It has been at least a solid year since I last played a console game that wasn’t rated above ‘Teen’, and it’s purely for lack of trying. Lately, nothing in the realm of kiddie games seemed even remotely enticing, especially when Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel and The Evil Within were still fresh on the market and I couldn’t be bothered to tear myself away from them. I was of the belief that I’m a grown up and I like grown up things, and any game without the ability to decapitate my opponent in a shower of blood and bits isn’t worth my time. That is, until, Skylanders: Trap Team showed up on my doorstep. It was all I could do to not spend the next eighteen hours totally engrossed in a world so colorful I think at one point I stroked.
Set as the sequel to Skylanders: Swap Force in the downright mystical world of Skyland, Trap Team’s story plays like that of a Saturday morning cartoon. Kaos (voiced by Invader Zim), a stubby, bald mage, blows up Cloudcracker Prison, releasing a whole mess of baddies who go on a PG-rated crime spree. It’s up to the player (the Portal Master) and their Trap Master (playable characters) to wrangle up the evildoers and rescue the inhabitants of Skyland.
While described as a role-playing platformer, what sets the Skylander games apart from the rest of their ilk is the inclusion of a near-field communication-enabled device (thanks for the name, Wikipedia), or, the “Traptanium Portal”. Plugging into your console via USB, this little ring of plastic allows players to place Skylander figurines with NFC chips onto the portal and “transport” them into the game in the form of playable characters. The Trap Team version included two of these Trap Master Figures.
Trap Team separates itself from pervious Skylander installments by allowing the player to also use trap figures. These little blocks of plastic, of which we were given two, allow the player to capture certain boss enemies in-game and then later use them as a playable, good character. A built-in speaker on the portal further adds to the game’s virtual and real-world collision by integrating sounds between trapped monsters as they transfer from the portal to the game, and vice versa. Overall, it’s yet another piece of plastic to worry about and does raise some consumer concerns (of which we’ll get to), but it’s awfully clever.
Trap Team offers a large variety of ways to play. The storyline and side missions are all third-person hack-n-slash with a series of puzzles along the way, but the game also provides an extensive array of arena battles, PVP matches, horde mode, and a glue-sniffing version of Hearthstone (Skystones Smash) as a means of taking a break from the main questline. A handful of flying missions and turret-control objectives break up the monotony of the game’s constant button mashing, and each map has enough side missions and hidden rooms to last at least half an hour per level.
Those who decry the simplicity of the game and the ease in which it can be beaten regardless of difficulty settings (no deaths on my first playthrough, thank you very much) have obviously missed the point of Skylanders, which, because it’s made for kids, is to make the player feel good. The sheer number of pats on the back the game hands out is profoundly reassuring, especially after a long day at the office where NO ONE hands out level-ups, gold coins, or even hugs. You’re rewarded for just about anything, and level increases actually seem to mean something in terms of balancing stats. There is a little matter of hitting the level 20 cap a bit too early if you only use one or two characters, and the $65,000 ceiling in your wallet is really easy to reach about three quarters of the game in, but both of these issues can be solved by using other Trap Master figures and buying all their in-game upgrades.
Which brings me to my first, and maybe strongest, complaint. While the game may proclaim the feel-good message of friendship, unity, and the triumph of good over evil, it all the while sits back and counts the contents of its coffers the entire time you play. By locking certain side missions and sections of each map to a specific elemental Trap Master or captured bad guy, players must have at least one figurine and trap of the eight different elements to ensure they can play the game in its entirety. These packs of figures can cost up to $25 for a set of two, so it’s easy to see how kid’s parents could end up shilling out the big bucks so little Suzy/Johnny can finish the game. Luckily, you can beat the bare bones storyline with just the characters included in the starter park, though much of the game will go unplayed.
Apart from the unabashedly market-centered focus of the game’s accoutrements, the gameplay itself can get a little frustrating. While it claims to be a platformer, each character can only jump about a foot into the air, critically limiting the amount of actual platformer elements typical of the genre. The puzzles are fun at first, but as you soldier on they begin to feel like massive time sucks, put there to slow down rate of play and increase the storyline’s playtime. Money, which is easy to come by, quickly buys all the necessary upgrades, and as such, overpowered attacks are attainable after the third level, making you the cartoon version of the angel of death to all who stand before you. The game is meant for kids, sure, but there’s no reason to insult their intelligence or attention spans with overpowered combat and forced puzzles.
Skylanders: Trap Team is certainly a nice distraction from the gritty word of game realism I find myself a part of. Though the dialogue is cringeworthy and the game continually demands money with the same persistence of American colony tax collectors, the experience overall leaves you with a deep sense of accomplishment. The variety of gameplay and characters, and the integration of the portal, all add to the immense replay value the game has to offer. If you can overlook the marketing, Trap Teams is a graphically phantasmagorical world full of goofy charm and shameless fun, almost to the point where I had to check my driver’s license to make sure I was, indeed, a grown man.