On Friday a mysteriously large package wound up on the front door of my house, and inside was seemingly every piece of the Skylanders Trap Team universe. Having no experience with the world of Skylanders beyond marveling at how many different Skylanders (and now Disney Infinity as well) things you can buy, it’s been an interesting journey. The gimmick the whole experience hinges on is really cool, in that through the use of many different accessories, you can quite literally bring your toys to life inside of the game.
Backing up a bit, the first Skylanders game was released in 2011 for the PS3, Xbox 360, Wii, and 3DS. The sales pitch was really neat, in that you were able to use the “Portal of Power" which is basically a fancy looking NFC reader to import your various NFC-packed Skylanders figures into the game. A few iOS games and a couple console game releases later, we’ve got the first full-fledged Skylanders game on iOS, complete with a bluetooth Portal of Power and controller. It’s available for preorder right now from Amazon for $74.96, with a release date of October 5th. Expensive for an iOS game, sure, but consider it’s the same game (at the same price) as what you can get on the Wii, 360, Xbox One, PS3/PS4, and more.
Unsurprisingly, everything works just like the demos that were released when the game was first revealed. You load up the Skylanders Trap Team game on your iPad, making sure that both WiFi and Bluetooth are enabled, and then everything just works. The Portal of Power and accompanying controller both use low energy Bluetooth which allows them to just pair automatically as soon as they’re turned on and detect something they can connect to nearby. As someone who has done the forget and re-pair dance with proper MFi game controllers more times than I can even remember, it’s really cool for it to all just work.
As far as first impressions go, particularly when it comes to the world of iOS games and accessories, seeing the level of deep integration Skylanders Trap Team has is crazy. Veterans of the Skylanders games are likely already tired of the novelty, but just placing a figure on the Portal of Power and having them appear in game is really cool. You can switch out guys at any time too, and the game encourages you to do so. It’ll actively tell you when you’re entering areas where a particular element-based group of dudes would be extra effective, and other areas are straight up gated, requiring, for instance, a water-based guy to get through.
Additionally, the “Trap Team" in Skylanders Trap Team has to do with the new trapping system. You’ll come across different enemies in game that once defeated can be trapped, sort of like how Pokemon works. This plays into the elemental system as well, as each enemy must be trapped by a trap that represents a specific element. Where things get neat is once trapped, you can play as these enemies at any time you’ve got their trap inserted into the Portal of Power. The amount of variety in the guys you’ll be playing as both through actual Skylanders figures and trapped enemies feels a lot like how you can switch between an endless amount of characters with different abilities in the Lego series of games.
Your first play session in Skylanders Trap Team, especially if it’s your first Skylanders rodeo, is just nuts. The Portal of Power and your equipped trap flash different colors depending on what’s happening in game, and the totally seamless transition between pulling a guy off the Portal of Power, having him warp out of game, and then the opposite happen when you place a different guy on top feels like magic- Particularly when you’ve got a full desk of different traps and Skylanders to choose from. If I were a kid, things like this would straight up blow my mind.
The problem is, I’m not a kid, and as such it really didn’t take me too long to hit a similar point with Skylanders Trap Team as Neo did when he sees the code in The Matrix and you realize what’s happening here- Skylanders Trap Team isn’t a game as much as it is an ecosystem of really expensive plastic stuff for parents to buy. My first impressions are based on Activision sending me literally everything and being able to rip open every Skylander figure and trap like a kid on Christmas morning. Playing using only the two Skylanders (and two traps) that come with the starter pack produces a significantly lamer experience.
With the setup Activision sent me, when I hit an area that required a mechanical Skylander, no problemo. The most challenging part of that for me was slicing open the blister packaging they come in without cutting my finger off. Similarly, when I came across an enemy I could only trap with an Earth trap, I dove back into my magical box of goodies and pulled one out. Everyone else? I imagine it’s going to sting quite a bit when you hit similar points and be faced with buying more stuff instead of just playing through the game.
The additional Skylanders toys/accessories are expensive too. The “Trap Master" figures which seem to be the pest are $15.99 the traps themselves are sold in three packs for $15.99, and additional figures sell individually for $9.99, in pairs for $14.99, or in a set of three for $24.99. The sheer expense of all this is mind blowing when you consider you’re already forking out $75 for the game itself. Bare minimum, if you only want to use the two included Skylanders but have traps to trap every type of enemy in game you’re going to be shelling out well over $100 to play.
