I think it’s probably considered a pretty lame cliche to compare any video game to “comfort food” at this point, but I have to admit, it’s one cliche I always find my mind coming back to. I’m always talking and thinking about how much room gaming still has to grow as a medium, but playing Skylanders Imaginators reminded me that not every game needs to reinvent the wheel.
Sometimes, there’s nothing better than sitting down for a simple, cozy evening with a game that offers little more than visceral pleasures. Perhaps the most interesting thing about Skylanders is how it takes those pleasures — which might otherwise stand out as cheap and repetitive — and cloaks them in new disguises to make them fun all over again. In this case, the customizable “Imaginators” of the title provide a whole new incentive to go romping and stomping through another series of hack-and-slash platforming levels.
As per usual for the franchise, though, the average player isn’t going to find much reason to play in the narrative — if they’re over 8 or 9 years old, anyway. It’s always been a bit irritating to me that Skylanders hasn’t had a bit more willingness to experiment with its story; sure, the toys and gameplay are still going to be front-and-center, but what do you have to lose by making the cutscenes more engaging?
Instead of invention, we get yet another rehash of the same old Saturday morning cartoon plot, with inept antagonist Kaos using the MacGuffin of the Week (this time the secrets of the Ancients that created the world) to try to destroy the Skylanders once and for all. I’m not quite sure why “inept villains” are such a trope in kids’ fare — if you’re going to play a story for laughs, they’d better be big laughs, and Kaos is as cringeworthy, generic and humorless as any cartoon baddie. Man, was this painful to sit through.
Thankfully, as I previously implied, the rest of the game more than makes up for any deficiencies in the story — mostly because of the new gimmick. The franchise has previously experimented with letting players take a crack at creating their own characters before, as with the multiple combinations available in Swap Force, but Skylanders Imaginators takes this concept and runs with it. By placing the new toys called “Creation Crystals” on the Portal of Power, the player is invited to create their very own Skylander using a number of different parts and special tools. This process begins with the new “Battle Class” system, which will look familiar to just about anyone who’s played an RPG before.
The classes are Bazooker, Bowslinger, Brawler, Knight, Ninja, Quickshot, Sentinel, Smasher, Sorcerer and Swashbuckler. Each class focuses on its own weapon type, e.g. swords for Knights and bows for Bowslingers, and each has access to a set of four unlockable Secret Techniques. Once you’ve chosen your class, you get to create your Imaginator using sets of pre-made parts and tools. At first, you’ve only got a small selection of body parts, weapons, armor and the like, but exploring the levels and completing various tasks and minigames will yield chests full of Imaginite (which come in the rarities Common, Rare, Epic and Ultimate), unlocking more and more parts for you to work with.
To say this is addictive is a pretty huge understatement. The appeal of placing Skylanders on the Portal and sending them into combat-filled platforming levels is great on its own, but the desire to squeeze every last collectible out of them — in the hopes of having more options for your Imaginators — is even better. In place of a story, this is what really got me invested in Skylanders Imaginators’ world: the completionist in me simply can’t resist watching that percentage on the pause screen go up.
The one downside to the Imaginators is that, at present, there doesn’t appear to be a way to reset the Creation Crystals. Upon selecting a Battle Class for your new Skylander, you’re warned that the decision will be permanent, and permanent it is — along with any levels and upgrades you earn in your time with the Imaginator. Of course, I understand the financial reasoning behind this decision; Activision would rather have you pony up another $10 to try out a new character than let you erase and create all you want with just one Crystal. Still, it’s kind of a bummer that you’d need 10 Creation Crystals just to get a shot at making an Imaginator of every Battle Class.
Of course, regular pre-made Skylanders are still very much a thing in Skylanders Imaginators, with the new Sensei toys rolling out a new way for players to interact with the environment. Each Sensei placed on the Portal will increase the level cap for your Imaginators, and there are a number of features and moves accessible only to these special characters. For example, ringing the Sensei-only Battle Gongs while you’re traversing through a level will start an arena-style minigame; defeat all the enemies and you’ll earn some Imaginite along with other goodies.
In addition, reaching a character’s particular Sensei Shrine will enable you to learn their special “Sky-Chi” move. My personal favorite is Wolfgang’s Crowd Surfer, in which he rides above the enemies on a sea of skeletal hands. Though the light-up effect on the Crystal toys is cool, I’m glad Activision saw fit to bring more of the standard characters on board — this round is full of memorable, cool figures like Buckshot, King Pen and Starcast.
When it comes to presentation, Skylanders Imaginators presents the same kind of slick, colorful worlds we’ve seen across the other games. The level designs themselves are pretty gorgeous in addition to being undeniably fun to explore, and the character designs — while not being particularly appealing to my personal art sensibilities — are detailed and exciting nonetheless. I can easily see how so many kids have become enraptured by these little guys.
If I might nitpick, though, I do wish the Skylanders franchise as a whole would learn to stop and smell the roses every once in awhile. Playing these games can feel overstimulating in the worst way: you’re constantly bombarded with announcements, loud sound effects, overacting characters and an onslaught of splashy graphical effects. I don’t expect there to be a zen-like peace in a series based on over-the-top action, but I wish I wasn’t always so keenly aware of the commercialism being shoved in my face. (I have to admit, I winced hard when Spyro directed me to a point on the map with a link to the online store.)
In any case, Skylanders Imaginators overcomes its weaknesses to be a fun — if ultimately mindless — exercise in toy-based hack-and-slash platforming. Completionists will have an absolute ball tracking down the Imaginator parts, and creative types will enjoy building the wackiest Skylanders possible out of those parts. I think I’d like to see the series take some more risks as it moves forward, if only to see what other ways the toys-to-life model can be applied, but this game is proof positive that you don’t need to reinvent the wheel to keep a series in its stride.
This review is based on the PS4 version of the game, which we were provided with.
Skylanders Imaginators doubles down on everything that makes the series addictive, with an appealing slate of new toys and a frankly ridiculous amount of collectible parts for the titular custom characters.