I come to the whole toys as video game DLC thing rather late. So far there have already been four main Skylanders games, Disney joined the in with Disney Infinity, even Nintendo is getting in on the act with its amiibo line and I’m regularly seeing dumbed down ripoffs of the idea in the mobile space.
So it’s past the time to litigate the concept of making a single game potentially earn hundreds of dollars by tying game content to collectible toys. It’s obviously a big hit, people like it, they’re willingly spending the money and having fun.
However, in reviewing Skylanders Trap Team, I can only relate my reactions to the concept. I’ve been gaming for more than 30 years. My hobby has changed a lot since the first time I stuck an Atari 2600 Combat cart in the console and wrapped my sweaty hands around the joystick. But Skylanders, man, that was a weird ride.
Do I have to tell you what Skylanders is? Chances are you know more than me. But for completeness sake it’s a game that requires a special base and toys to put on the base to work. The toy are delightfully detailed figurines, but they’re only for the game or to look nice on a shelf. They’re stiff and unfit for play.
Each toy serves as a character in the game, you sit them on the base and it reads a chip inside to unlock it. There’s no default character, if you don’t have a toy on the base you just can’t play. Data for all the characters is already on the game disk, but you can’t use it unless you have the corresponding toy.
Skylanders Trap Team makes this formula more complicated, but adds slightly more variety for less expense. Trap Team works with nine elementally themed toy traps. They look like colorful plastic crystals, in the game fiction made of a fantastic substance called Traptanium, and you stick them into a slot on the toy base.
The storyline of the game is that some nasty villains have escaped from their prison, and you’ve to retrap them all in your Traptanium traps. In the game when you defeat a boss villain, if the element of the boss and the element of the trap match, you can put the villain in the trap. It then becomes an assist character that you can swap with your Skylander.
Instead of of a health bar it has a constantly depleting timer. Taking damage makes the timer deplete even faster. When the timer runs out or whenever the player chooses the villain can be swapped back into the trap to recharge. It doesn’t take that long and you can spend a significant portion of the level playing as these villains.
The fiction of “trapping” the villains is made much fuller by a speaker in the base, from which the voices of the villains emanate during gameplay as they crack jokes, ask to be let out and encourage the player. Each trap can only hold one villain at a time, but there are several bosses of each element that correspond to each trap. Buying all nine traps gives you quite a bit of variety.
Although some of the bosses are just more powerful versions of run-of-the-mill enemies, some of them are just as creatively designed as the Skylanders and just as fun to play, although they don’t have skill trees to level like the Skylanders and generally only have couple of attacks where the Skyanders have several. Instead of leveling up each boss has its own quest to complete that redeems it of its evil ways and lets it evolve into a more powerful form with a longer timer. Some of these are nothing more than taking a boss to a certain place in a level to watch humorous scene, but others involve fun minigames or even complete mini-levels.
So that’s Trap Team’s big innovation, and it’s gives you a bit more bang for you buck than simply adding new Skylanders to buy.
Of course, Skylanders Trap Team does add new characters, too, and the choices made here are a bit less consumer friendly than providing a wide variety of characters per trap.
There are new ordinary Skylanders produced for the game. These are basically the same as the previous version of Skylanders except you can find soul gems hidden in the levels to give them a new powerful ability. If you don’t have the character, the soul gems show you a short ad for it.
But the headlining new Skylanders are the Trap Masters. Trap Masters are larger, more expensive figures with colorful transparent plastic Traptanium weapons. The Trap Masters are the only Skylanders that can clear Traptanium crystal deposits to get to secret treasure chests and other goodies, so no matter how many regular Skylanders you have, you’re going to be switching to a Trap Master pretty often.
The Trap Masters are like the bosses and the regular Skylanders in that they have elemental alignments, but there’s an added twist. There are gates scattered throughout the levels and only Trap Masters of alignments that match those gates can go through.
What’s behind the gates? Hats. Yep, in the ones I was able to unlock it was always a small part of a level or puzzle with a hat as a reward. The hats have stat enhancements, but they’re mostly vanity items. Until the very end game I unlocked better hats simply through game progression than the ones I found behind the gates. But at least the hats aren’t as useless as trinkets, which are medals or bows or pinwheels or other weird things the player can earn in a number of ways that attach to your characters and do nothing but customize them a bit.
