Platforms: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, Wii U, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
As the latest in a growing series of annualized sequels, Skylanders Imaginators carries itself surprisingly well. It has a clever hook, takes copious notes from most of its predecessors, and it easily offers the best replay value of the series so far. Even despite all of that, it can’t escape a certain cookie cutter quality that is sure to be noticed by long-time fans.
After all, the central thrust has become the trend of Skylanders games, ever since its first sequel, Giants. The diminutive villain Kaos has some new scheme for world “doom”-ination, and the Skylanders call upon the abilities of some heretofore unknown class of heroes that just happen to specialize in this latest plan’s Achilles heel. Be it the Swap Force, Trap Team, or SuperChargers, Skylands has more elite teams than G.I. Joe, with the toys to match.
This year, Kaos’ plan revolves around creating his own Doomlanders by tapping the power of creation, so naturally, the Skylanders counter it with their own league of DIY heroes, the Imaginators. This is the central gimmick of this year’s game, leading to some of its best and worst qualities.
Creating an Imaginator is a strangely addictive process. You choose an elementally-based Creation Crystal, then pick from one of several Battle Classes familiar to existing Skylanders types: ninja, quick draw, knight, etc. You can customize face and body types from dozens of options, select colors and paint themes, and even cook up your own catch phrase by combining pre-recorded phrases. You obtain more face and body parts by exploring the world, collecting random chests, activating new Skylanders figures, and if you’re truly desperate, buying random packs as microtransactions.
If Skylanders has always fashioned itself after old-school action-adventure games, collecting body parts in Imaginators finally fulfills the all-important loot drop element that has been missing from the series. Previously, taking a run through a stage could only reward you with in-game currency, which was essentially useless after you upgraded your Skylander, or bits and bobs like pieces for their CCG mini-games. Having body parts to collect makes for hundreds of items to seek out, even including familiar rarity tiers–Common, Rare, Epic, and Legendary–which alone boosts the replay value exponentially. You can also finally upgrade your Skylander on the go, rather than waiting to return to town, since the character body-swapping mechanic needed be available anywhere.
Unfortunately, the mix-and-match bodies also provide some drawbacks. If you have a Skylander in mind when you first purchase the game, you may be disappointed to find that the correct face or body you need to bring your imagination to life isn’t available without grinding for the right parts. Additionally, the Imaginators are locked to their battle class, so you need to be very sure of what type of fighter you want before you start creating. Plus, body shapes are more-or-less defined by the battle class, so all Swashbucklers, for example, will look roughly similar in shape and posture.
What’s worse, though, is that the Imaginators feel slow and underpowered compared to their usual Skylander counterparts. The other new figure type, Senseis, are meant to be seen as the ultimate examples of their respective battle classes. In practice, they’re the ones on-par with the usual Skylander progression ramp, and the ones that need to be relied on for tougher battles.
The Sensei figures also address another long-running criticism of the Skylanders series: their sub-par build quality. While the Creation Crystal models are boring on the whole, the Senseis are big, colorful, and stylized. Next to amiibo and the now-defunct Disney Infinity figures, Skylanders always looked cheap. These new Sensei figures don't quite achieve the same cohesive look, but they’re closer than the series has ever been.
Beyond that, Skylanders Imaginators is exactly what you’ve come to expect from the yearly installments. The core game is roughly 10 hours, with lots of extra areas to explore if you have the proper character type to unlock them. Most stages are straight-forward, punctuating battles with simplistic puzzles. It lacks the stage variety of a game like Superchargers, and occasionally when it does attempt a special vehicle segment, it quickly becomes dull. The boss fights stand out in this installment, particularly because each “Doomlander” gives out special pieces of gear for their battle classes.