extra expense? Well, the device powers Trap Team’s new novelty of being able to capture and then play as enemies. A plastic trap key is placed in a slot in the portal to capture the villains once they have been defeated. A different toy trap piece is required for each of the corresponding elements, and once trapped, villains can be used as player characters by placing their related trap back in the portal.
This sounds messy and confusing but actually works very well. It changes the game more than expected as players can switch between Skylander and villain at the press of a button to suit the current challenge. A speaker in the new portal is used to voice the villains in the trap who interject at various moments in the game with encouragement or criticism.
It’s a coherent experience, convincing to young players and amusing for older participants. With 40 or so trappable villains the sheer volume of voice work and design on display here is impressive, and suggests at least that Activision has a commitment not to scrimp on development costs.
Trap Team’s hero characters this year are the Trap Masters. Each figure is larger than a normal Skylander, although not quite as big as 2012’s Giants. They each carry a large “Traptanium” weapon that glows when they are near trappable villains.
These characters are more effective at defeating villains and can destroy “Traptanium Crystals” to gain access to extra areas in each level.
Trap Masters are also required to enter Element zones this year, which further incentivises players to buy at least one in each element. Previously, these zones were accessible by any character old or new. Locking them away for only the most expensive new characters will frustrate some players, and confirm parents’ suspicions of the money making ambitions of the series.
Good will is stretched to breaking point by the inclusion of, as yet, unconfirmed new Element zones in the game that appear as question marks. While this is essentially no different to locking away the other zones for certain Trap Masters, it is a more obvious ploy to get children to buy additional toys to unlock content already on the disc.
Along with the usual bunch of returning and new characters this year are a set of miniature figures. These Minis are about half the size of the normal toys and work as fully upgradable characters in the game – each with endearing names to match their stature.
Extending the world
As for the game itself, the main campaign is well delivered and offers a suitable venue to enjoy Skylanders old and new. It sticks to the now familiar action-platforming experience of the previous games, but lacks both the split-screen and online play offered by Disney Infinity.
Still, it outstrips competitors by some way in terms of compatibility. Players can use any of their existing collection of characters in the new game, giving new life and extending value to purchases made many years ago.
On PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, characters look fresh, intricately detailed and delightful. Other platforms too benefit from enhancements to the game’s engine as well as gameplay features like jumping and shooting at the same time.
Extending the value proposition further, Trap Team continues to support the Wii this year even though Nintendo’s ageing machine has been dropped by Disney Infinity and the Lego video games. At least parents are spared from having to buy a new console. Also, the Wii version of Trap Team comes with a downloadable Wii U version providing a free upgrade path when families are ready.
The downside is that this year’s game is lacking the popular “player versus player” battle mode, in favour of a Chaos attack and arena battle offering. It does however bring back the tile based sub-game Skystones as Skystones Smash – which adds a mathematical twist to one of the most popular aspects of Skylanders Giants.
With all this additional in-game content, the most ambitious aspect of Trap Team is easily missed: the tablet version. This brings the full console game to high end tablet devices with a starter pack that provides a Bluetooth portal and controller.
This not only frees up the big screen in the sitting room but enables children to move more easily between playing with the toys on the carpet and playing the video game. It supports two players and touch controls, and can be played on the go with two digital-only “Instant” characters.
Although there have been Skylanders apps in the past, this full step onto tablets is significant for the franchise and could potentially eclipse the console game given the younger demographic. Interestingly, the app also lets you buy the game piecemeal in three £10.49 in-app purchases that breaks the series’ previous insistence on players buying a toy to access a character.
Beyond all this, the toys are the real star of the show. Unlike the commercial and overly familiar characters in Disney Infinity, the new Skylanders feel fresh and handcrafted. This leads not only to more variety but also to characters that buck the usual buff/slender binary for male/female heroes. In this light, Torch the female blacksmith and Head Rush the operatic female Trap Master will appeal to parents as well as youngsters.
Skylanders Trap Team won’t be the cheapest video game for families this year, but with the Starter Pack and some old figures, this compelling action adventure offers good value.
This article was written by Andy Robertson, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 15th October 2014 10.46 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010