My first reaction toward Skylanders Trap Team is one of deep, unmitigated cynicism.
“I know exactly what you’re trying to do to me,” I say to the game, as I walk past a door with a mysterious symbol on it. It’s a door I cannot open, hiding riches I cannot claim. “Look at all these preview videos of figurines I don’t own, how many different traps there are to buy. You entice me with digital riches, with imaginative cartoon creatures brought to plastic life. I could spend a small fortune on you and still not see everything you have to offer. And you, game, are slowly chipping away at my willpower.”
I should hate it for what it stands for, for what it’s doing to me, my God, what it’s doing to my kid. Its blatant consumerism is unbridled, made real and assembled in China.
But then I look at it, and I can’t help but fall in love. There’s a character named Broccoli Guy. He’s made of broccoli, and he’s got a real mouth on him. And I’d do anything to make sure I had a trap waiting for him, ready to summon at a moment’s notice.
If you haven’t listened to the braying of schoolchildren as they gush on and on about Skylanders, it’s essentially an action-RPG; like Diablo for kids. You pick one of the many Skylanders characters and run them through a series of challenges, fighting off colorful bad guys while trying to stop the evil Kaos (voiced again by the brilliant Richard Horvitz of Invader Zim fame) and the newly awakened Doom Raiders. Like a Saturday morning cartoon, there are enough kooky voices and unique characters to hide the threadbare plot.
There are hundreds of different characters to choose from, like Krypt King, an Egyptian-inspired mummy-thing with a giant sword, or Chopper, a tiny dinosaur with a helicopter on its head and rockets at its sides. But instead of unlocking these characters in the game, you have to go to an actual store, spend actual money, and receive an actual plastic figurine, slam it down on a Portal that connects to your game console of choice, then watch as that figurine’s digital avatar magically appears on screen. It was a gimmick when the first Skylanders game came out nearly four years ago, and it’s still a gimmick now, but even so, there’s something really cool about watching your toy seemingly come to life on screen.
And the figures are really well made, too, so you won’t feel as bad when you discover you can drop hundreds of dollars in little toys. Some Skylanders are far more useful in game than others, though. I hated using Gusto’s boomerang; it was too slow, and it just wasn’t all that powerful compared to many of the other characters at your disposal. But when they’re good, they’re real good. The aformentioned Krypt King can be an unstoppable powerhouse, and can even summon a swarm of bees from his mouth (good Lord!). Even if they’re not all amazing to play, they all look fantastic, and are absolutely worthy of being displayed on a shelf—if you’re into that sort of thing, of course.
Even cooler than the actual Skylanders figures, though, are the villains you can capture. Each Skylanders game has a unique hook—like last year’s swappable figurine halves—and with Trap Team, it’s in the new Portal. In addition to the main base, there’s a new slot where you can fit small traps inside. Beating one of the game’s numerous bosses will allow you to effectively “trap” that villain inside the hunk of plastic. Just like the Skylanders themselves, these traps are also a gimmick, but man, is it awesome. As the villain moves from the game world into the base, sound from a speaker on the portal fades in, giving the illusion that this newly acquired teammate has been plucked from your television set. It’s a really cool effect, and even after the dozens of hours it took to beat the core campaign, it never got old.
What really sells it is how Trap Team makes effective use of that speaker. The Skylanders look neat, but outside a handful of catchphrases, they lack personality. The villains more than make up the void, as each one has a distinct voice and character, and this comes through as you play the game. Do pretty much anything—beat up bad guys, solve a tricky puzzle, get a new hat, etc.—and that villain currently taking up residence in your trap will comment on it. Every single villain (of which there are over 40) has dozens of little quips they rattle off as you play, and most of them are hilarious.
The actual implementation of the villains ultimately makes them feel second-rate to the actual Skylanders, though. You can easily summon them to replace your chosen Skylander with the push of a button, but each villain operates on a timer. They can only hang out and bash in bad guys for a limited amount of time before they get sent back to recharge. This constantly leaves them feeling like a superfluous addition, though completing quests to upgrade them can lengthen that timer considerably. It’s completely possible to totally forget that they’re even there—even when they’re barking at you to swap them in.
They also form the crux of one of Skylander’s biggest issues—cost of entry. Before, if you wanted to unlock every door and see everything the game has to offer, you’d need to buy one of each elemental type, and the starter pack only comes with two Skylanders: a Trap Master and a normal Skylander. Only Trap Masters can open the various side doors hidden around each level, which is not only expensive, but also makes the regular-sized Skylanders (and last year’s Swap Force) feel completely pointless. Now, to trap villains, you need individual traps for each element as well, effectively doubling the amount of stuff you’d have to buy if you wanted to see everything. Make no mistake, Skylanders is a very expensive proposition, and it does everything it can to make you want to run out to the store and buy more. You have been warned.
That said, if the actual gameplay were crappy, then none of this—the gimmicks, the figures, the portal, the voices—would make a lick of difference. Fortunately, Trap Team is a solid, if easy, action-RPG. Combat is fairly simple, but there are numerous upgrades and several different powers for each Skylander, keeping fights varied and interesting throughout. Puzzles are easy, but they’re entertaining enough to keep you on your toes, and there are tons of minigames—including a mini-card game that’s actually kind of fun—so, even if you don’t go and buy everything you need, you’ll still find plenty to do with the Starter Pack alone. There’s also a full suite of tower defense challenges that, while fun, could do with a bit of speeding up. The game settles into a formula very quickly (hidden doors, equally hidden items, etc), but the level designs are varied enough to keep things interesting. And while the game’s default difficulty is still very easy (I mean, it is a kid’s game), there are additional difficulty levels to bump up the challenge.
Skylanders… on iPad?
In addition to releasing on every console under the sun, Skylanders Trap Team is showing up on tablets as well. This isn’t some truncated touch-screen minigame—it’s the whole freakin’ game. For the same cost as the regular console version, you get a portal, the same starter figures and traps, and a controller. The controller feels a little cheap, with some awkwardly placed shoulder buttons, but it works just fine for what you need to do.
The game itself is, surprisingly, just as good as the console version, minus some slight graphical downgrading. Every figure, every trap, every side quest, every level—it’s all here, ready for you to explore on mobile devices. You will need to be connected to Wi-Fi to play, though, as it downloads each level as you play it (though you can opt to download the whole thing if you like, storage space willing).
My only complaint is actually the portal itself. It works fine and syncs up with no trouble via Bluetooth, but the three AAAs you need to power it will only last you around 6-8 hours of constant use. It’s not a bad amount of time, but there’s no way plug it in for extended play, so you’ll go through batteries pretty quickly. Still, if your chosen platform is an iPad or Android tablet, know that you’re getting the full game, and very little has been sacrificed to make that a reality.
While the gameplay may be virtually unchanged, Trap Team is charming enough and pulls off enough neat tricks to make it worth picking up. While the rational part of my brain wants to hate its materialistic hooks so much, the part of my brain that likes cool figurines and fun gimmicks tells it to quit being such a nerd and enjoy the ride.
Goodbye, money. I hardly knew you.
Skylanders Trap Team's biggest surprises lie not in its gameplay, but in how it uses sound to completely sell its gimmick. It'll bleed you dry, but somehow, that doesn't seem so bad.