As the original ’toys-to-life’ video game concept — inspiring both Disney’s Infinity and Nintendo’s upcoming amiibo line — Skylanders has an impressive legacy to live up to. The series’ first release, Spyro’s Adventure, took the world and characters from the classic Spyro the Dragon games and crafted an enjoyable action-platformer with a unique hook: players would pick an in-game character by physically placing a real-world figure on the 'Portal of Power'. Each annual iteration since has added new toys, new characters and a new headlining feature to this template, with this year’s model — Skylanders Trap Team — offering players the chance to trap and play as the game’s villains. While its shameless pricing structure won’t appeal to everyone, Trap Team is still a wonderful game well worth playing — especially for younger players and teams of two.

At the outset of each Skylanders adventure, the denizens of Skylands find themselves in danger of being taken over by bumbling baddie Kaos, and this initially seems to be the case in Trap Team as well. This time, the pint-sized villain has freed a group of powerful evil inmates — known as the Doom Raiders — from Cloudcracker Prison, and aims to harness their power to conquer the world. Not everything goes according to (evil) plan, however; the Doom Raiders have an agenda of their own, and Kaos soon ends up in over his head. Playing as the heroic Skylander of your choosing, it’s your job to harness the power of the mysterious ‘Traptanium’ element and seal those uppity evildoers back where they belong. Story-wise, it’s nothing terribly original, but the Saturday morning cartoon vibe and punny dialogue are lots of fun, and the writing is excellent — it’s geared towards kids, but there are plenty of cheeky references for onlooking adults to appreciate as well.

In its basic gameplay, Trap Team remains largely unchanged from its predecessors: after placing one of the real-life Skylanders figures on the included Portal of Power, you'll lead your hero through a 3D action-platformer, taking out enemies, picking up treasure, solving block puzzles and facing off against bigger baddies in boss battles. It's a simple, charming loop, and feels perfectly suited for both younger players and two-player fun; drop-in co-op lets a second Skylander join in the fray with their own figure at any time, and an automatic camera means there’s no split-screen or second stick to worry about.

Even though it’s an action game at heart, Trap Team packs an impressive amount of gameplay styles into its campaign. From side-view platforming and collectable card games to rhythm games and on-rails shooter sections, you never know quite what you’ll be doing next, and that helps make up for the fact that the main level designs — while visually distinctive — are mostly variations on a fairly standard room-and-corridor template. In addition to the main story chapters, there are also a few full-featured mini-games, including a multi-stage tower defence game and arena-based battle challenges.

Further adding to the variety is the powerful potential of Trap Team’s new trapping mechanic: after besting certain baddies in combat, you can insert a real-life trap of the correct element into the Portal to ‘trap’ that villain, and then tag them in as a temporarily playable character by hitting ‘ZL’ whenever you like. It sounds gimmicky, but it’s a fantastic feature; the villains have a surprising amount of personality, many are genuinely likeable — they’re bumbling rather than menacing — and each one comes with their own theme song. Watching them get ‘beamed’ from the television into the physical trap is a particularly nice touch, thanks to some fancy speaker tricks from the Portal, and once they’re there they’ll keep up a quirky running commentary of your on-screen adventure.

Most importantly, the villains are also fun to play. They don’t take damage — though you’ll only be able to use them for a limited time before they need to recharge — and since they aren't restricted to the standard Skylander array of close, ranged, and special attacks, their move-sets each feel remarkably distinct. Many of their skills seem optimized for quick switches between the villain and your chosen Skylander as well; Nintendo Life favourite Broccoli Guy, for instance, can create a healing circle which will restore your hero’s health once you tag them back in, while Chill Bill can use his freeze ray to keep energetic enemies frozen in place, setting your Skylander up perfectly for an easy attack.

Each villain also has a unique ‘Villain Quest’ to undertake. Usually hidden a bit off the beaten path, these side-quests let you take your currently equipped miscreant on a small mission — accompanied by a humorous back-story — and award new colour schemes and permanently powered-up attacks upon completion. These quests are short, but they make for a great change of pace, and add a nice sense of character growth to the baddies.

Character progression isn't limited to Skylands’ evildoers, of course; Trap Team has an accessible, engaging system in place for making your Skylanders feel like your own as you level them up. In addition to stat and health increases as you defeat enemies and earn experience, you can also visit returning fairy Persephone to purchase ‘magical upgrades’ for each figure. Skylanders start with two basic attacks, but by upgrading you can add in a third, and eventually significantly enhance all three. At a certain point along the upgrade tree, you’ll get to choose one of two skill paths for your hero, with each route focusing on a different aspect of their abilities. When playing as the starter kit’s Aussie crocodile archer ‘Snap Shot’, for instance, you can choose either the ‘Crackshot Croc’ route, which powers up his arrow attacks with additional shots, explosion-on-impact, and Water element damage, or the ‘Tide Turner’ route, to upgrade his whirlpool attack with increased range, the ability to trap enemies inside, and eventually even a sea monster.

