The toys-to-life genre, and specifically Skylanders, has been around for quite a few years now. In some ways, I’m almost used to it – put the cool figure on the portal of power and play with the character in the game. It’s still astounding for anyone who hasn’t seen it before, but many of us have become blasé about just how impressive the concept is. Skylanders Imaginators is the sixth installment in the franchise, so how can they keep it feeling fresh and interesting?
Well, this time they are leaving it up to the player.
The Imaginators starter kit comes with new Skylander figurines, as well as a “blank” elemental crystal. The PS4 starter kit used for review also included Crash Bandicoot, Dr Neo Cortex and a red fire crystal to be used to build an Imaginator. While you don’t get a physical Skylander beyond the crystal object, players have the ultimate freedom to create and customize their unique adventurer. From her abilities, voice, and physicality to her gear, musical backing and catch phrase, my Imaginator is distinctly my own and customised to my preferred style of play.
There are a myriad of customisation options however, that aren’t all unlocked at the start of the game. As you progress through levels, there are secrets and extras for players to discover that open up more customisation options. Additionally, beating the various mini-bosses yields their gear, abilities and catch phrases when they’re knocked off of them and thus granting you even more customisations.
While most of these secrets and extra areas give you chests full of Imaginite, there are some bonus activities that’ll yield extra money. Like taking selfies in specific locations. Yes, selfies are now an important part of Skylanders, with players even able to frame their selfies in the academy for boosts to all characters of that class.
Because “Imaginite” (the crystals that are hidden in chests that are used to gain new customisation items) are hidden throughout levels, (as well as earned by completing various achievements) it can serve as an excellent incentive to replay past levels and continue exploring as you craft your perfect Imaginator.
Of course this also means that players will probably want to purchase more Imaginator crystals, but that seemed very silly for me to have so many weapons and gear that I couldn’t use with my ultimate creation.
While I thoroughly enjoyed tinkering with my Imaginator, something I did far more than I had anticipated I would, there was something lost in the experience. Part of the joy of Skylanders has always been placing your unique toy on that portal of power and watching it come to life in the game. The flashing crystal is certainly cool, and making my own Imaginator was excellent, but the magic of toys to life seemed to be missing a bit.
Plus, I can only imagine that if kids play together at each other’s houses, keeping track of the various crystals for their different Imaginators will be a bit of a nightmare.
Beyond adjusting your Imaginator and questing for all the epic customisation loot, the gameplay is pretty standard fare for what we’re used to from a Skylanders game. Kaos has gotten hold of a special book that allows him to create his ultimate enemies for the Skylanders, because that’s what Kaos does as he goes on to get help from someone even more powerful than he is, getting stronger and stronger until he is eventually defeated.
There are some funny one-liners along the way, but the story and dialogue aren’t particularly riveting. Even the rationale behind Kaos’ plot is never really explained and the humor from the supporting cast is largely lacking. There are some amusing lines from the likes of Spyro and Stealth Elf, but I simply didn’t find myself chuckling along with the game as much as in previous iterations in the franchise.
With a specific combination of fun level design, puzzle solving and combat, Skylanders does offer something for everyone in its experience. Some levels are more interesting than others, often relying too much on block-pushing puzzles that offer little to no challenge. Thankfully, these are balanced out with some fantastic levels including some where you lead an army of bots against an opposing bot army to take out towers, or a particularly memorable sky ship battle or cake frosting challenge.
The PS4 version was uniquely satisfying because of the entire section used to recreate some wonderful Crash Bandicoot and Dr. Neo Cortex gameplay. The Chili Challenges with Crash Bandicoot are particularly fast-paced and endearing enough to make players wish for a new updated Crash Bandicoot game.
The figurines this time around are very large – the “Senseis” of this iteration are about the size of Giants. For the racing sections, where you can use the Superchargers vehicles along with your Skylanders for extra boosts, there was barely enough room on the portal for both figurines. Due to their larger size, they offer a lot more detail and the typical fantastic build quality.
Skylanders shines brightest when it comes to combat. Each character feels different, each set of abilities feels balanced and fun, with combos and ultimate attacks giving a particular kind of thrill. Even when playing as my Imaginator, I felt like her abilities were totally different to those included with the characters in the starter pack. I obviously enjoyed playing as some characters more than others, but each had their strengths and weaknesses.
I did find Crash Bandicoot to be a bit under-powered compared to the other characters, but perhaps that was the point given his ability to revive.
Mini-games in Skylanders Imaginators seem to take a more central role this time as well. Instead of acting as side activities for those who enjoy them, many levels requir players to succeed in a particular mini game.
And one “arcade” level was simply an excuse to bundle all the mini games together and require players to play them all in order to progress in the story. It felt like a bit of a cop-out – as much as I enjoy the mini-games as extra activities, they didn’t offer compelling enough gameplay to be the core of an entire level.