The game finds other ways of locking content. There are rocks that can only be broken by giant Skylanders from the Skylanders Giants game. There are doors that can only cut down by certain villains. And I ran into one puzzle that could only be solved if you had a number of Skylanders of various elements on hand.
The overall result is that, even though Skylanders Trap Team is a lengthy game with lots to do, things constantly feel locked away from you unless you have the right toys. You are always running into locked doors, and the only key is cash.
And that’s where it gets weird for me. For review I was sent the Skylanders Trap Team starter pack. The starter pack includes: the game; the base; a water element Trap Master Skylander called Snap Shot, who is a great big blue crocodile with an Australian accent; a water element trap that unlocks six villains; a regular “life” element Skylander called Food Fight who looks like an artichoke, shoots tomatoes from a cannon, and is voiced by Billy West doing his Fry from Futurama voice; and a life element trap that gives access to six other villains.
That’s all you need to complete the game, although just having two does make it tough on harder levels because Skylanders act like “lives” and if one of your crew croaks he has to sit out the rest of the level. If all are gone you start over. The villains make it easier because they have timers instead of health bars, so you can send them out to soak damage and preserve your Skylander’s health then stick them back into the traps to regenerate the timer.
But even though it was technically all I needed to beat the game, having content I couldn’t get constantly shoved in my face started to get to me. The locked doors and gates, the ads, the unsolvable puzzles, the goals I could never complete. I went to GameStop and seriously considered putting down the $16.99 for more Trap Masters, but I knew I wouldn’t be satisfied unless I could unlock all the doors. I also weighed the price of getting more traps.
And I put out a call on Facebook to my friends to see if any of them had old Skylanders from the previous games they would lend me. No responses, except I suppose some head shakes and pity. I found out my brother had some Skylanders from the old games and I bugged him a few times about them, but he didn’t have time to hunt them up from his kid’s toys and it got embarrassing to ask so I gave up. I got obsessed. I even had a weird dream about different types of Skylanders.
Finally, I decided if I wasn’t going to pay the money to unlock more content, I had to stop driving myself crazy about what I was missing. Snap Shot and Food Fight would have to do.
And in fairness, they did okay. When I got further into the game I realized I could have spent thousands of bucks to get every Skylander ever created and content would still be locked, because the game introduces gates and monsters of an “unknown” element that haven’t been released yet, presumably these will come in a new wave of toys. About halfway through the game a portal also appeared in the middle of my base that a character cryptically said would transport me to new places if I had special items. I never found any in the game so I’m sure these refer to adventure packs that are out or are to be released.
Two Skylanders turned out to be about right for the story content, too. I was near the end game before I maxed out Food Fight and Snap Shot at Level 20, which you really need to do because the last couple of levels and bosses are rather tough.
Skylanders Trap Team offers 18 levels, a difficult challenge mode that involves fighting waves of enemies and defending turrets, an extensive arena mode, and some cute diversions like rhythm game rap battles. It’s all accessed from the Skylander’s Academy, a sizable hub level where your Skylanders can also shop, upgrade, receive rewards, store and retrieve villains in the traps and interact with NPCs. There’s a lot of meat on this game’s bones and the game takes a surprisingly long time to simply complete the story mode.
The game also has a ranking system where, depending on how many secrets and items you find in the level and how well you did on it you get more stars and increase your portal master level to get more goodies. Unfortunately, most of the stars are tied to things you can only unlock with the right toys. If you do have them, however, collecting the stars should add significant longevity to the game.
Running through the game as various characters and leveling up their abilities might also stretch the game out, although when I was through with Snap Shot and Food Fight I was done. It would be fun to break open some of those doors and gates I was locked out of, I guess, but replaying the story mode levels was a bit of a chore. I did go back to some of them to complete some of the villain’s quests and evolve them, but I always exited to the hub level immediately after that task.
