Skylanders title finally has made its way onto the tablets.
No, I’m not talking about another 99-cent App Store tie-in; I’m talking about a full-fledged console-quality Skylanders title with its own Bluetooth Skylanders game portal and controller. This is the real-deal folks, and it is a pretty sweet deal – if your tablet can handle it, that is.
By now, the console gaming folks are well-acquainted with Skylanders – but for tablet owners the concept might be a bit foreign so I’ll give a little background on the series.
Skylanders was born out of a reboot of the long-running (but ultimately faltering) Spyro the Dragon series. Activision had recently acquired the Spyro license, and in the then-current surge of games integrating physical devices (Guitar Hero, Tony Hawk’s Ride, etc.) it was decided that the Spyro series would likewise integrate physical objects into the gameplay.
The result was Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure. Developed by American developer Toys For Bob, Skylanders incorporated a series of highly detailed plastic figurines with internal RFID memory chips that interact via Near Field Communication (NCF) to a wired/wireless plastic “Power Portal” once the characters are placed upon it. This interaction then translates to the game as the newly-placed character immediately appears in virtual form on the screen as a playable character in the game.
Each character’s in-game stats, upgrades, and modifications are saved to the individual RFID chips within them, to be carried on through the course of their physical existence. If that were not cool enough technology, the characters were – and remain – platform independent, so if your child (or yourself) happens to have a Skylander character played on the original Wii in 2010, that character’s is playable and its stats still relevant on this current generation PS4, Xbox One or even this Tablet versions of the game.
The real hook with Skylanders, as well as Disney’s similar Infinity series, is to get gamers to buy additional characters and items from their local department store to use within the games. Each release comes with 2 – 3 characters in the starter pack, but there is an entire community of collectors who covet the hundreds of Skylanders characters that have been released since the series’ inception.
Each successive Skylanders release has presented a new and innovative twist on the gameplay of the prior releases, while maintaining the top-notch gameplay that has become a cornerstone of the series. The first title introduced the technology, the second a new breed of “Giant” characters, the third a new breed of “Swappable” characters with two-piece magnetically connected bodies that could be mixed and matched to make hybrid characters.
Now in its fourth generation, Skylanders Trap Team introduces an inventive Trapping mechanic which gives gamers the power to imprison defeated boss characters within Trap Crystals. Much like the Skylanders figurines themselves, Trap Crystals are tangible real-world objects containing hidden memory chips that communicate to the virtual world via NFC when inserted into a port on the newly designed “Traptanium” game Portal.
The benefit to having a villains trapped within the crystals is that it allows the gamer to use the incarcerated creatures as allies in their conquest, swapping back and forth on the fly between the main portal character and the crystal-contained baddie. The villains comply in an attempt to redeem themselves and gain their eventual release – think of it as being out on good behavior, in jail terms.
The catch – and there is always a catch – is that like the Skylanders, the villains are elemental in nature and can only be incarcerated in crystals comprised of elements matching their own, and only one at a per crystal at any given time.
With only two crystals included in the starter pack, that means that only a quarter of the eight basic Skylanders elements (air, earth, fire, water, life, magic, tech and undead) are covered at the outset. Of course, additional Trap Crystal figurines can be purchased for about $7 – so gamers can get their hands on all eight elements for an additional $50 or so. And that’s if the gamer doesn’t mind going through the additional trouble of swapping some of the 47 villains between the Villain Vault and the Crystals – some folks might want to buy multiple versions of the crystals to always keep specific villains at the ready. Cha-ching!
If that weren’t daunting enough on the pocketbook, considering that new trapping mechanic can only be performed by one of the eighteen designated “Trap Master” characters at $15 a pop, then there is also the thirty-plus new edition Skylanders characters at $10 each, and you can see that the Skylanders cash cow definitely has horns. Add to that the numerous variants, magic items, and level packs for sale, and a Skylanders completest could easily find himself in for hundreds, if not thousands of dollars.
Granted, like any Skylanders game before it, there is plenty of fun to be had with the starter pack. Gamers can play through a large portion of the game with the two standard pack-in characters (standard character “Food Fight” and Trap Master character “Snap Shot”) and the two Trap Crystals – and even with a friend in co-op mode. But chances are, most gamers will be driven to pick up one at least a couple of additional add-ons to augment their enjoyment; if not simply for the collectible factor, then to open more of the alternate missions and pathways requiring characters of various elements.
Skylanders Trap Team sees a return of series originator Toys For Bob in the development seat, although any difference from last year’s Swap Force – developed by Vicarious Visions – is hardly noticeable. Obviously, Activision is employing their time-honored alternating developers system (as they did with the Call of Duty series) to allow multi-year development cycles while maintaining annual releases.
So why are gamers trapping villains in the first place?
