The hook for this year's Skylanders entry seems prosaic at first; a speaker on the series' newly designed portal can broadcast the disembodied voices of baddies you defeat in-game, with the portal acting as a prison for your vanquished foes. The intended effect is the reverse of what the series has done so well in its previous entries. Instead of making you believe that a toy has come to life on screen, Skylanders Trap Team wants you to believe that a character on the screen has come to life in the real world. Sure, there are also new real-world figurines to collect in Skylanders Trap Team (such as the eponymous new type of Skylander), but trapping bad guys, having them interact with you, and then using them in battle is the key differentiator for this year's game. Compared to the inventive mix-and-match focus of last year's Swap Force, a talking portal seems almost pedestrian.
That is, until you see and hear it in action. Defeat a boss, and (provided you have the right type of elemental trap inserted in your portal) a gigantic, whirling portal appears on screen, sucking in your struggling foe. A flash of light and a rush of sound later, and the voice of your vanquished enemy blares from the portal sitting right in front of you. It's a surprisingly effective gimmick, particularly for the younger set. My five-year-old son was transfixed the first few times it happened, and would engage in conversations with the virtual baddies in their plastic prison. It seems that time and familiarity still hasn't dulled that Skylanders magic.
It helps, of course, that the actual gameplay that accompanies this four-year-old toys-to-life franchise is charming, funny, and engaging, throwing lots of different challenges and scenarios at you in an effort to make sure that boredom never has a chance to settle in. Mechanically, the game works as it always has--place a real-world Skylander figurine on the game's included portal, and that character's digital likeness appears on screen. The figurines themselves are, as I've come to expect from the Skylanders franchise, well built and sturdy enough to withstand some knocks from the little ones. The new Skylanders added this year are particularly excellent. These Trap Team figures are about the size of the larger Giants and Swap Force toys of previous years, and all feature some cool transparent weapons or armor. As always, their designs are expressive and appealing, giving you a clear indication of what these little guys will be like when you actually start playing with them on screen. The figure for the crocodilian Trapjaw, for example, has a huge crossbow that he indeed uses to great effect within the game, while the round belly of the bulbous Gusto figurine leads you to believe that he'll have some use for his big gut in battle (which, of course, he does).
The villains that you battle and capture in the game don't get their own toy line, however, and their real-world presence is limited to clear plastic "traps" that you'll need to insert into the Skylanders portal to actually use these baddies as fully controllable characters in your adventures. But what they lack in physical presence they more than make up for in personality, with almost all of the trappable villains being an absolute joy to hear (and play). Some of these characters are simply straight-up funny, with the various quips and comments they utter whilst trapped in your portal sure to bring some laugh-out-loud moments.
Not only are these villains affable companions, but they're also capable allies in the field. There's great joy in using a captured villain right after you've defeated him, using attacks that were just used on you against the rest of your foes. The Skylanders Trap Team experience itself is a varied adventure, and whilst it's never truly challenging, its sheer insistence on gameplay variety and its consistently charming presentation makes dull moments few and far between. You'll spend the majority of your time bashing and pummelling your way through enemies using your favored Skylander, but there is seemingly always something different to do to break up the swathes of combat. There are turret sequences, puzzles to solve to open locks, Angry Birds-style mini-games, tower-defense-like challenges, and even a basic card game to compete in, just to name a few. And you perform these activities in some gorgeous locations. From lush and verdant areas where gigantic flowers pop open when you get close to dreamscape locales where fluffy clouds disappear under your feet, there are a lot of cool sights to see during the long campaign.
The Skylanders, too, are an equally varied bunch. I used about a dozen different figures (a mix of new and old) when playing Trap Team, and each felt unique to play thanks to their distinct powers and abilities. This is no small part continues to add to that feeling of variety with Skylanders, as switching from one play style to another by simply replacing a character is as easy as ever.
It helps if you've previously invested in the Skylanders franchise and have toys from previous generations (they're all compatible with Trap Team). From a financial viewpoint, Skylanders continues to be a potential money sink, particularly if you're coming into the franchise cold. There's a casual pressure to buy more of the real-world toys permeating the entire game, manifested in things like special areas being accessible only to specific elemental types of Trap Team toys, and abilities being unlocked for characters you may not even have. It's never pushed to point of being egregious, but it's there. More problematic for me were the traps in this game. You need to have a trap of the right elemental type to capture and use a villain, and each trap only holds one baddie at a time. To experience some of the best this game has to offer (those excellent, funny, and awesome villains), you're going to have to shell out some extra cash for more traps.
The flipside of this is that you have access to the bulk of what Skylanders Trap Team offers using what you get in the basic starter pack alone. And what's there is great--an expansive, funny adventure that appeals to kids while having a surplus of wit and charm that can directly engage older players. I had an excellent time playing co-op with my son in Skylanders Trap Team, but if you don't have a little rugrat, don't let it dissuade you from playing. There's plenty of joy to be had for grown-ups in Trap Team, and more than a few laughs as well.