It’s been five years since Activision’s first Skylanders game revolutionised gaming with the introduction of toy-to-life gameplay, using toys to unlock in-game characters and accessories. Love or hate it, Toys for Bob undoubtedly struck gold with Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure in 2011, and as a result Activision decided to give it the Call of Duty treatment, and after the release of Skylanders: Giants in 2012, they started rotating developers between Vicarious Visions and Toys for Bob. Following the annualisation of the series though, the inevitable dip in sales seems to have begun with last year’s Skylanders: SuperChargers and the fact that the toys-to-life genre itself has seem to have taken a hit, resulting in the closure of Disney Infinity and its developer Avalanche Software earlier this year. Have Toys for Bob and Activision stepped up their game for this year’s Skylanders installment, or is the franchise doomed to fall further and further out of the spotlight Guitar Hero-style?
This year the new gimmick in Skylanders is the introduction of Imaginators. Imaginators are custom characters that are made by choosing a battle class and element type, followed by customising the characters’ features such as a list of pre-set head, body and limb types and choosing the colour and sizes of these pieces. The characters can also equip armour to increase their stats in-game, adding more RPG mechanics to the series. The level of customisation is actually deeper than I expected going in, even allowing you to choose a voice and catchphrase for your character. The catchphrases are cut into two sections, so the outcome can end up sounding a little robotic, but if you make the right collaboration, you shouldn’t have anything to worry about.
Also introduced in Skylanders: Imaginators are Sensei figures. Sensei’s take the form of much larger, more detailed figures that can be used to teach Imaginators new skills. These are essentially more powerful Skylanders that can be used to unlock certain exclusive areas and challenges in-game, as well as having 10 challenge levels specifically for every elemental type of these characters, which you will need to buy more of outside of the starter pack to complete. This is odd considering that one of the best parts of the previous games’ designs was that you can complete them without having to buy anything outside of the starter pack, but buying extra figures did help unlock extra content in levels, which holds true in Skylanders: Imaginators, but it feels like even more is locked away from the player this time. This isn’t helped by the fact that the Sensei characters are so overpowered compared to the regular characters from the previous games that you’ll find very little use for them in the story mode of this game. I had a level 1 Spyro that I attempted to try and use in the story mode in a section that required a fire character and got utterly destroyed by the surrounding enemies. This only helps to alienate newcomers to the series.
The story this time around is that the recurring villain, Kaos, has discovered ‘Mind Magic’, an energy used by the Ancients to create Skylands, and uses this to create his own army of ‘Doomlanders’. Master Eon now commissions the Portal Masters to create an army of Imaginators to be trained by his master class of Sensei’s to stop Kaos and bring peace back to Skylands.
Coming off of the new Netflix original animated series, Skylanders Academy, I expected the story of Imaginators to be more fleshed out with more tongue-in-cheek humour similar to the show. This is completely absent though. Although the story does have its admittedly chuckle-worthy moments, every time a cutscene appeared during gameplay I found myself mashing the appropriate button to skip it. Cutscenes decide to prominently appear during gameplay, especially bosses, instead of between levels or before/after them. This only becomes frustrating as the game goes on, and most of them are just Kaos trying to deliver a witty line or two, but it’s not worth disrupting gameplay over.
The main gameplay of Skylanders is still strong here, cleverly combining platforming, combat, and puzzle solving with a great skill tree and RPG mechanics, but level design has taken a hit here as a lot of the levels outstay their welcome before too long. Racing stages from Skylanders: SuperChargers return and are compatible with the new characters, these are fun stages that offer a nice contrast to the platforming stages and add a good amount of content to the game. The gameplay in Skylanders: Imaginators is overall a mixed bag of good and bad game design that may go over youngsters’ heads but will inevitably have you spending a lot of money just to access a decent amount of content outside of the main story.
Being one of the only game franchises to have games still releasing on the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, Imaginators is definitely not the nicest looking game on the current generation of consoles. As a matter of fact, during in-game cutscenes the animation and character models look very outdated and unpolished. In gameplay though, the game looks pretty nice. Coming off of Ratchet & Clank early this year, it is underwhelming in comparison, but it definitely doesn’t look bad. One thing that bothered me quite a bit was the lack of subtitles in cutscenes though, I’m just somebody who generally plays with subtitles on, it’s just what I prefer and I imagine it will bother other players.
Skylanders: Imaginators introduces an interesting new mechanic in the character customisation and evolves the series’ gameplay formula by bringing back the racing elements from SuperChargers and evolving the subtle RPG mechanics, but these are plagued by an uninteresting story, bad game design for a toys-to-life game, and underwhelming visuals. The game alienates newcomers more than any other game in the series up until now by catering a bit too much to longtime fans.
However, if you’re a fan of Crash Bandicoot and are interested in trying the Thumpin’ Wumpa Islands Adventure Pack, then you will definitely find a ton of fun to be had. Developed separately by Crash Bandicoot series veterans Vicarious Visions, the level pack includes a ton of fan-service and love for the 20th anniversary of PlayStation’s long-lost mascot. Sadly, it isn’t the longest experience in the world, so it may not be worth buying the entire starter pack over, but when it’s released separately then I highly recommend it as it was the highest point in my experience with this game.
Developer: Toys For Bob
Platforms: PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, Wii-U
Release Date: 14th October 2016