The competition in the Toys to Life genre had been building and building over the last few years, as Skylanders was first joined by Disney Infinity and then by Lego Dimensions at the end of last year. After all that build up, 2016 could have been a quite titanic clash between the three, but with Disney Infinity no more and Lego Dimensions being supported through to next year, suddenly this year’s Skylanders Imaginators is the lone horse in the race.
But Imaginators would have in development long before those two key facts were known. They’ll have been able to pivot and adjust their plans, but this game is still essentially how Activision would have approached the market with two rivals going against them. So what does Imaginators bring to the table?
The big new twist to the Skylanders franchise this year is the ability to create your own Skylander. From the element to the class, their powers, different limbs and their personality of the Skylander, everything is up for change, as you play the game, and to quite a surprising degree; there’s nothing to stop you from playing as the shimmering star field form that is the starting point for your character, let alone creating monstrosities that would fit right in under Sid’s bed in the original Toy Story. You can always just hit the randomise button, as well.
Those myriad of possibilities only expand as you play the game and delve into the loot system that’s being added. Whether dropped from random enemies or from specific points in the levels, there’s an extra layer of things to hunt down in the game, to give you more options when you head back into the character customiser. Some of it will be cosmetic, or it could even be a new power that can be levelled up over time, with loot coming in four tiers of rarity. Toys for Bob have learnt well from the compelling gameplay loop at the heart of Destiny, it would seem.
There obviously has to be a physical component to this, to fit in with the rest of the Toys to Life gameplay, and these come in the form of elemental crystals. It’s this which forms the base of your character, and lets those characters be saved and taken to be played with on any other copy of the game. However, one thing that I feel is an oversight is the inability to save multiple characters or a particular look and style to return to later. Whether that’s locally on your console or if it can be facilitated in the crystal’s NFC chipset, it would take some of the sting out of the tail of having to buy and use a particularly nondescript toy, for want of a better term.
At least the thirty new Sensei characters will add something new and appealing to buy beyond the crystals. These are larger figures that add twenty new legendary Skylanders from the history of the Skylanders universe, alongside ten Senseis that used to be evil characters – such as Golden Queen – but have switched sides to mentor a new generation of heroes in the face of Kaos’ most dastardly plan yet.
You’ll get both a creation crystal and some of these Sensei in the game’s starter pack, and their meant to go hand in hand within the game. Putting a Sensei onto the portal increases the potential level cap of your custom character, for one thing, but each is also a master in one of the ten battle classes and can impart their wisdom to unlock new secret techniques for custom characters of the same class. They’ll give you a nice boost in the traditional light brawling platformer of the Skylanders games. At the same time, they hold the key to the Sensei Shrines, which are special loot drops that can only be accessed using a Sensei character of the right class.
With hundreds of toys out there already, they’re all still very much supported in Imaginators, even those that can be seen as gimmicks. The only exception would be the crystals from Trap Team, but last year’s Superchargers vehicles still feature in Imaginators, with dedicated driving sections and loaner vehicles in game if you don’t have one to hand that you can plonk onto the portal.
It’s a pretty big year for Skylanders, who get to set out their stall without competition for once. Activision are broadening the series’ horizons with a new digital card game that’s supported by real world card packs, as well as a new Skylanders Academy cartoon that will debut later this year, but they’re always going to revolve around the main series of video games.
In that context, putting the tools of creation in the hands of players and marrying it to the randomised loot drops that everyone both loves and hates in other games, Imaginators is a pretty unusual and unexpected twist on the series’ well known formula.