It's that time of year again. Time to set aside last year's toys in favor of a shiny new batch of Skylanders: Trap Team figures. Seriously, set the older toys aside - you won't be needing them for a while.
In preparation for the arrival of the latest iteration of Activision's hugely successful toys-meets-games franchise, I dug through my Skylanders ottoman for a selection of my favorites, as I'd done with Skylanders: Swap Force and Giants before it. Roller Brawl, Tree Rex, some original Spyro action — I assembled an army on my desk, two dozen strong and prepared for another colorful platforming action romp through the Skylands.
I've barely touched them since I started playing.
Skylanders is a series of popular platforming games in which players use an electronic portal connected to their video game console to bring modestly expensive plastic figures to life. The figures, purchasable wherever fine toys are sold, become playable characters in the game once placed on said portal. Trap Team, the latest version, comes bundled with two Skylanders figures, two trap crystals, the portal and the game disc.
Like the previous two games in the series, Trap Team spices up the "bring your action figures to life" formula of the original Spyro's Adventure with a fresh mechanic. The Trap Team, a series of giant-sized Skylanders wielding colorful weapons forged from an incredibly rare, incredibly powerful material called Traptanium battle to save the inhabitants of the Skylands from a league of powerful villains who've recently escaped from an (obviously mislabeled) inescapable prison. Upon defeating these special enemies, players can use elementally-attuned Traptanium crystals (sold separately) to imprison the villains, transforming them into allies that can be swapped in and out of battle with the press of a button.
While last year's Swap Force leaned heavily on its characters with swappable tops and bottoms gimmick, it still contained plenty of content geared towards figures from earlier games in the series. Certain treasures chests could only be opened by giant figures from the previous games. Elemental gates, hiding optional challenge areas and special items, could be opened by any previous toy as long as their elements matched. And with a level cap increase from 15 to 20 across the board, every Skylanders figure from 2011 onward benefited from being ported into Swap Force.
That's not the case in Trap Team. Developers Toys For Bob and Beenox have fully committed the game's 18 chapter story mode to the new figures — specifically the larger-sized Trap Masters — and the capturable villains. The elemental gates scattered throughout the game's levels only yield their bounty to Trap Master characters. Glimmering Traptanium deposits leading to secret areas can only be destroyed by Trap Master weapons. The Trap Masters deal more damage to trappable bad guys, to the point later in the game where it doesn't make logical sense to take them on with any other character.
Every figure from the series' inception to today can participate in Trap Team's story mode, mind you — that's not changed. It's just frustrating to attempt to play through a level as an old favorite when around every other corner is an obstacle that only a Trap Master can overcome. Eventually I stopped trying, only switching to smaller characters to reclaim the sense of speed lost on the large, lumbering Trap Masters.
Initially frustrating (from a collector's point-of-view specifically), the game's Traptanium obsession ultimately results in a much tighter, more satisfying story mode. The game's levels are less sprawling and cluttered, allowing players to enjoy the lush cartoonish visuals that have been a hallmark of the franchise, rather than constantly being on the lookout for random floating collectibles or gaudy challenge zones. The platforming is tight, as always, hearkening back to the golden days of the late '90s/early 2000s, when every other game was a 3D action platformer, but special attention has been paid to the bigger boss fights — several of which are truly spectacular.
The narrowed focus also gave developers more time to polish Trap Team's real stars — the villains.
As lovely as the new set of real-world toys are, the true heroes of this Skylanders adventure don't have dedicated plastic facsimiles. When certain villains are defeated during the game, players are prompted to insert a colorful crystal trap into a slot on the new Skylanders portal, the device which "reads" the figures and transports them from the physical realm to the virtual one. Once the proper elemental crystal is inserted, the defeated villain is sucked inside. Through clever audio trickery, the villain's voice seems to transfer in mid-protest from the television speaker to the portal's small tinny one. It's an incredibly cool effect (notably absent from the mobile version of the game).
Once trapped, a villain remains in its crystal, ready to be swapped with the active Skylander at any time. Press a button and they appear, ready to dole out massive damage for as long as their timer lasts. It bears noting that each villain has their own theme music, which kicks in as long as they're in play (I'm going to need a soundtrack).
While resting in their crystal prison, the trapped villains will occasionally speak through that tiny speaker. They'll comment on the player's triumphs. They'll wonder what the heck the end-of-level stats screen is. Play without swapping to them for a bit and they'll loudly remind you that they're available.
"You're just gonna do this on your own?" asks trapped arch-villain Kaos. "Seriously, Skylander? Okay fine, I'll wait. Dum dum dum da-dum dum dum DUM."
These villains are the beating heart of Skylanders: Trap Team, lending more personality to the proceedings than any of the handful of new and returning non-player characters who assist the Skylanders on their quest. While only one of each elemental trap and one specialized Kaos trap are needed to capture all of the currently catchable villains in the game (villains in traps can be swapped out between levels), I'm seriously considering purchasing enough to house each of the game's 46 villains in their own unique prison so I can change them out at any time. They're that entertaining, plus I'm a sucker for translucent colored plastic.
Mind you, you can't collect all 46 of those villains as of this review. The Skylanders franchise has traditionally released its new figures in such a way as to keep game content from being accessed at launch — in this case only six of the eight original elements have Trap Master figures available, leaving Life and Magic portals unopenable. This year they've taken things a step further, introducing two new elements, neither of which is currently available. In-game they are referred to as simply unknown elements. The gates have question marks on them, and the six villains representing them are untrappable.
I'm sure children find this all highly mysterious and entertaining. I am not amused.
Speaking of not being amused, it might be time to retire Flynn, the ever-present, ever-boastful pilot character voiced by TV's Patrick Warburton. His self-important blather was enjoyable enough in the original Skylanders, but over the course of three more games it's just too much. The developers seem to be in love with the guy. This game's collectible Story Scrolls — traditionally a source of light backstory for the levels they're found on — entirely consist of stupid Flynn quotes. This comic relief character is no longer relieving me comically.
Once story mode is over, it's time to dust off those older figures for a romp around Skylanders Academy, Trap Team's all-new, ever-expanding central hub.
This sprawling hub is where the Skylanders wind down between important missions. They can collect coins in lovely little 2.5D platforming segments, and then spend them on new powers, hats and trinkets, the latter being a new way to customize characters (check out Bop's fetching new tail pinwheel).
There are battle arenas to conquer, a rudimentary rhythm game to take on, and a new Kaos' Doom Challenge mode, a real-time defense game complete with elemental towers to build and upgrade. Each of these light activities serves as a perfect way to spend a little time with those older Skylanders who've already hit their level caps.
In the upper reaches of Skylanders Academy, there's a book in the records room that shows players which figures they've collected. Initially, it only includes the Trap Masters and normal figures being released for Trap Team — older characters only appear in the list when the player adds them to the game. This serves as an excellent example of this installment's focus on delivering a relatively self-contained experience. In Swap Force, players' "Portal Master" ranks were determined largely by how many toys they owned. In Trap Team it is calculated purely by the number of stars earned in Story, Arena and Kaos modes. There's no pressure to collect every toy in series history. Just one of each trap type, and one Trap Master from every element.
The bright spotlight being shined on its core figures and villains makes Skylanders: Trap Team feel like a fresh start for the franchise. Without completely abandoning the characters and concepts introduced over the past three years, it feels more like a self-contained experience rather than a continuation. If you've missed the past three installments of toy-based platforming, now's a great time to hop on board.