It speaks volumes about the Skylanders franchise that, even after six iterations, each entry in the series has presented a significant leap forward for the “toys-to-life” genre. The series always manages to find clever ways to make each release feel fresh and inventive.
The latest entry in the series, Skylanders: Imaginators, continues the trend with a new character creation mechanic that combines the appeal of the series’ long line of ready-made characters with the ability to craft something entirely your own. It is a bold move for a series strongly rooted in giving players the chance to physically connect with its characters – but it pays off Imaginators.
Imaginating the possibilities
As with previous installments of the series, the story in Imaginators has the “Portal Master” (that’s you) assisting the colorful residents of Skylands in thwarting a diabolical scheme enacted by Kaos, the series’ diminutive villain. This time around, Kaos has tapped into the energy of the ancient beings who created the Skylands, and you will need to harness those same creative energies in order to defeat him.
That’s where you come in.
Imaginators introduces a new mechanic to the series that let’s players make new Skylanders of their own. Along with the usual line of toys that accompanies each release, players are also given the ability to create their own “Imaginators” characters from an array of body parts, gear, color schemes, sound effects, and yes, weapons (among other elements).
Players create and store their custom characters on “creation crystals” – plastic gems encased in a cylindrical tube that can be read by the game’s “portal” – which can then be used to play as the character on other consoles. While they aren’t as nice to look at as the ready-made toys, the creation crystals continue the series’ tradition of allowing players to bring their characters – and all of the experience and skills they’ve accumulated – with them from place to place. The starter pack for Imaginators comes with one Creation Crystal, capable of storing a single character, and additional crystals can be purchased separately.
Playing with your Skylander … turns some of the focus inward, back to the game itself.
Although there’s a limited number of customization options available at the start, players can earn more customization components by playing through the campaign and various mini-games. Progressing through the game also unlocks higher-level items capable of increasing character stats such as attack power, armor, or speed, and gives the game an RPG-style progression that pushes you to hunt for hidden chests that might contain more powerful gear.
The combined experience of creating your own character and then evolving that character as you play Imaginators alongside your favorite toy characters feels like the most innovative leap the series has taken so far. The ability to create a character, and then have it interact with the Skylanders universe’s veteran heroes gives players an unprecedented ownership of their world. Playing with your Skylander adds another layer of interactivity with the Skylanders universe that turns some of the focus inward, back to the game itself. Players who aren’t interested in collecting all the toys can rest assured that they have one character that is uniquely their own.
Imaginators makes the customization process surprisingly easy, with intuitively organized categories and just the right amount of variety to make the pool of possibilities feel deep without the threat of getting lost in it a sea of options.
Your character is still open to reinterpretation, even after it has been made. You can change your Imaginator on the fly without a lot of menu management, and can constantly update the character’s gear, change its look, or even choose a catchphrase for your character to say throughout the game.
The only aspect of your character you can’t change on the fly is its class. The ten options range from variations on the traditional, melee-friendly brawler types, to quick, projectile spraying characters who favor a more hit-and-run style of play. Characters of different classes are limited to a defined set of weapons (pistols, bows, clubs, etc.), and each class has its own set of special abilities – chosen from a pool of abilities specific to that class – that it can use during gameplay.
Customization is occasionally limited: Some of the more powerful items feature minimum level requirements, which can impede your ability to play your way. Luckily those requirements are generally fairly low, so when you find a piece of gear in the game that’s intriguing, you can typically try it out immediately.
Any way you want it
Despite all of the focus on the custom characters in Imaginators, the game still shows tremendous respect for both the new line of toys introduced with the game and the hundreds of Skylanders figures introduced in earlier iterations. Where previous installments of the franchise favored characters in the latest toy line by making certain in-game encounters and activities only accessible to the most recent line of toys, the barriers to play with any Skylanders figure (even the custom characters) are few and far between in Imaginators. Players can easily alternate between custom characters, new toys, and toys from the earliest editions of the series without feeling much difference in the game experience.
The game still shows tremendous respect for the Skylanders figures introduced in earlier iterations.
In fact, Imaginators continues iterating on signature features of past Skylanders games, such as the vehicle racing levels from 2015’s Skylanders SuperChargers. None of the racing activities carried over from SuperChargers are integral to the main story, but the decision to create new tracks and carry over that multiplayer, competitive racing environment says a lot about the studio’s commitment to keeping its established fanbase happy and active with each iteration.
That’s not to say that everything is new and improved in Imaginators, however.
Although the game’s comparably simple controls and gameplay are typically regarded as one of the series’ strengths, they can backfire now and then in Imaginators, particularly when camera conflicts with the character’s relative position in the game’s 3D platforming environment. Six Skylanders games later, there will be a few times when you cannot see what lies on the other side of a gap you’re supposed to jump across.
Imaginators aggressive embrace of microtransactions has become intrusive. The game allows you to buy treasure chests filled with randomly generated in-game gear for custom characters, costing anywhere from $2-10. This isn’t inherently bad on its own — all of the items available in the chests can also be found in-game through standard gameplay — but the in-game advertising for these bundles pops up often. You’ll see it after you open all of the loot you’ve accumulated through playing the game, and then again during the occasional loading screen.Our Take
It’s rare to have a genuine sense of investment and ownership in the characters that carry us through a game experience, and Imaginators has done a remarkable job of making you feel like the character you create is yours and yours alone. Where other games let you take control of an existing character, Imaginators lets you create a character that you can build and evolve on your own terms, and even share it with the outside world if you want to do so (thanks to the aforementioned Creation Crystal, which stores the character data).
Fans of the franchise will find a lot to like in Imaginators, which offers players who already have a history with the series the chance to mix old favorites and fresh experiences. At the same time, Imaginators offers a great jumping-on point for anyone interested in the toys-to-life game model, as it offers a satisfying, complete experience.
Is there a better alternative?
Now that the Disney Infinity franchise has been canceled, the only major toys-to-life aside from Skylanders is the Lego Dimensions series, which features licensed characters from some well-known properties, but does not offer as much gameplay in its basic form as Imaginators and requires additional purchases to unlock more levels. With Imaginators, the bulk of the playable game is available from the start.
How long will it last?
Activision has not shown any sign that it would cut character compatibility from Skylanders.
Unlike its competitors in the toys-to-life genre, the Skylanders franchise has shown a commitment to keeping past toy lines relevant in future installments of the series, giving it a long-term appeal that stands apart from other game franchises.
Should you buy it?
Yes. Skylanders Imaginators is a worthwhile buy for newcomers to the franchise, longtime fans, and collectors, providing a great jumping-on point for the series that doesn’t require any additional toys.