The Skylanders games, which let you guide quirky characters through colorful levels to antagonize a cackling villain, probably aren’t for you, or at least not you playing solo. I don’t mean that as a slight. They’re definitely for someone. Just not the someones I suspect are reading these words. Bear that in mind as I’m relaying my impressions of Skylanders Imaginators, this fall’s entry in Activision and Toys for Bob’s wireless figurine mega-franchise, out October 16 for current and last-gen consoles.
Put another way, toy-to-life games investigated by fortysomethings benefit from playing with kids. I’ve thus been working through Imaginators with my 4-year-old son, who’s over the moon because, well, video games. And while story banter that includes words like “indigenous” goes whoosh, he’s a quick study on controls that cater to elementary play. Consider, for instance, that the camera in these games auto-follows your Skylander, freeing players with smaller hands or problems juggling simultaneous inputs to focus on directional maneuvering and button-mashing.
Imaginators‘ hook is to let you finally roll your own Skylanders. It’s no small thing. In past years, you’d buy a starter pack, fiddle with the included figurines, then maybe round out your collection by purchasing a few more. But you had to abide by strict character templates and gimmicks of a given year’s vintage. With Imaginators, Activision has uncorked the bottle, letting you draft your own heroes from scratch, then wirelessly stash them in tiny element-themed crystals.
Pluck one of those crystals from the Imaginators starter pack, then drop it on the bundled portal, and it’ll pulse like a tiny heart. This conjures a celestial creation screen that lets you choose from any of 10 battle classes that cater to archetypal combat fantasies (ninja, swashbuckler, bowslinger and so on). The battle class plus your element type (air, water, tech, undead, etc.) dictates what sort of weapons and abilities your Skylander can equip. It’s a lot to chew on, something like 100 base permutations, and that’s before you’ve drilled into the powers, weapons and armor types.
But where I suspect kids will spend the most time tinkering is with the “look” and “personality” subsections. Here, you’re incentivized to build the weirdest thing possible, say a squat ninja with the head of a raggedy doll, a bird’s tail, ram horn ears, the voice of a clown-mouse, a disco-funk theme song and a catchphrase cobbled together by pairing words like “Be afraid” and “of the bananas!” Judging from my son’s rowdy reactions to all our goofball combinations, I’d say this may be Imaginators’ premiere accomplishment.
In action, you’re looking at the novelty of these do-it-yourself heroes weighed against classic Skylanders hack-and-slash levels. You trudge through areas divvied into battle vignettes, linked by simple puzzles that might have you push a few blocks in sequence to declutter a path or step on buttons to shift walls in a maze. As you progress, you stockpile “Imaginite” chests, which unlock additional options in the creation tool. The creation tool can be summoned at any time during play, a smart decisions that lets players retool their Skylanders on the fly with immediate, tangible benefits. Don a piece of serious speed-boosting armor, for instance, and your previously tiptoe-slow character will zip around the world like a tap-dancer on amphetamines.
To keep the experience grounded in franchise lore, the story is now delivered by series icons like Spyro the Dragon. And to keep parents spending money, Activision has added new figurines called Sensei: larger, fully-playable Skylanders that flesh out the creation tool by unlocking additional perks like special powers and secondary attacks, or raising the game’s overall maximum level cap.
My only worry is that picking a battle class during character creation is permanent. You can’t reset Imaginators‘ crystals. Once you’ve picked a ninja or swashbuckler or bowslinger, that’s it, the crystal is locked. There’s no technical reason this had to be the case, and it feels dissonant in a setup that’s already incentivizing kids to buy the extra Sensei figures and adventure packs to round out their collections.
Full disclosure, if I didn’t have kids, I’m not sure how into the Skylanders games I’d be. They’re aimed at a demographic I haven’t been part of for decades. Even playing at the higher difficulty settings, which I’ve been doing on my solo time, Skylanders Imaginators is no Diablo III.
And that’s fine, because Diablo III to a child is also no Skylanders Imaginators.