2016’s addition to the Skylanders franchise isn’t one of its strongest.
This year’s Skylanders sometimes feels like a casino: it’s exciting to look at, easy to consume, obnoxiously loud, and certainly wants to take your money with an excess of microtransactions that kids could easily accidentally click on. But with the addition of a new character-creation menu that’s buffed up with loot and gear of varying rarity, Skylanders Imaginators adds a level of customization, control, and creativity that keeps it feeling fresh.
Imaginators is still leading the charge in the toys-to-life genre, with an expansive library of neatly designed toy figures jumping into animated life in your game world as soon as you place them on the included portal. That’s a Skylanders standard, but Imaginators introduces Creation Crystals, which are so appealing to my inner child. I can create my own creature, train it, and then carry it around with me in a little toy crystal – including to friends’ houses to introduce to their Imaginators so that we could fight evil together. I’ve certainly never felt anywhere near so possessive of a Skylander as I did for my Fire Sorcerer, Caerwyn, who I spent the better half of the 10-hour campaign customizing.
Your Imaginator’s powers, weapons, bodies, clothing, catchphrases, and more can all be conveniently be edited and updated at almost any time through a simple menu that manages to neatly hide just how extensive it is. And you’ll have the option to upgrade plenty, since the wearable gear that’s scattered around Skylands is pleasantly common and comes in an appealing variety of designs. You can get an air horn for an ear, a snake for an arm, a chain for a tail and a s’more for a staff, if you want (and I did). Gear really helps to shape your Imaginator to be weird and wonderful, and a color-scheme system forces even the most eclectic bunch of gear to match perfectly, unless you want it to stay mismatched.
Imaginators are weird and wonderful
The catch is that this gear is for sale through microtransactions, and Skylanders Imaginators isn’t shy about advertising that. If you press A or X quickly too many times while opening loot chests after a mission (there are a lot that you have to tediously open one at a time) you’ll find yourself in a store. That’s a little distasteful in a game aimed at kids of all ages. It’s doubly painful that gear can’t be worn by regular Skylanders (including the new toys, called Senseis) at all, meaning any existing collections of toys can’t hold a candle to the appeal of the Creation Crystals. Plus, there’s plenty of extra content that’s locked to Senseis of certain classes and elements, a level cap that only increases as you introduce more Senseis to your game, and encouragement to pay to 3D-print your Imaginators, too. That’s an exciting feature that lets you bring your Imaginator into the real world, but it’s another link in a chain of aggressive up-selling.
Oh yeah, there’s an actual game here, too! Skylanders and Imaginators alike still dance across your screen in a flurry of basic hack ’n’ slash combat, with just enough variety for your button mashing to feel purposeful, and just enough upgrades to provide a sense of progression. Movement outside of combat is a little on the sluggish side, however, and I ended up favoring gear that would increase my Imaginator’s speed as a result.
But the health of the significant variety of oddly charming enemy types, including some aggressive sheep dressed as wolves, and a combination of a shark and a tube that’s fittingly called a Tube-Shark, offer a consistent challenge in between the series’ tried-and-true puzzle-platforming. Each level also ends in a boss fight, but aside from the enemies being different battle classes, they follow an overly familiar and unfortunately predictable three-wave combat pattern that, ironically, lacks creativity.
Bizarre mini-games are repeated over and over
While the combat, platforming, and puzzles are all sound, this time the formula is some of the least interesting gameplay we’ve seen out of Skylanders in a while. Where last year’s game turned entire levels into interesting gravity-shifting puzzles, in Imaginators there are a handful of bizarre mini-games repeated over and over within different levels. They usually present you with challenges of grinding on railings, literally chasing snails, unlocking doors, and moving boxes, rather than concepts that are unique to, or complementary to, these admirably beautiful levels.
And it is a wonderfully colorful, beautifully animated game, with a genuinely funny cast of characters who are each brought to life with goofy, but loveable voice acting. The score is seriously moving, too – water levels have a magical, aquatic echo, and the game-show level is as upbeat and cheeky as you’d expect from our oddly adorable returning villain, Kaos. The story that holds that all together is unfortunately bland, but creating the story of your own Imaginator makes up for that in spades.
It is a wonderfully colorful, beautifully animated game
The PS4 version of Imaginators does have some extra value in Crash Bandicoot becoming a Skylander, and playing with Crash also unlocks an incredibly nostalgic, Crash-style level. The voice acting, sound design, and gameplay itself – with Crash running towards the camera and collecting apples while a giant boulder chases after him – is all a great homage.