To say that we were sceptical about the latest Skylanders title, Trap Team, would be an understatement. Having not had a great deal of experience with the series, but having seen the shelves upon shelves of toys for sale at seemingly ludicrous prices in every supermarket and specialist store for the last couple of years, we thought that the whole thing was an elaborate ruse in order to make money from brow-beaten parents. Of course, that's exactly what it is. The videogame market needs a “complete toy-to-game solution” as much as it needs the Angry Birds to destroy another part of everyone’s childhood. But there’s definitely more than meets the eye, here.
Let us explain how it works a little. Once you’ve connected up the USB-powered "Traptanium Portal," you place your Skylander character on it. This becomes the character that you control in game. Each character has their own bank balance, experience level, energy level, upgrades, witty catchphrases, and ability sets. The new portal has a slot in which to plug a “trap” key. When you defeat a villain in-game, you can capture them in the trap and then tag them in and out of play by pressing the left trigger. Villains don’t have health bars, they have time bars. Once you tag them in, the clock is ticking and if they take a hit, they lose a chunk of time. Once they’re out of time, they automatically return to their trap and have to regenerate before you can use them again. In-game, much as you can do with the Skylanders, you can switch out traps on the fly, meaning that the Starter Pack essentially gives you the ability to go into each level with a team of four players – your two Skylanders, and whichever two trapped villains you choose to take with you.
Traps come in different flavours based on various elements. You get a “Life” and “Water” trap in the Starter Pack, meaning that you can only trap villains matching that element. If you defeat a villain but haven’t shelled out for the trap in which to capture them, tough. All trapped characters are stored in an in-game vault though, so if you buy a matching trap further down the line, you can transfer the villain to the new trap. It should be noted that only one villain can be stored in a trap at a time, so if you capture six “Life” type villains, you can only take one into play. Unless, of course – and we’ll probably say this a fair bit during the review – you’ve paid for additional “Life” traps.
The number of characters you can take into play appears to be unlimitedd. Once a Skylander runs out of energy in a level, they’re out of action until the level is complete. Essentially, this means that you have as many lives as you have Skylanders toys, and as many villains to use as you have traps. The game is very much beatable with the two characters that are in the Starter Pack, but having more toys will make the game easier in the long run.
It sounds as if we’re still a bit sceptical at this point, doesn’t it?
The problem is that it really is hard not to be. You see, Skylanders: Trap Team is a fine, fine game. In fact, it’s more than that. We’d go as far as to saying that Skylanders: Trap Team is one of the best platform adventures we’ve played in a long time. There’s just so much to it, and pretty much all of it is incredibly solid. The characters are animated beautifully, and the variation in their attacks and abilities means that you really have to think about which one is best to use in a situation. The levels are beautiful to look at and not just that, but they’re beautifully designed too – the “Time Town” chapter is a fantastic looking piece of work, for example. Even the main game hub – the Skylanders Academy – is stunning, and gets more impressive as the game goes on as you unlock more and more parts of it. If you want a break from the action, you can take in a game of Skystones Smash – a mini-game that's seemingly based on Final Fantasy VIII’s Triple Triad. Or maybe you fancy a bit of simplified Dota-style action in the Kaos Doom Challenges to while away a few hours, or you could take on some arena battles. Alternatively, you might want to try a bit of basic rhythm action by taking your character into a PaRappa the Rapper-style rap battle to see if you’re good enough to join the Academy’s house band, The Skeletones. If that isn’t enough, perhaps you could jump back into one of the main adventure’s chapters so that you can do all the things that you haven’t done and find all the things that you haven’t found from the level’s checklist. That is, if you’ve completed the 13+ hour story mode already.
And these are things that you’ll want to do, as the game just keeps on giving. You’ll find new things to do on a regular basis, and new hats and trinkets to apply to your character that sometimes provide stats boosts. Our Snap Shot – a big, blue crocodile with a Traptanium gun - is currently wearing a Dr Seuss-style tall top hat, in pink and white, and a rainbow coloured pinwheel trinket for good measure. Great fun. If that doesn’t tickle your funnybone, how about the way in which the trapped villains chatter to you as you play, via the Traptanium Portal’s built-in microphone? Not every line is a winner, but every one of the dozens of villains has their own unique brand of chatter, and they’re genuinely funny for the most part. That Traptanium Portal is actually a great piece of equipment, too. The second you put a character on it or put a new trap into place, and we mean the VERY second, the new character's intro sequence starts to play. It never mis-recognises or gets confused, and the sound of a villain being trapped is somewhat impressive. They start to shout in objection via the TV and as they disappear into the trap, the sound starts to come from the portal, without even so much as a millisecond of a break.
The most striking thing about Skylanders: Trap Team though, is how addictive it is. The difficulty level can be ranged from easy (which would generally be suitable for younger players) through to “nightmare” (which would be testing for the most hardcore of adult players.) We found that every time we finished a level, we’d be sorely tempted to jump right on to the next. If we didn’t have time, we’d go for a swift Kaos Doom Challenge.
Have no doubt. This is a game that keep most people busy for a long time, even without purchasing additional characters or traps. That brings us back to our bugbear. While we should clarify once again that the game is very much beatable with the contents of the Starter Pack – you can even get all of the achievements without needing a further purchase – it is endlessly annoying how the game tries to entice you to go to the store and spend more money. Every level contains at least one “Soul Gem” for a specific Skylander, which unlocks a special ability if you choose to use them. When you pick these up, the game asks you if you want to “preview” the new character. Select the affirmative and you’re shown a glorified advert for the toy. On top of that, every villain has a quest to complete and if you don’t have the right elemental trap, you can’t carry them to it. There are areas that only certain Skylander types can access, too. Again, if you don’t have at least one Skylander toy of that particular element, you just can’t get in. In the Skylanders Academy, there’s at least one place that requires an extra purchase, as well. A three-step set of lifts carries you to a new location. The first is activated by a “Water” type – included in the box. The second is activated by a “Life” type – included in the box. The third is activated by an “Undead” type – get your wallet out.
It’s this sort of cynicism that prevents Skylanders: Trap Team from getting close to a perfect score. No, you didn’t misread that. The game itself is THAT good. Everything that the game does, it does with style. Given that a good number of checklist items can be marked off after a little exploration, we’d liked to have a seen some camera controls but for a game that doesn’t have any at all, the camera does very well. There is the odd time that you’ll be left to run directly towards the screen and have no idea of what’s in front of you, but it’s rare. Outside of the additional expense of the characters, that’s about our only complaint. The fact that the cynicism is absolutely needless is also tough to bear. The Skylanders and traps could just as easily have been software offerings that you select from a character wheel on-screen without losing anything - barring the comedy villain chatter from the portal, and the publisher's ability to get the cash registers ringing, of course...
Note: This review is of the Skylanders: Trap Team Starter Pack that comes with the new Traptanium Portal, as well as the characters “Food Fight” and “Snap Shot” and the “Life” and “Water” elemental traps. No additional characters or traps were purchased or used for this review.
It’s a shame that to complete Skylanders: Trap Team to 100%, you’ll need to purchase around eight extra traps at about £6 each and probably the same amount of Skylanders at £10 and up apiece. That makes for a very, very expensive game for most parents, even if you bring into account Christmas and birthday gifts from relatives and the like. However, the game itself can be more-or-less completed without additional purchases and is such a wonderfully-crafted and enjoyable experience that even without spending extra cash, it will keep kids (and adults…this reviewer is 33 and has about 25 hours logged so far with a lot more to come) busy for a good long time.