With its charming characters and enjoyably easygoing action, Trap Team makes for a great kid’s game, and for all the right reasons; it’s a fun game in its own right that happens to be very kid-friendly by design. This comes out in some smartly forgiving choices, like the fact that dropped loot sticks around indefinitely, and won’t disappear on you if you dawdle, falling off of a level doesn't dock any health, and there’s a subtle but effective aim-assist for ranged weapons. Opening treasure chests by mashing ‘Y’ is also endearingly kinetic, which should be appeal to younger gamers, and even things that may seem like shortcomings in older players’ eyes — the lack of a run button, for example, or the non-adjustable camera — help keep the gameplay simple and streamlined for kids.

One thing younger and older gamers alike will appreciate is Trap Team’s sky-high production values. The graphics are bright and beautiful, with excellent animations and a Dreamworks-like look, and a lovely orchestral score backs up the action with plenty of playful pieces and memorable motifs. The voice-work deserves a special mention as well; each Skylander and NPC has their own unique voice — a few with famous voice actors behind them, and all of them very well done — and it adds a ton of personality to the game. Taken as a whole, Trap Team’s presentation is an impressive effort, and it’s a joy watching your figures come to life within its world.

Happily, these production values extend off-screen as well. The Skylander toys themselves are well crafted, with nice details and bright colours, and are durable enough to stand up to plenty of light play by younger gamers. The ‘Food Fight’ figure in our starter kit did have some minor paint blemishes that resulted in his lettuce complexion looking a little wilted in spots, but in general, we were very pleased with the collectable quality of the figures.

Of course, it’s not just the quality of the toys that’s meant to appeal to collectors; the ‘gotta catch ‘em all’ mentality is part of Skylanders’ blood and business model, and for better or for worse, that occasionally spills over into the gameplay. Picking up collectables which grant new moves for different characters will prompt you to watch a preview (read: advertisement) for that figure, Skylanders who've been knocked out in-game are required to ‘rest’ until the end of the level, essentially meaning that the more figures you own, the more continues you get, and — perhaps most disappointingly — each level features several hidden ‘hat challenges’ that require ‘Trap Master’ (read: premium-priced) figures of a particular element to access.

But while the in-game previews of other toys and gated-off hat challenges do smack of an up-sell, it’s worth noting that the Trap Team starter set really does feel like "enough". We had several extra figures on hand for testing purposes, but happily spent most of our adventure — a very satisfying co-op run — with the two toys included in the starter set and a single additional figure. Any ‘Trap Master’ level figure (like the Water-element hero that ships with the game) can destroy the ‘Traptanium’ barriers that lead to riches and new pathways, so if you’re not specifically interested in collectable hats, you’re not missing much at all by sticking with the standard issue heroes. Full backwards compatibility with figures from previous games means you’ll also be able to bring any old favourites into Trap Team, and older Skylanders can fight, level up, and trap villains with the best of ‘em.

All of this is good news for gamers hoping to get maximum enjoyment from a minimally expansive collection, and in most cases, the starter pack will help players do just that. Sadly, the sole exception lies with Trap Team’s biggest new feature, and its eponymous, elementally-split traps. If you come across a brand-new baddie and want to make them your own, you’ll need to have at least one trap of the corresponding element on hand — an Air trap will only trap Air-element villains, a Fire trap only Fire-element enemies, and so on. Working with villains is one of the most appealing aspects of the game, from the expanded gameplay possibilities to the fun real-world speaker tricks that play with the Portal, but the starter set only comes with two traps — one Life trap and one Water trap. To snare any villains of other elements, you’ll need to pick up more traps — and with nine different elements in the game and traps currently priced at around $5 each, that quickly adds up to an expensive proposition.

Trap tolls aside, for many parents and potential players, there’s another consideration that factors into a purchasing decision: Skylanders may have begun the toys-to-life craze, but it’s no longer the only game in town. Trap Team launched alongside Disney’s similarly figure-based Infinity 2.0 this fall, and if you’re choosing between the two, aesthetics and a preference for either Disney’s popular properties or Skylanders’ appealing original designs are worth considering, but there are also differences in gameplay. Infinity emphasizes world-building and free-form creative play in its Toy Box mode, so if you or your children are excited about crafting your own worlds to play in, Infinity may well be the way to go. Skylanders offers more of a classic, story-driven 3D platforming experience with a great sense of character progression, and while it lacks a direct analogue to Infinity’s Toy Box, a huge collection of mini-games and extra modes means there’s still plenty to do with your Skylanders after the story credits roll.

Conclusion

Trap Team continues the Skylanders legacy in style, serving up an excellent adventure with fun gameplay, lots of variety and top-notch production values both on-screen and off. It’s kid-friendly in every sense of the word, though grown-up gamers will find plenty to enjoy here as well. While it’s true you’ll have to pony up beyond the premium-priced starter kit if you want to see absolutely everything that Trap Team has to offer, there’s more than enough content included in the base game, and you’ll have everything you need for a fantastic two-player co-op experience right out of the box. Don’t let the sticker shock scare you off — Trap Team is a real treat.