Skylanders Imaginators was born conceptualized in a different environment than its eventual release. As the progenitor of the toys-to-life genre, the series was facing competition from all sides with heavy-hitting franchises like Disney, Marvel, Star Wars, Lego, and Warner Bros. Imaginators seems directly responsive to these challenges, resulting in a strange and satisfying mixture that can't quite escape the curse of annualized familiarity.
Don't Imagine Dragons
Each new Skylanders game carries its own gimmick, and Imaginators revolves around the titular character customization–which read to me as a response to competitors with a more recognizable stable of characters. You're put in charge of making some of your own from a mix-and-match bucket of body parts, facial features, and voice types. You begin with an elemental type, as defined by your "Creation Crystal" toy, and then you determine one of several battle classes from familiar Skylanders types: Quickshot, Bowcaster, Knight, etc.
The conceit does give it a great degree of variety, but even so, it's not as customizable as you might expect. All of the Imaginators are essentially bipedal, humanoid creations, with some slight differences to their proportions. That means you can't create a four-legged dragon, a mainstay in Skylanders thanks to its roots in the Spyro series. Plus, some body types are just too rigid, as I discovered when trying to make a Ninja-type that wasn't a gigantic head with a tiny body.
Imaginator parts are unlocked through chests. Some specific parts are given as rewards for owning a particular Skylander or completing a special task, but more often they're doled out in random packs. That lends itself to microtransactions, with a store prompt waiting at the end of the row of chests when you go to open a large set. This gives the Diablo-like loot loop of Skylanders more substance, since now you can be rewarded with more than just coins. On the other hand, this also means that you can't necessarily design the Imaginator you want to right from the start, because you may need to unlock the correct parts first.
More disappointing than the bodies, though, were the powers. I've always loved the Skylanders progression loop, which takes the diminuative heroes from relatively week to extremely versatile and powerful. A Skylander's core moveset is constantly given greater power, more projectiles, and different effects as you upgrade them. As a function of their customization, Imaginators are more limited. Characters are given a mix of abilities based on their element and battle class, and you can select one per button at a time. The variety is nice, but it also means each one of the powers has only one upgrade.
This makes Imaginators feel underpowered on the whole. Even with relatively high-level ones and all of my upgrades purchased, my ability to deal with enemies and bosses was equivalent to around the early-to-mid-game in most other Skyanders games, far from the nimble and powerful late-game characters I had grown accustomed to. A game so heavily centered around making your own dream character should have optimized that wish fulfillment to make your creation feel appropriately powerful by the end, but that quality is lacking.
Instead, the strength I've come to expect from real Skylanders comes in the form of Senseis, figurines on the scale of Skylanders Giants, each of which are masters of an individual battle class. These have a more traditional upgrade path, and a fully decked-out Sensei could easily run rings around a boss that I struggled with using a higher-level Imaginator. These figurines are especially detailed, as well, in stark contrast to the smaller, cheaper-looking Skylanders of years past.
Out with the Old
Maybe as a result of the sheer growing mass of Skylanders games, though, the level design here is particularly uninspired. Most maps are simple A-to-B affairs, with some simplistic puzzles dotting the landscape. It carries some legacy issues, like the frustratingly slow block-pushing puzzles, and the inability to easily read ahead when characters are slowly delivering their dialogue points. Plus the central hub, called M.A.P.S., is a bit more confusing than most of the past hub worlds, since it consists of several floating islands without obvious paths between them.
That's not to say it's absent quality-of-life improvements, though. The ability to swap out your character customization brought the added benefit of allowing you to upgrade your powers at any time, even among the Sensei characters. Gone are the days that you'd have to head back to town and approach Persephone, who would ask if you're "ready for another magical upgrade" in the same grating, chirpy voice you've heard a thousand times. Finally.
For all its focus on customization, Skylanders Imaginators feels fairly paint-by-number. It makes some smart improvements, and its creation gimmick is oddly addictive despite some of its design drawbacks. Even so, this is the sixth entry in a long-running series, and it's showing its age. The level of customization in Imaginators is probably enough to tide over the hardcore Skylanders fans for a while, so perhaps it's time for Activision's rotating Skylanders studios to take a break and slow down.
This review is based on a PlayStation 4 retail copy and several figurines provided by the publisher. Skylanders Imaginators is available now, for $74.99. Creation Crystals cost $9.99, and Sensei figures cost $14.99. The game is rated E-10+.