After four years and just as many iterations, Skylanders has been assimilated into the Activision machine. What was once a clever little idea has morphed into a major pillar of the company's bottom line, as annual editions continue to establish new gimmicks with their own portals to buy. It would be easy to pass the Trap Team mechanic as just another excuse to force a $75 purchase on parents, but the idea actually serves to solve some long-standing problems in the series.
The conceit of Trap Team is a large-scale prison break in Skylands. Villains who have been locked up for years in a prison made of (brace yourselves) "Traptanium" have suddenly been busted out, and your job is to round them up. In addition to the regular Skylanders figures, the new portal base has a small hole for the new trap pieces to fit into. There's a different trap to collect for each of the eight elements, naturally, and when you take down a villain you plug in the appropriate trap. From that point on, they work for you.
The villains are everywhere--usually two or three per stage. The result is a Skylanders game with the most playable characters, but the fewest actual Skylanders figures since the original. Given the annual release schedule, I had to wonder if the emphasis on trapping villains was meant to alleviate the burden of putting so many figures into full production on such a tight schedule.
Whatever business rationale might have come into consideration, the villains actually work wonderfully. They function like a summoned character in an RPG. They don’t take damage, so instead hits only register as time lost from their availability. You can tag them in at any time, which makes them a lifesaver for when your Skylander is low on health.
This affords much more flexibility to your playstyle by letting you make up any deficits in your current character with a complimentary villain character. If you're playing as a close-range melee fighter, for example, your villain could be a long-range fighter for when enemies are out-of-reach. The tag-team swapping is almost instantaneous, unlike physically switching figures, so it's a smart solution that really enhances the gameplay.
The traps also make it much easier to bring a new figure up-to-speed in the later levels. While previous games forced you to grind a new character to make it strong enough, now you can simply enter a later level, and switch to your villain to take down the enemies. All of that experience and money goes toward the equipped Skylander, making them rapidly gain levels and cash for upgrades.
Villains themselves don’t level up like normal Skylanders, but you can find little tasks in stages that can power them up to an “Enhanced” version with a color swap and stronger abilities. Most of these were frustratingly placed, though, putting a villain's special task in an earlier spot of the same stage where you obtain them. Most of the time these were rendered inaccessible by the time you reach the villain, making it necessary to replay the stage again. Plus, since a trap can only hold one villain at a time and can only be swapped outside of missions, it was confounding to remember which ones I would need to bring along for their upgrades.
Trap Team also introduces Trap Masters, though they’re not nearly as game-changing. As opposed to the Swap Force figures which were inventive in themselves, Trap Masters are simply larger Skylanders with some kind of translucent plastic prop. They’re required to pass through the special elemental gates this time, and only their weapons can destroy crystals that block your path. All of that feels like retroactively creating reasons to use them, though, rather than naturally making them more fun by themselves.
Many of the new characters feel similarly uninspired. This is the fourth iteration, and every Skylanders game has come with some clunkers, but I definitely sensed the designers spinning their wheels in this one. Then again, many of the best character designs were for villains like Pepper Jack and Chompy Mage, who could have just as easily been Skylanders figures themselves. I'm not sure how Toys for Bob decided which ones made the cut as figures and which were relegated to villain roles, but it definitely feels more slanted on the side of villains.
Like the figures themselves, all of which still work in this game, Skylanders keeps stacking on new gameplay modes and minigames. The marquee one in this adventure is the Kaos Doom Challenge, a wave-based survival mode with some tower defense elements. It's simple fun, and an easy way to grind out some experience or money quickly if you don't have time to take on a full stage. Alongside the revised card game Skystones Smash (think "Baby's First Hearthstone"), Trap Team provides some well-polished distractions from the main campaign.
And as usual, the campaign is long. It takes place across 18 stages that can last up to an hour apiece, if you explore all the nooks and crannies. Say what you will about the frequency of Skylanders releases, at least they always pack plenty of content to explore with the latest sets of figures.
Skylanders Trap Team is a strange kind of beast. Its level design is as strong as ever and the villain trapping gimmick is a strong addition with some great gameplay implications. At the same time, the character designs are getting tired. Just like Swap Force last year, this latest gimmick is clever enough to justify the new portal purchase. Given the diminishing returns of the character designs, though, I have to wonder how long it can keep up this pace.
This review is based on a retail PlayStation 4 copy and several figures provided by the publisher. Skylanders Trap Team is now available for $74.99. Core characters are $9.99, two-packs of Minis at $14.99, three-packs of Traps and Trap Masters are both $15.99. The game is rated E-10+.