It seems that the prime bad guy Kaos was a bit angry with how things were left upon the conclusion of the events detailed in Swap Force. As a result, he decides it to get back at the Skylanders by blowing up the infamous Cloudcraker Prison, thereby releasing its menagerie of evil villains on the now-peaceful Skylands. The only Skylanders with the mettle to defeat and capture these heinous criminals is a crack force of specially-trained Trap Team Skylanders, who are called in for help.
The story is told through a series of entertaining film-quality CGI cutscenes that highlight the constant infighting between the villains, who just cannot seem to get along (surprise, surprise). Kaos quickly realizes he might have opened Pandora’s Box with his actions – and hilarity ensues.
Trapping does come in handy, as most villains come with special powers and attacks that are tailored for specific obstacles and/or enemies. For instance, the first villain Sheep Creep appears friendly enough – until his two back-mounted turrets pop out from under his wooly coat. These projectiles are serious enough stuff, as are the landmine secondary weapons he leaves behind (yeah, cute). But once leveled, Sheep Creep has some downright devastating wooly bombs that effectively clear waves of enemies in a single blow.
Villains that have been sealed in Trap Crystals can be called upon at any time, but their use is limited by an onscreen meter that requires a recharge period once depleted (or maybe that should be deBLEATed in the case of Sheep Creep). This means that gamers still need to be a bit expeditious in their usage of villain allies, because it always seems like recharges never come at the most opportune times.
The rest of the game is standard Skylanders fare – which is definitely not a bad thing. Sure, it’s never going to compete with a classic platforming series like, say Sly Cooper or Ratchet and Clank – but the sheer sense of interactivity and engagement that comes with swapping the highly-detailed figurines on and off the Traptanium Portal and seeing those characters appear onscreen makes up for any shortcomings in the gameplay department.
Aside from the standard story mode, Trap Team offers up a handful of additional gameplay modes – the most entertaining of which is the Kaos Doom Challenge, which introduces a wave-based tower defense mechanic into the fold. Battling the waves of enemies using brute strength and constructed towers is surprisingly rewarding, and serves as the perfect loot mine for leveling up characters.
That being said, it is a bummer that it seems like the difficulty has been toned down a little too much –never has it been so effortless fully level up characters in such a short period of time. It seemed like every time Persephone the level-up fairy appeared there was always enough loot to make a major upgrade. Leveling up is fun, but sheesh – let’s make it at least seem rewarding, eh?
It is also a bit of a downer that the game only ships with one actual Trap Team member, Snap Shot. Food Fight is also included in the package, but he is merely a standard Skylander. And while Snap Shot is fairly badass in his own right, the fact that last year’s console version of Swap Force came with two swappable Swap Force characters as well and an additional standard Skylander, it almost doesn’t seem fair. Some would argue that Trap Team also comes packed with two Trap Crystals to house villains, but this hardly makes up for nagging sense that something is missing.
As mentioned earlier, this is the first fully-operational version of Skylanders for the tablets. As so, it is an amazing feat of technology that Activision and Toys for Bob have even been able to pull this off, given the bevy of different tablet architectures and operating systems in use. Granted, the list of compatible tablets is rather limited – mostly to iOS, Android and Fire tablets released within the 12 months and only those with built-in Bluetooth to communicate with the Portal and the console-styled controller.
The starter pack comes with a download code that is used to download the Trap Team application from the respective App store. The initial download may seem a bit hefty at 1.2GB (for the iOS version we tested), but the real girth becomes evident on full installation with the game taking up nearly 6GB of memory. Asking folks to dedicate this much real estate to a single application is a bit of a tall order, especially when the lengthy download and installation process is not something anyone wants to do more than once or twice.
The performance was acceptable on our iPad – a bit slower than our console version and certainly less detailed. Trolling the internet forums for user experience perceptions, it seems that Trap Team’s performance is generally good but varies a bit based on tablet specs, free space, etc. The biggest gripe seems to be from folks complaining of Bluetooth lag – but again that could be the result of the tablet more so than the game. The most heartbreaking are the reports of folks who thought they had compatible tablets only to find after opening that the installation fails.
Every game has its warts, but at the end of the day Skylanders Trap Team is every bit as enjoyable and addictive as any Skylanders title that came before it. It may be a tad on the easy side (even for a kids’ game), and it might be more geared than ever at squeezing every last drop of green out of your wallet this holiday season – but Skylanders Trap Team still stands as a technological marvel in the gaming world and an experience that gamers of all ages will thoroughly enjoy.
The fact that Activision and Toys For Bob took the leap and brought the game to the tablets – complete with a Bluetooth portal and controller packed in – is really amazing. There are still some bugs to be worked out, and I am absolutely positive they will do just that the next time around.