All images are courtesy of Activision.
After launching Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure in 2011, Activision has made it an annual tradition to introduce a new game in this popular franchise. By now you might think they'd be running short of new ideas. Yet, this year's instalment, Skylanders: Trap Team, shows that's far from the case.
Skylanders: Trap Team's winning innovation is the so-called Traptanium Traps that allow players to capture villains and recruit them to the cause. In reality, the Traps are crystal-like plastic pegs that fit into an extension of a special new Portal of Power designed for the console version of the game. The Skylanders: Trap Team Starter Pack for consoles comes with two of these traps, which will allow you to capture some of the villains you encounter. To grab more, you need to buy traps for each of the known elemental groups that Skylanders and their foes belong to.
The ability to trap villains not only adds a unique angle to Skylanders: Trap Team, it also means you can play with a variety of characters without needing lots of the Skylander toys that represent the franchise's heroes. Traps can be purchased individually or in multi-packs but even buying a full set is more economical than forking out for numerous figurines.
Even so, there are inevitably new Skylanders: Trap Team characters and magic items you can collect. The new guys include Trap Masters with clever names such as Krypt King, Gusto and Snap Shot, as well as previously unseen core Skylanders with names like Funny Bone and Food Fight. Activision has also added a range of Skylanders Minis, which are diminutive editions of characters from earlier games. As usual, all previously released figurines work in Skylanders: Trap Team, too.
Aside from adding new characters and the ability to trap and deploy villains, Skylanders: Trap Team doesn't deviate far from the franchise's proven formula. In Story Mode you progress through a series of chapters that take you to different locations in Skylands. Helping you on the way are many colourful and humorous characters, including old favorites Flynn, Cali and Tessa.
In order to achieve the objective at each stage, you inevitably have to battle chompies, mages and other enemies and solve puzzles. An added complication in this adventure, however, is that the Skylanders' arch nemesis Kaos isn't the only baddie you have to worry about: there is also a renegade group known as the Doom Raiders with an evil plan of its own.
As usual in the console game, you can change the Skylander you are playing with at any time by replacing the one on the portal. In Trap Team you can also alternate between a trapped villain and a Skylander at will. Each chapter has two or three villains that you can trap. Moreover, there is the usual collection of treasure chests, story scrolls, keys and soul gems you need to find to tick all the Achievement boxes.
As with previous games in the series, the Nintendo 3DS version of Skylanders: Trap Team is a variation of the one played on consoles. Its biggest limitation is that you don't have the same freedom to change Skylanders in the middle of a level. You can, however, switch between hero and villain whenever you want just like in the console version. Indeed, Skylanders: Trap Team on the 3DS gets closer than any of its predecessors by feeling less restrictive and more varied than its predecessors.
The 3DS version also has its own unique villains, which you trap using the touchscreen. You have to negotiate a challenge in Villain Bootcamp to unlock each new chapter, which can be frustrating (especially since some of the challenges are difficult enough for adults, never mind the younger players Skylanders is pitched at). Even so, it's generally worth the effort because when you get back to the game itself, it's a satisfying alternative to its console cousin.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Skylanders: Trap Team in the console and 3DS versions is the graphic design. Skylands has always been imaginatively rendered but in this game it seems to be more colourful and elaborate than ever. Several of the levels are delightfully imaginative with impressive detail and clever contraptions. These add a degree of dynamism and movement we haven't seen before. Even on the low resolution Wii, Skylands is a pleasure to behold.
On the negative side, we did experience some annoying glitches with Skylanders: Trap Team for the Wii. On a few occasions our Skylander got into a position it couldn't get out of even though the game wasn't frozen, it was unresponsive to the controller. This meant we had to reset the Wii and play the level all over again. This was particularly a problem in the Dreamcatcher chapter where the game crashed in the Boss Battle and made an unpleasant sound. Apparently several players have had this issue and there is a workaround but it's a surprising flaw for a game of this status.
Given that Skylanders: Trap Team is primarily designed for young gamers, the difficulty level is generally okay for kids aged around 6 and up. What's more, gameplay is more than just fighting. The console version introduces a new version of Skystones called Skystones Smash that demands a basic understanding of math, while other puzzles encourage the development of problem solving and co-ordination skills.
It is easy to see why Skylanders has been such a success for Activision: combining the video game components with quirky, well-constructed toys that add variety to the gameplay has been a marketing masterstroke. What's more, it's not merely a shallow exercise in merchandising. There is evident imagination and creativity at work in the design of these games. If Skylanders: Trap Team is anything to go by, those qualities show no sign of running out, which makes it is tempting to wonder what Activision will come up with next.