Sunday, January 4, 2015

Skylanders: Trap Team

As part of this blog’s semi-tradition of reviewing the next Skylanders game in early January after receiving it at Christmas, I present to you a review of the latest installment in the series, Skylanders: Trap Team. Because of the series’ annual release schedule, it’s gotten somewhat difficult to keep up with, especially in regards to the toys and gimmicks (at the time of this writing, I still haven’t gotten every character introduced in Swap Force, let alone Giants, due to budgetary reasons). Regardless, when I heard about the new game, I found out it had a rather interesting new gimmick wherein you could trap villains from within the game and play as them with the push of a button, as well as introducing Trap Masters and Toys for Bob returning as the developer, which caught my attention. This, of course, required the purchase of yet another Portal of Power, but I decided to give it a whirl since I had become a fan of the series and I wanted to see how well the gimmick was pulled off. The price of admission is admittedly expensive (I received the Dark Edition Starter Pack), but I still found the new installment to be well worth it.

In the past, the Doom Raiders brought evil to Skylands until they were sealed in Traptanium by a special group of Skylanders called the Trap Masters, who utilize weapons made from the material. Years later, presumably after the events of Swap Force, Kaos infiltrates Cloudcracker Prison and frees them, hoping to use them to reign over all of Skylands. However, things quickly get out of hand as they, under the Golden Queen (one of the Doom Raiders), quickly overtake Kaos and form their own plan, leading Kaos to become desperate in wresting control back from the Doom Raiders.

The Trap Masters in action (from left: Lob-Star, Gearshift, Jawbreaker (back),
Wallop (front), Wildfire (back), Snap Shot (front)).

Having played the PlayStation 4 version of this game, I think the graphics look really amazing, keeping with the art style and color palette of previous entries while having great amounts of detail. The game also has some impressive physics, especially in the animation of water, as well as some really great lighting to boot. There is also some good music, some of which is actually fairly memorable. What I like is that each villain you capture (more on that later) has their own unique theme, each one orchestrated to suit them and made such that they don’t really become tiring. The voice acting is also as good as ever, with great performances from Patrick Warburton, Kare Wahlgren, and Richard Horvitz returning as Flynn, Tessa, and Kaos respectively. Some characters make surprising returns from previous games as well, with Sumalee Montano returning to voice Cali and Steve Blum as Auric (the equivalent to Moneybags from previous Spyro games), both from the first two games. The Doom Raiders also have good performances from their respective voice actors that give each one a unique identity. However, some dialogue can get really repetitive at times, so be prepared for that.

A high point of praise I give to the gameplay is how streamlined it is. The only special mechanic to remain from previous games is the Portal Master Rank and the occasional support for a Giant, but you otherwise only have to worry about having a Trap Master of the right Element to open an Elemental Gate or one of any Element to destroy Traptanium deposits to either advance or unlock secret areas/treasure; you no longer have to worry about Accolades or Swap Zones and Legendary Treasures you collect and the day of the week no longer offer you an in-game boost. Also, the Level cap for a Skylander remains at 20 like in Swap Force, so you don’t have to worry so much about maxing out your Skylanders.

I'm required to explore the game!
(Trap Master Snap Shot pictured, included in most Starter Packs.)

Increasing your Portal Master Rank doesn’t require you to buy as many toys (more on that later), but it does necessitate completing certain gameplay modes. For example, you can gain up to four stars for each chapter of the Story Mode and you automatically get twelve for completing it (totaling 100 if you include two Adventure Packs; again, more in a bit). An additional gameplay mode is the Kaos Doom Challenge, in which you have to go through a 100-Round gauntlet (divided into chunks) in which you must protect a Mystery Box of Doom, for which you gain lots of money and experience for your Skylander(s), making this a perfect way to upgrade your toys faster (I recommend doing this with another player for faster rewards and easier play; it can get pretty difficult later on even on the Easy difficulty). There’re also different Arenas, unlocked during Story Mode, for which you gain one star and some money for each one you beat. No matter which Mode you pick, you cannot regain stars, but you can regain the other rewards that come with them. Though you don’t gain stars for this, there’s also an extra rhythm-based mini-game that you can play in the hub world to gain extra cash, though the enjoyment factor depends entirely on the player.

As mentioned earlier, a new gameplay feature introduced for this game is the ability to capture specific enemies (of which there are 46, 10 Doom Raiders among them) within Traps and use them in battle. This is where the new Portal of Power comes in, which I must say is constructed pretty well; I’m especially amazed at how it can read the figures despite having a clear surface. This new Portal has a special slot to place the Traps in, which is connected to a small speaker where the villain can talk to you in response to certain on-screen events. When playing as a villain, any experience or money you gain goes directly to the Skylander you switched it out for, although the Skylander cannot gain extra health unless you switch them back out. The villain has sort of a health bar, represented by a timer, and returning the villain to the Trap slowly increases the time back to its maximum (there’s also a varying window of time where you can’t switch back to the villain if it’s replenishing an empty timer). Said time limit can also be increased by completing side missions within Story levels that make the villain generally stronger as well as permanently switching their moral alignment; it seems this process can be repeated by capturing and reforming villains multiple times, but fortunately you don’t have to capture the villain or put them in the Trap, plus the villains automatically get sent to the prison in the hub world if you decide not to contain them inside the trap (you also get their Bounty).

