I want to love this franchise so much.
It’s just not for me. There’s a very obvious wall between Skylanders and the audience that frequents this website, that consumes games like candy, and generally drives the circle of forward-facing consumerism feeding the industry’s crystallized core. The shooter genre has slowly stopped evolving. The same can be true of action games, adventure games, and even role-playing games, but when Toys For Bob or Vicarious Visions (responsible for last year’s Skylanders Swap Force) talk about innovation, I actually stop and pay attention.
That word has been overused in this industry and it’s quite obvious that marketing teams like it because “innovation” is desired by gamers that lean on high-tech PC hardware and the constant churn of the console cycle. Competition drives the industry and while first-person shooters remain hotly contested in the space, toys-to-life as invented by the Skylanders franchise has actually gotten other firms to jump into this very unique development space. Even Nintendo has announced a line of collectable figures that interact with the company’s software, though Skylanders hasn’t rested on its laurels.
Instead, Skylanders Trap Team introduces new trap mechanics that allow you to use particularly unique foes against other challenges and puzzles as you progress. Once you’ve trapped a particular enemy, you can use it at will in combat. That means you have the ability to swap between Skylanders figures and trap gems that contain enemies as organized by elemental affinity. You can’t trap a rock enemy without a rock stone, for example, and while that means the community will once again shell out for new characters and peripherals (and a brand new portal of power on which Skylanders are activated), I’ll ignore any criticism given the massive wealth of characters that will carry over into the new game.
In fact, hundreds of figures will remain just as playable and powerful as they’ve proven in past games and every Giant, Swap Force character, and original cast member comes to Trap Team with the same moves that fans have used to clear entire campaigns. It’s the difference between screwing over parents and their finances and offering existing Skylanders experts more value from the toys they’ve already invested in. Trap Team’s starter pack will come with everything you need to play, anyway.
This is the second time I’ve visited a studio actively developing a Skylanders game, and it’s also the second time I’ve literally seen the sausage getting made. Both teams have proven extremely giving in explaining the process of not just game development, but toy development as well. I’ve seen Skylanders figures in an active 3D printer and I’ve seen crude models turned into hand-painted (would-be) masterpieces, though I wonder if a child would miss some of the magic that has endeared millions to the franchise.
Each time I’ve played Skylanders, Activision has made sure I’ve got more than my share of figurines to choose from and it's that moment where I lose a sense of cynicism and just “try.” As odd as that sounds, “trying” in a Skylanders game feels extremely different when compared to “trying” in a first-person shooter or an open-world game. Lots of experiences offer extreme conditions and ask us to perform under pressure, but Skylanders simply asks you to have fun with unique faces that animate wildly in-game. Each title has added new layers and while those certainly bring depth to what would be boring Diablo-esque combat, nothing really breaks you out of the experience if you allow yourself to sink into it.
Maybe I sound like a broken record at this point. I remember the reactions I’ve gotten in covering past Skylanders games and it’s not really my responsibility to get more people into the franchise. I just think it’s worth pointing out that this brand will absolutely have a growing impact on the industry at large, particularly as companies like Nintendo bring their own marketing and product manufacturing lines to full bore. More and more money will be spent on developing toys that compliment video games, and more and more software will stop asking you to add a second-screen experience like you’d find on your iOS or Android device. Instead, the biggest gaming brands will add products that actually reinforce your enjoyment through this physical element.
It sounds dumb, but Nintendo has manufactured figurines for ages and sold them through capsule machines and shopfronts. The only reason the company is trying to meld those toys with its software now is that Toys For Bob has done such a good job making a billion-dollar franchise out of what was essentially a new license. Nintendo’s mascots have incredible staying power, but Activision struck gold first.
This may not be the traditional perspective for a preview on Skylanders, but it's worth discussing. The obvious line of dialog would be to talk about how important Skylanders has been in bringing kids back to gaming, though it’d be incredibly disingenuous to discuss the experience like I have a child when I don’t. Until that changes, I simply won’t get everything I’m supposed to out of a Skylanders game. That doesn't mean Trap Team’s new speaker-equipped portal, wacky soundtrack, highly animated characters, and mini games don't entice.
In one sequence, I played a card-battling game in order to complete a level and begin the boss encounter. In another level, I had to quickly repair colorful pinwheels in order to restore the wind turbine power they generated within a certain time limit. Another area offers players the ability to interact with the game’s soundtrack in a rhythm loop featuring clips of Patrick Warburton shouting things in Flynn’s goofy voice. While the core of Skylanders hasn’t seemed to change all that much, switching to an enemy character in the heat of combat does allow you to change move sets on the fly and stave off a figure-swap until you’ve leveled up again or discovered a new item.
I wish I could be that critic who spells it out like one of the “hardcore” gamer douches creating horrifying situations in the personal lives of indie developers, but I can’t. I can’t look at Skylanders and not take it seriously as a potential future for many other genres. Rockstar Games won’t hesitate to sell you a GTA action figure if they knew they could get away with it. At least Activision is walking this path in a way that encourages moms and dads to sit down and play video games with their kids.
Skylanders: Trap Team releases on October 5 for Xbox One, PS4, PC, Wii U, Xbox 360, PS3, Wii, 3DS, iOS, Android, and Fire OS (whew!).