From a business perspective, it’s genius. What Activision is selling here is basically packaged IAP you buy at the store so instead of feeling like some totally transparent virtual good you’re buying, you’re actually getting some kind of physical product- Regardless of the fact that this physical product is little more than a piece of plastic with a NFC chip in it. With IAP consistently demonized in the media for targeting kids and draining parents’ bank accounts, Skylanders does practically the same thing, routed through the familiar retail toy buying model instead.
…but I’m still not sure how I feel about it. I’ve said before that my favorite kind of IAP is the kind of IAP that you buy once and unlock forever, and that’s certainly the case here. None of the traps or figures are disposable by any stretch of the imagination, and I guess you could argue this model is a little better than straight up IAP as there’s some kind of permanent (although fractional) resale value involved. My local Craigslist is loaded with people selling buckets of Skylanders figures for the older games. It still seems gross though, as the game constantly teases you into switching to different elements, which is undoubtedly going to lead directly into cries of “Mommmmmmmm, I need a Fire trap!!!"
Playing the Skylanders game itself, once the novelty of the toys ecosystem wears out is really just OK. I’ve got a personal pet peeve when it comes to character movement, which has lead me to the only characters I like playing are the ones with the fastest movement speed or a secondary attack that has some kind of dash attached to it. Otherwise, your guys move slow, and it doesn’t seem like there’s a good reason for it other than to artificially lengthen the game through walking.
The world of Skylanders is home to a lot of puzzle elements which play on most action adventure-y 3D platform-y tropes. In other words, expect to be pushing lots of blocks and boulders to reach new areas. Oh, and if you thought playing with a stable of plastic toys and accessories make this feel like a kids game, wait until the game walks you through each puzzle element. There’s a part early on in the game where you need to block a steam vent with a boulder, and the way the game directly repeatedly instructs you on what to do feels like watching an episode of Dora the Explorer.
The up side is, using the included controller to play the game is pretty great. It nests inside of the Portal of Power for transportation, similarly runs on AAA batteries, and requires no configuration or set up to use aside from pressing the power button. It’s almost the same size as the SteelSeries Stratus, so most of what I said in that review applies here as well. The controller is built well, but pretty small, potentially too small for adult hands but likely just find for kids hands.
Looking at the $75 entry price of Skylanders Trap Team as “Oh, hey, well at least I get a controller" doesn’t make it seem that bad, but the controller only works with Skylanders Trap Team. Weirder yet, the controller has the similar dual analog stick and D-pad setup, but the second analog stuck and the D-Pad aren’t even used in the game. Extra weird is there are times where the game is practically begging for the camera to be unlocked and controlled with the second analog stick. Locking the controller to the game itself is weird enough, but not using some of the controller when the game needs it? That’s crazy.
While the best Skylanders Trap Team experience undoubtedly comes from playing at home, with the controller, Portal of Power, and as many additional figurines as you can afford, you can also play without any of that stuff. Without the controller, virtual controls appear on screen which work well. Similarly, you can freely switch between the Food Fight and Snap Shot characters to play as if you don’t have the Portal of Power or any other plastic dudes with you. It’s neat how the game should be played with all the Skylanders stuff, but gracefully degrades to be able to play without any of it.
So, yeah, that’s Skylanders Trap Team. It’s a weird game to write about, because I am so not the target audience, and I’m not sure many of our readers are either. It’s also strange how secondary the actual game itself feels to the rest of the Skylanders ecosystem, which sort of makes sense in a way as Skylanders seems to be more about which guy you’re using to play through the game, as when you’ve got so many different dudes that do so many different things, gameplay just has to be watered down to allow it all to work.
I didn’t play the other Skylanders games, so I can’t really say if Trap Team is any better or worse than the other ones. It’s a colorful game filled with full voiceovers, boss fights, and what people would typically describe as “AAA levels of polish" if you’re into cliches. I just wish there was some way I could escape the feeling that the reason the game feels so secondary is because it only exists to sell the toys. If nothing else, this experience has made me way more curious about Disney Infinity, as I imagine the novelty value of playing with characters you actually know and have a history with would be way higher than the Skylanders I’ve got strewn about my desk.