Developed by Toys for Bob. Published by Activision. Available on Android, iOS (reviewed), 3DS, PS3, PS4 (reviewed), Xbox 360, Wii, Wii U, Xbox 360, Xbox One. Released October 5, 2014. Copy provided by publisher.
Nothing is more delightful than the excited inhalation and the wide eyes of a child as they interact with a newfangled toy. And no video game brings that joy on a more consistent basis than Skylanders. Like many grown-ass gamer adults, I disregarded the series initially but when my daughter reached an age where she could understand video games, Skylanders took on a whole new meaning. As I played Trap Team with her over the last week, my appreciation for all the designers did to appeal to both kids and adults skyrocketed. Trap Team is a wonderful expression of why video games are so important to our culture.
Refresher time: Skylanders is a third person action game that’s played with a fixed camera across multiple levels. You move a character through a 3D world by defeating enemies with attacks, solving puzzles and performing feats of platforming prowess. The gimmick is that the character you control, the Skylander, is a digital representation of the physical toy you place on a USB peripheral called the Portal. The console starter pack comes with the portal and two Skylander figures, but you can buy other figures to play with in the game. Each of the toys is magnificently designed and communicates with the portal using NFC technology – you can level up the character in your game and that information is saved on the toy itself. The toys all have personalities that usually tie in with the element they represent – for example, Wildfire is a golden lion who confidently says “Bringing the heat!” when he’s placed on the portal. Death is handled deftly; if your Skylander takes too much damage they are too “tired” to be used for the rest of the level and you need to swap in a different toy to proceed.
In Trap Team, you can also store the bosses and villains you defeat throughout the game into little plastic traps, and switch easily between controlling the Skylander and the villain. The villain doesn’t have a health bar; instead you can only play with them for a limited time and taking damage just reduces that time. It’s a sly system that enhances the gameplay and even allows a fair bit of strategizing and min-maxing. If your Skylander doesn’t have a strong ranged attack, it’s probably a good idea to use a trapped villain that does to balance it out.
The process of trapping the villain is achieved by putting a trap of the appropriate element in the slot in the Portal, and the sound of the villain’s protestations smoothly travels from the TV speakers to the speaker on the Portal. Because the trap is clear plastic, there are also some lighting effects that flicker with the voice of the trapped villain. The clever design reinforces the magic of making imagination real. Plus, it helps that the villains are even crazier than the Skylanders, and provide tons of comic relief with funny asides as you play the game. This is one bit that kids love but starts to grate on the adults in the room after a while – having noise come from multiple locations in the room is neat but you’ll soon turn the portal volume down in the settings to avoid too much cacophony.
The difficulty of the game starts off very simple but after a few missions it gets difficult enough to test the skills of even an expert gamer. Taking advantage of all of the elemental bonuses and effectively using the skills of the Skylanders you have is necessary if you want to get far in the story. The Skylanders have multiple, unique attacks and defeating enemies usually involves avoiding contact with them while delivering damage – similar to a shoot ’em up. The puzzles are expertly designed. It is tough to create something that’s challenging without being frustrating and Trap Team‘s spatial puzzles all provide multiple ways to be solved. You can do it quick and dirty, or get bonuses by getting through it with style. That’s actually true of the whole game, really. You can experience the story campaign without collecting all the bells and whistles in the many hidden areas, or you can pull your hair out trying to get that freaking hat. There’s also a ton of extra content in the hub world of Skylander Academy like arena challenges and a memorable rhythm game.
One of the big reasons Skylanders: Trap Team works so well is the excellent script. It rides that line between obvious explanations so kids can follow the plot and jokes written for the adults playing with them. There are subtle pop-culture references, wordplay and over-the-top exclamations. In Trap Team, the Skylanders contend against a team of violent criminals who’ve escaped from Cloudcracker Prison. The colorful characters like Flynn the pilot, voiced by Patrick Warburton from The Tick and Seinfeld, and the antagonist Kaos, keep the narrative grounded even though the main characters are interchangeable. I wouldn’t say its laugh-out-loud funny, but Skylanders consistently makes me smile knowingly with its mastery of dad jokes.
It’s crazy to say this, but Skylanders: Trap Team works amazingly well on a tablet. Yes, the entire AAA game is playable with only a few concessions for more minimalist textures and visual effects. I played it on an iPad mini with a Bluetooth Portal and its own little controller. All the Skylanders and the traps work using this portal – including legacy toys from the previous games. There’s a short download for each new toy you put on the portal, but other than that it is seamless. It just works. That’s majorly useful if you have a young kid. The tablet version is built for portability – the controller clicks into the bottom of the Portal, and there’s an “offline” mode that lets you play with the two Skylanders from the starter pack if you can’t lug around a sackful of toys.
Even though you don’t need to have a ton of toys to play Skylanders: Trap Team, it is certainly an advantage. You can progress through the entire game using the pieces provided in the starter pack – Portal, two Traps, two Skylanders called Snap Shot and Food Fight. Skylanders from previous games will work with Trap Team‘s new portal just fine so it helps having a bunch of toys in reserve. And like cartoons on cereal boxes and brightly-colored candy-wrappers, each level in Trap Team is rife with reasons to have a collection of toys at your disposal. There are areas in which you need a Skylander of a specific element -the eight elements of Skylands are Air, Water, Earth, Fire, Tech, Magic, Life and Death – to access. Some of the collectibles you’re encouraged to chase down are Soul Gems, which are effectively commercials for other Skylanders you can buy. Gamers used to maximizing buffs will want more toys because each area in the story campaign is associated with an element and the attacks of Skylanders of that element will be more potent. It is easy to get frustrated with how often you’re presented with content you can’t access because you don’t have all the toys.
The toys aren’t cheap either. The new Trap Team figures cost $16, and the traps will set you back $7 each. There is a new Mini Skylanders line coming out at the same time – the pack-in Food Fight is a mini – but even they cost $15 for a pair. With Trap Team already retailing at a higher price point ($75 for consoles & tablet, $65 for the 3DS), you can easily spend $300 for a game and some pieces of plastic.
But what exquisite pieces of plastic they are! The designs for the Trap Team Skylanders all have a translucent weapon that’s undeniably cool. The expressions on the faces and the poses of the figures telegraph movement and style, and the new Mini Skylanders are all cute as hell. There’s a reason children are drawn to these toys – they are pleasurable to merely hold and handle. Like Warhammer 40K miniatures or Magic cards or digital Pokemon, collectors enjoy collecting well-made things. It is no different with Skylanders: Trap Team.
Bottom Line: Trap Team delivers a new gimmick on top of an old gimmick and does it damn well. The strong scriptwriting and voice work keep both adults and children interested in the story, even if you have to spend a lot of money to get the full effect.
Recommendation: Buy Trap Team to play with your kids or if you’re prepared to be a collector.[rating=4.5]