I want to hate the latest iteration of Skylanders for what it represents in the relationship between the gamer and the industry in 2016’s gaming landscape, I really do. The fact of the matter, honestly, is that there’s always been a solid and well-designed game experience underneath the myriad layers of cash-grabbing that make up the annual Skylanders titles, and Skylanders: Imaginators might represent the best the series has to offer.
This entry goes in a slightly different direction; rather than adding new gimmicks to the series as we saw in Swap Force, Trap Team and Superchargers, Imaginators frees you from the tyranny of developer-created toys, allowing you to create your own Skylanders and bring them to life ingame.
You’ll do this by buying more toys, of course! Creating your own Imaginator is as easy as plunking down $15 for a Creation Crystal figure and plunking that down on the latest model of the Portal of Power, the USB-compatible contraption that makes the magic possible. Once you’ve done that, you’re taken directly to the character creation menu. You’ll choose a Battle Class for your new Skylander, which will determine your character’s weapons, skills and, in some cases, their body shape as well; this can range from the diminutive Ninja to the dual-blade-wielding Swashbuckler to the rocket-launching Bazooker to the bow-slinging Bowslinger.
Pick a class, customize your dude using any number of available options and you’re good to go! You can even choose special sound effects, a unique catchphrase and sparkly, shiny auras for your new pal. Imaginators loves to dole out more customization options as you play, so it’s nice that you’re able to mess around with your Imaginator pretty much at whim. Naturally, if you don’t want to deal with any of this nonsense, Imaginators continues to support pretty much every toy released for the past billion Skylanders releases, so toss your old plastic on the portal and hop to it. You can even use traps from Trap Team if you still have that portal laying around, though trapped villains are only playable in a minigame and not in the full game.
What if you want even more new plastic to go with your old plastic, though? You’re in luck, because you’re going to need Senseis for your Imaginators to reach their full potential. Senseis are the new main-line figures and come on big, fancy bases in big, fancy black boxes, you can’t miss ’em. You’ll want to buy a bunch. Spend that money, spend it all! In fact, if you still have money left after a Creation Crystal and Sensei spend-a-thon, you can buy even more crap thanks to Imaginators’ ingame purchases! If you want more parts for your Imaginators and you don’t want to play the game to get them, then go ahead and pony up. I’m not even joking, this game about buying stuff now allows you to buy stuff from within the game itself to use with the other stuff you bought. We’ve reached purchaseception.
Okay, so you’ve bought tons and tons and tons of stuff. Nice job! Have fun finding somewhere to store it when you’re done. For now, though, plop it on the Portal and get to playing. Skylanders remains a Ratchet and Clank-esque brawler with light action elements. Your favorite Skylander – who, let me remind you, might be one you made yourself – runs around smashing everything as a deep, booming voice announces that you’ve leveled up and, when appropriate, the name of something you’re about to smash. It’s not the most cerebral game out there, but games that vie to be the most cerebral tend to kind of suck anyway (hello, Virginia), so there aren’t many complaints when it comes to Imaginators’ gameplay.
There’s actually a surprising amount of depth when it comes to running around and smashing stuff! Your Imaginators have a bunch of skills that vary based on their Battle Class and elemental affinity, plus they can learn more from Senseis. Those Senseis, meanwhile, can upgrade in quite a few different ways, including a branching path option for each Skylander, and they can even learn special Sky-Chi mass destruction skills as you play. It’s kind of awesome, actually, though again it all boils down to mashing buttons and watching everything explode while cartoon characters quip about it. It’s still awesome enough to make you want to see what other Senseis can do. Better go buy some more…
The plot, such as it is, is present and standard. Kaos is back. He’s doing bad stuff! Stop him by smashing all his stupid crap, including, eventually, his stupid face. Smash his stupid face AS Kaos if you want, because he’s also a Sensei, you can just go out and buy him! Kaos’ gimmick now consists of summoning Doomlanders, which are goofy Imaginators that offer new parts and catchphrase when you beat the hell out of them. Hope you’ve got a free Creation Crystal to use those new parts, otherwise it’s back to the store. The usual cast of characters, such as Spyro, Stealth Elf, Flynn and so on are also present, accounted for and making jokes that parents will probably appreciate more than their younglings as they play, same as they always do.
Look, we all know that this kind of thing is exploitative and dumb and the gaming landscape would probably be better off if it never existed. On the other hand, it totally does and you can totally smash all kinds of crap with a crap-smasher you designed yourself; plus if you’re into video games you’ve probably got loads of disposable income anyway. Alternatively, you might have kids, in which most case your formerly disposable income is going to them one way or the other so you might as well channel it through something like Skylanders: Imaginators. It’s cheaper than a puppy and kind of fun in a “we know parents are going to be wrangled into playing this with their kids so let’s make it as painless as possible” kind of way.