Wolfgang (the pictured Doom Raider) is awesome.

One thing I like about the speaker function is that the sound travels seamlessly between the Portal and the TV, since audio comes from the Portal when the villain is in the Trap and from the TV when out (tolerance level for each captured villain’s voice also depends on the player); this also provides a rather interesting experience for the final level against Kaos, since I was genuinely freaked out when the un-captured Kaos spoke directly to me through the Portal and the experience prompted me to make comparisons to Psycho Mantis. Traps also come in a variety of shapes, though (to me at least) their appearance causes them to look almost like hard candy, so I would exercise some caution with children.

One interesting development is that your Sidekicks (now Mini Skylanders) now act as full-on Skylanders rather than as some sort of pet for a Skylander. This means that, for example, Trigger Snappy now has the same upgrades as the normal Trigger Happy and has a higher-pitched voice (Trigger Snappy is, at the time of this review, the only one I have). This adds a lot more versatility to gameplay while also making these toys more useful than they originally were. Fortunately, if you don’t have one lying around, these are available in 2-packs that also introduce eight new ones, though there is the caveat that these seem to only work with Trap Team (based on one look at the packaging).

We have a use now!

At this point, I would like to address how compatibility works between games. Of course, Trap Team toys are incompatible with previous games (presumably unless they are Series 2-4, like previous installments), but all figures from previous games are forwards-compatible with Trap Team. Location Pieces also work here, but instead work similarly to the Anvil Rain Magic Item in that they rain down stuff onto the area to deal damage to enemies (this can also apply to figures that unlocked Battle Arenas, such as the Volcanic Vault, though items like the Dragonfire Cannon work as actual weapons). Magic Items from previous games also work here, but their timers and abilities may have changed depending on the item in question. The Portal also works between not only previous games but also systems, since both the PS3 and PS4 are USB-compatible, though Traps likely won’t work since their data would not be present on the game disc.

This is probably pointless considering the franchise’s success being built upon it, but a point of criticism I still have is how, in spite of how easy it is to increase the Portal Master Rank and how streamlined the experience is, you still have to pay exorbitant amounts of cash on toys to be able to explore the entire game. Taking into account current, non-Sale prices from most retailers: The regular Starter Pack for home consoles (1 Trap Master, 1 Skylander, 2 Traps) costs $75, which will get you so far in terms of exploration. Trap Masters cost $16 each; there are 16, but the bare minimum is 8. Traps cost $6 each, though since you can get by on only 1 for each Element, there is a 9-Trap minimum (there is 1 specifically made for Kaos). There are 2 Adventure Packs that cost $25 each, of which you need both to be able to capture and redeem additional villains not found in the main Story Mode. On top of this, the game also introduces 2 new Elements into the mix, Light and Dark, for which there are 2 Expansion Packs (1 Trap Master, 1 Trap, 1 Location Piece) that cost $30 each, and both are required to be able to 100% the game. Adding this up (minus a toy container and the Kaos Trap since I have not seen the latter in retail outside the Dark Starter at the time of this writing), being able to fully explore the main game costs ~$333 USD. If you start with the $100 Dark Edition Starter Pack (2 Trap Masters, 1 Skylander, 2 Traps, 1 Ultimate Kaos Trap), then the total becomes ~$342 USD. Keep in mind this is only the bare minimum to explore the game in full and your collection can expand however you wish, although I would not recommend spending all of that at once depending on your budget.

You will need this.
(Kaos Trap pictured.)

If not for continuity present between games (though the IDW comics attempt to address this), I would consider Skylanders: Trap Team to be an excellent jumping-on point for newer fans, but it’s still an excellent installment nonetheless due to making some vast improvements from previous versions. This is also my favorite game in the series so far, since it’s much easier to gauge progress to getting 100% completion and I’ve actually been more determined to reach that goal. The graphics are amazing, the new gimmick works surprisingly well, and the gameplay has been heavily streamlined for a better experience. Though what I typed in the preceding paragraph sounds expensive, I would highly encourage taking advantage of Sales (Toys ‘R’ Us in particular seems to have one constantly) in order to lessen the strain on your wallet. I would also suggest playing Co-Op with someone else (even on lower difficulties), since this allows for faster Skylander upgrading and can make some stages much easier (fortunately, Skylanders share gained money and experience, the former of which is somewhat easier to come by in this game). Even though I’m still behind on my collecting, if there is a new game this year (hopefully there’s more time until then but I doubt it), I look forward to seeing what happens next.

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