Update March 2: Additional information about the Switch version of the game has been added to the bottom of the review.
I've always thought of the Skylanders series as gateway titles for the next generation of gamers, with the series' kid-friendly aesthetic and forgiving difficulty serving as gentle introductions to the wider world of games. Skylanders Imaginators is, in that sense, an obvious, almost inevitable next step. With Imaginators, the Skylanders go further along along the gaming evolutionary path, adding RPG-like staples such as full character customisation, loot drops, and a more complex stats system for your weapons/gear. It's a welcome move for the franchise, as it adds a compelling twist to the tried-and-true Skylanders formula.
It's an twist that's ended up being the redeeming quality for for this latest instalment. Imaginators is, at its core, a pretty standard action platformer, and it comes up lacking when compared to the more varied and vividly imaginative recent games in the series (Superchargers and Trap Team). But that new level of customisation and the ability to constantly tinker with your character makes it feel like a different experience. This makes Imaginators the most interesting Skylanders to play in years, even if it's not the most fun.
It all starts with characters, or in this case, the ability to create your own Skylander from scratch. To create a Skylander, you're going to need a creation crystal, one of the new sets of physical toys that will debut with this year's game. Like other Skylander toys, placing a creation crystal on the real-world Skylanders portal will bring whatever character is saved onto the crystal into your game. Each crystal has a specific element attached to it (such as life, earth, undead, and so on), and the first thing you'll have to choose is what class you want your new Skylander to be. These classes fit gaming's broad archetypes such as brawlers, ranged specialists, mages, and more, and are forever locked once you make your initial decision (you can, however, change your character's looks at any time).
This is where the tricky topic of commerce in the Skylanders series enters the conversation. Choosing a character class is actually a pretty big decision in Imaginators, as the classes are distinct enough that your playstyle will be impacted by class. I played most of the game as a Bazooker class, which specialises in ranged explosives, and switching over to a more melee-focused Brawler class at certain points forced me to significantly alter my approach to combat situations. Of course, with your class locked to a creation crystal, you'll need to buy more if you want to play as any of the others. Buying new toys to experience more of the game is a Skylanders tradition, and while there's a huge amount of content here that can be accessed with just the basic starter packs, that commercial element of the franchise remains the same.
To its credit, the game doesn't limit your ability to change how your character looks at any point. Imaginators doesn't quite have the same level of customisation depth as say, something like a WWE 2K17 or a Skyrim, but what is there is pretty expansive. You can choose body parts from a wide selection of preset choices, tinker with the coloring of individual pieces, select the pitch and tone of your character's voice, change their battle music, and more. All of this customisation makes for a system where you can create a Skylander that feels pretty unique, and that you can easily get attached to because of the level of care you can pour into its creation. My favorite piece of customisation was the ability to change catchphrases; it always brought a smile to my face every time Nuggets, my Bazooker character, screamed out "I'm crazy for my muscles" before heading into battle.
Your created characters can equip weapons and gear, and while gear isn't anything new in a Skylanders game, the frequency of drops has significantly increased, making the loot experience here more akin to a less intense version of a Diablo or Destiny. Defeating bosses, completing objectives, or even just making it to certain areas all result in dropped chests that contain loot (ranked common, rare, epic, or ultimate), and this loot isn't restricted to just gear. New body parts, catchphrases, and even sound effects will also drop, giving you the option to continually tinker with your character's look if you feel the urge to do so.
My seven-year-old son--who I played a lot of the Imaginators campaign with--certainly did, and he would continually (or more accurately, annoyingly) stop to equip a new shoulder guard, or swap in a new tail for his character, or change the size and shape of said character completely. As for me, the tinkering became fairly infrequent as the game wore on. Outside of the novelty of a cool new body part, I found little reason to swap out gear and weapons (the only things that actually make a difference to your character's stats) after the halfway point in the game, thanks to generous drops that bestowed several ultimate-level pieces of loot fairly early on. A better, more restrictive loot drop system would make Imaginators a more compelling experience for grown-up gamers, but from my focus group of one (ie, my son), the target audience seems to be in love with the constant stop-and-swap feel that this game provides.
It's a pity, then, that all of this customisation is limited to your created characters, and not to the wider cast of both new and existing Skylanders. There's no way to equip any of the dropped gear or weapons on any non-player created characters, so any old Skylander toys you may have don't benefit from the most significant additions that Imaginators brings. The new range of figures released for this year's game--called Senseis--do feature special ultimate moves that are both flashy and impactful, but compared to the cool new personalisation options you have with created characters, the Senseis and any plain old Skylanders come off as rather dull.
If it wasn't for the customisation options and the constant allure of what the next loot drop will bring, Imaginators too would come off as a little dull. That's not to say it's boring; Imaginators' lengthy campaign is a pleasing enough romp, but it's one that leans a little heavily on tried and true action platformer tropes. Simple puzzles, basic platforming, and multi-stage boss fights abound, and there are only a few instances where Imaginators breaks out of this traditional mold. It's not groundbreaking in any sense, and certainly feels like the most rote Skylanders experience in a while.
A better, more restrictive loot drop system would make Imaginators a more compelling experience for grown-up gamers.
But that new level of character personalisation elevates Imaginators from being decidedly average. The game also allows you to take your character into the real world, with a phone app that allows you take your console creation and order actual t-shirts, physical cards (that contains your character data and act like a Skylander toy when you place it on a portal), and even a 3D-printed toy (apparently in very limited quantities). It's not something I've tried yet, but given the close bond I feel with my character Nuggets, it may be something I do soon. With Imaginators, the Skylanders series isn't pushing any gaming boundaries, but at least it has character.
Update March 2: Skylanders Imaginators is being released as one of the Nintendo Switch's launch titles, and in terms of features and content it's similar to its other console platforms. What is different, though, is how you interact with the game's physical toys. The Switch version of Imaginators has no physical portal, and instead you'll use the Switch controllers' built-in NFC reader to scan in your toys/characters. The characters will then be added to your roster, and can be accessed at any point during the game without having to rescan them in. The advantage, of course, is that it plays to the mobile nature of the Switch, allowing you to take Imaginators on the road without having to lug all your Skylander toys with you. The downside is the loss of that important, tactile feel of swapping your toys as your mood takes you. It slightly lessens that connection you have with the physical, toy side of the franchise, but doesn't impact the overall quality of the game itself.