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Every year, the Skylanders franchise needs a new hook. That’s the problem with annualised releases: the frequency of their iterations creates the necessity for rapid and sometimes forced innovation. Last year we had vehicles added to Skylanders; the year before we had traps to catch and then play as the bad guys; the year before that, we had mix-and-match Skylanders characters in Swap Force. This year, you’re making your own Skylanders.

If that sounds cool, it’s because it is. It’s also not, once you realise that every time you want to make a new Skylander, you’re going to be forking out at least R180 on a new Creation Crystal toy.

Game info

Skylanders: Imaginators is great. It’s a Skylanders game, so if you head in expecting a VERY well thought out and designed kids game, then you won’t be disappointed. The series has always been and remains one of the best kids’ game franchises on the planet. The gameplay is simple but solid; the toys-to-life angle is always refreshed to keep it enticing for kids and expensive for parents; there’s very often not much to fault aside from the perpetual capitalistic nature of the whole toys-to-life blueprint. But while Imaginators is definitely an exceptionally good Skylanders experience, it’s also the most avaricious in its pursuit to get you to spend money.

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In Imaginators you get to make your own Skylanders. The plot premise behind this is that the ever lovably inept antagonist Kaos has unlocked the creative power of The Ancients to create Doomlanders. Luckily for Eon and the rest of the Skylanders crew, a new league of Sensei Skylanders arrive to teach you (the Portal Master) how to create Imaginators to fight Kaos’s Doomlanders. The Sensei Skylanders make up the new wave of 31 collectible Skylanders figures for this year’s game. In addition to the Sensei toys, you’ll need to purchase Creation Crystals to house your Imaginators creations, and to bring them into your game.

The starter pack ships with one Creation Crystal, and the moment you place it on your Portal, you’ll need to assign a Battle Class to the Imaginator. There are ten Battle Classes to choose from, and these basically dictate how your Imaginator will fight. When my son and I were playing, he chose the Bowslinger Battle Class for his Imaginator, which meant we’d be creating an Imaginator with a bow and various ranged attacks. Each Battle Class has its own set of attacks to unlock, with many of those attacks being upgradable. The one issue is that you need to make sure of your Battle Class choice, because once you’ve assigned a Battle Class to a Creation Crystal, it’s permanent. Yep, you can’t reset the Creation Crystals to try another Battle Class. This means that if you want to create Imaginators for each of the Battle Classes, you’re going to spend close on R2000 for ten new Creation Crystals if you don’t buy bundle packs of the things. Also bear in mind that the Creation Crystals are elemental, which adds another layer of collections if you want all the possible combinations.

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This was the Imaginator that my kid created. He called her Sleelee… because that’s a cool name when you’re four years old I guess.

The good news is that the Imaginator Creator system is great, and there are tons of customisable options unlocked right from the word go. My son had a ball swapping out different torsos and heads and tails to create his ideal Skylander Imaginator. Add in the fact that you can customise their gear loadout, their catchphrase, colour palettes, and even their sound effect types and music types means that the Imaginator one ends up with is very likely to be unique.

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These are the Creation Crystals. Officially you can’t reset them, but there’s a workaround that uses a 3DS, the original Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventures, a 5-year-old portal, and the blood of two chickens.

Naturally, as you play through the game, you’ll unlock a bajillion new customisation pieces. Another addition to the series is item rarity. Just like in many RPG games, your Imaginators can find equipment of various rarity. It’s instantly familiar to anyone who has played titles like World of Warcraft and the like. There are even item sets to find that then yield a final unique item with serious stat boosting potential. I liked this new system because it’s kind of like a gentle introduction for kids to a core RPG mechanic. Suddenly finding a chest to unlock in the game yields that same jolt of anticipation one finds in Diablo III.

Unfortunately, this new item rarity system is also where the capitalist side of Skylanders crops up once again: microtransactions. If the lure of hunting for purple, green and yellow item drops becomes too much, Activision has built-in microtransactions for loot chests. It costs R39 for three chests, with a guarantee of at least one Ultimate (ie: legendary) item; R94 will get you 9 chests with 2 to 4 Ultimate drops; and if you’re feeling rich you can blow R175 on 20 chests, with a guaranteed 7 Ultimate items. Ordinarily I wouldn’t really have an issue with microtansactions, but this is a kids’ game. It’s also a kids’ game that’s built on a mechanic of already needing to spend extra money on additional toys. Adding in microtransactions, and having in-game characters actively point them out and guide players to the in-game store (I’m not even kidding) feels a little exploitative in my opinion.

But as with all the Skylanders games before, it’s entirely possible to have a wonderful experience with the starter pack alone. Despite your Creation Crystal getting locked into one Battle Class, you are still able to customise and upgrade the attacks of your Imaginator whenever you want to and as many times as you want to. The same goes for all your previous Skylander toys: you now don’t have to wait to find Persephone the upgrade fairy in the Hub world; you can just pull up the in-game menu and unlock new abilities straight away.

Skylanders: Imaginators is, despite the in-your-face methods to get you (or your kids) to spend money, still an excellent game. The combat is fun and varied when you’re swapping in numerous Skylanders of different abilities and styles. The voice-acting and characterisations continue to be outstanding. The enemy design is incredible (the undead Chompies are just so cool) as is the varied level locations that you experience throughout the game. The Skylanders trademark humour that straddles puerile kid jokes and puns that only adults will pick up on, continues to be enjoyable; I particularly loved the Arena commentating by the characters Broccoli Guy and Chill Bill. The whole package is pure, top-shelf, kid gaming material, and one that I can wholeheartedly recommend.

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The Companion App

Toys for Bob and Activision released an Imaginator Creator app alongside the game. It’s free to download and it gives you access to the Skylander creation suite. Unfortunately, your item unlockskylanders_imaginators_starter_packs in the main game don’t carry over to your app’s set of unlocks, which means you’re reliant on daily loot chest drops to bolster your creation items in the app. Luckily they don’t cost anything.

One clever piece if wizardry allows you to send your Imaginator from the main game onto your mobile device to customise in the App. This happens without Internet access too, because the game converts your customised Imaginator into a series of audible chirps, beeps and whistles that play out of your TV’s speaker. Your mobile device then listens to the audible code via the microphone, and rebuilds your Imaginator in the app. It works well. Sadly, it doesn’t work the other way around: you can’t customise your Imaginator in the app and then send it back to your game. I’m guessing this is due to TVs not having microphones in them, but if that’s the case then I’m not sure why Activision and Toys for Bob didn’t just build in a microphone into the new Portal device.

 

Another nice feature of the App is that it allows you to order a physical, 3D printed model of your Imaginator… if you live in the US. Unfortunately, the $50 physical figurines are not available to us here in South Africa, but you are still able to order T-shirts with your Imaginator on them, or an NFC enabled card with printed picture and stats of your Imaginator. The card can then be place on the Portal to bring your app Imaginator into the game. That costs $15 and by the looks of it, shipping is free. Of course, it’d be cheaper and faster to just buy another Creation Crystal and recreate your App Imaginator in the actual game instead.

80I’ve got a softspot for this franchise despite my misgivings about the series’ preoccupation with finding as many ways as possible to get you to spend more money. Skylanders continues to effortlessly blend rock-solid gameplay with innovation in the Toys-to-life genre. My son had a blast creating the most bizarre-looking and silly Imaginators, and the layers of customisation certainly add a feeling of ownership towards the creations one comes up with. Handing the creative reins over to players is a smart move, and one that will allow this aging franchise to push on for at least another year.