Maybe that’s partly down to the level design itself. Skylanders Trap Team is a game designed to be accessible to small children. Its levels feature some branching paths and environmental puzzles, but nothing that’s going to seriously tax the brainpower of anyone over 12. Level layout is intentionally simple and straightforward to a point where it almost feels like a throwback to early 3D platformers. Everything is explained to the point of tedium by NPCs and hints constantly pop up on the screen telling you exactly what you need to do.
The combat also for the most part asks little more of the player than mindless button mashing, except for occasional bombs and rays to dodge. The villains do add a welcome strategic element as subbing them in at the right times during boss fights lets you save your Skylander damage from more powerful attacks.
The Skylanders also trudge through these levels slowly, even with speed upgrades. That’s appropriate, because the pacing of the entire thing can can sometimes be best described as glacial.
Here’s one example of how the game slows things down. There’s a minigame in Trap Team called Skystone Smash. It’s a simple collectible card game you play against other players. It’s easy. It’s boring. And it’s not optional. Although there are NPCs scattered around each level that you can find to play a voluntary game, at many points NPCs will stop you and force you to play before giving you an item you need or letting you move on. Most egregiously there’s an NPC that makes you play the game right before going on to the next to last boss. Fortunately, you can buy items at a shop to let you “cheat” and pass these card games.
The game also sometimes makes you open gates with a puzzle in which you slide a little orb guy across single-screen puzzle area. You’ve got to figure out the correct sequence to slide the orb past blocks, bumpers, gates and fire to get it to an area that unlocks the gates. Early puzzles are easy, but some of the later ones are one of the few areas I felt the game’s difficulty spiked a little too high for its intended audience. Fortunately, they can also be bypassed by an item at the shop.
Moving beyond functional elements, the game does a wonderful job at world building. The Skylands feels like a fully formed place, filled with colorful player characters, NPCs and areas that are distinguishable but share a unified visual aesthetic. It’s literally delightful, in the non-hyperbolic sense that it causes delight and is charming. The graphics themselves are not a great technical achievement, in fact sometimes they seem a bit clunky and last-gen if you’re the kind of person who sits and nitpicks textures and such, but they’re more than enough to realize this animated world.
Sound also plays a part. The game spares no expense on voice-acting, it’s pretty much a who’s who of famous cartoon voices, with Patrick Warburton carrying much of the weight as the egotistical pilot Flynn. Each Skylander and villain have their own voice clips. Although the Skylanders are extremely repetitive and limited to annoying shouts and catch phrases, the commentary the villains spout from inside the base is actually quite funny and clever at times. There’s a great variety of fun, catchy instrumental music in the game.
And then there’s the story. I’m getting to it late in the review for a reason. It’s a very simple, ridiculous plot. Some villains called Doom Raiders escape from a giant prison called Cloudcracker Prison. Cloudcracker Prison happens to be made of Traptanium, the super powerful substance that the traps are made of and the Trap Masters uses as weapons.
And you’ve gotta round them up. Although at first the Doom Raiders team up with series villain Kaos, eventually they betray him and Kaos ends up working on your side. There’s also something about powering a doomsday weapon with stinky cheese and a fun meta twist right at the end I won’t spoil, but it’s mostly just agreeable lighthearted stuff for kids.
What it lacks in plot is covered by the humorous dialogue and energetic performances, especially from Richard Steven Horovitz, who uses his Invader Zim voice to give Kaos just the right mix of megalomania and buffoonishness. There are even notes of pity in the villain’s loneliness.
On the other hand I hope you’re ready for lots of repetitive jokes about eating chili and enchiladas. Seriously, just about every cutscene.
Also, because your Skylanders are literally interchangeable, they aren’t integrated into the narrative at all. As other characters talk and make decisions and crack jokes, you character stands in the background like a big mute goon.
And so we get to my recommendation. If you’re already a fan of the toys as games concept, or if your kids are, then this is likely as good as it gets. It’ll keep you gaming and buying for a long time and it offers massive variety.
But if you’ve somehow managed to never go down this rabbit hole, if you’re still the kind of person who pays $60 and expects a complete experience for that money instead of the temptation to buy more and more, be very careful about leaping down.