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Review: ‘Skylanders: Imaginators’ has plenty of character, if you can afford it

“Skylanders Imaginators” lets you design and create your own figures.

My toddler can’t remember their real names, but he’s already got a few favorite Skylanders. Tomato Guy (Food Fight), Horn Guy (Tree Rex) and Scary Car (Crypt Crusher) are currently in vogue, but he’ll play with any of the figures if given the chance.

That’s because the “toys” part of Activision’s toys-to-life juggernaut are pretty awesome. Unlike Disney Infinity (R.I.P.), every Skylander was created out of thin air. No licensing, no lore, no movie tie-ins. These monsters have to stand on their own, and thanks to an incredibly gifted design team, most of them do.

The downside is that following the “Skylanders” franchise costs a small fortune. New toys are required to unlock sections of the adventure packed in each associated “Skylanders” game. It’s a racket, for sure, and one that has paid off handsomely for its publisher.

This year, though, Activision and developer Toys for Bob made a curious decision to make the collecting secondary to creation. The result, “Skylanders: Imaginators,” is the first game in the franchise that encourages you to make your own monster and play with it. It’s a smart move that meshes nicely with the game’s kid-friendly gameplay, though the whole experience is a bit long in the tooth, and thanks to some devious design decisions, rough on the finances, too.

That’s because even creating characters requires some plastic. In this case, they’re called “Creation Crystals.” Stick one on the portal of power and you can create your own Skylander. You start off with a pretty hefty number of parts to swap in and out, tweaking physical appearance, gear, and even voice pitch using an intuitive creation tool. That creature is then saved to the Crystal, able to level up and be warped in and out of the game like regular Skylanders.

Of course, it’s a little shadier than that. Irritatingly, each Crystal is tied to one of the game’s 10 elements and can only hold one creature. When you build your Skylander, you choose from one of 10 Battle Classes, and that choice cannot be changed once you lock it in, nor can your Skylander be deleted from the Crystal. So if you built a Fire Brawler but wish you made a Fire Swashbuckler, too bad – you’ll need to grab another $10 Creation Crystal to make a new one.

That’s pretty lousy. You don’t get to test out the various classes at all, so it’s a bit of a blind choice. Why can’t you just delete your character and start a new one? Presumably Activision is concerned you won’t go buy more Crystals, though the fact that each Crystal only holds one creature seems like enough incentive to buy more. Preventing kids from experimenting with Battle Classes is punitive, backwards and, ultimately, greedy.

But provided you dig the class you chose, “Skylanders: Imaginators” does a great job feeding you gear to make your creation bigger, stronger and faster. Accomplishing tasks yields loot chests that hold all sorts of items, from fancy new weapons and armor to new sound effects and body parts. The hunt for Epic and Ultimate loot is the driving force behind Imaginators, and it’s enormously effective. “Skylanders” has always tipped its hat to Blizzard’s legendary role-playing series, but Imaginators truly is My First “Diablo. ”

And true to form, Toys for Bob has delivered another loud, colorful adventure. “Skylanders: Imaginators” does a marvelous job toeing the line with its wry sense of humor; this is truly a game kids and parents can play together. The action is smooth and warping toys in and out is still a blast. It looks terrific, as usual, and while the forgettable story sort of zips all over the place, the presence of franchise icons like Spyro (remember him?) and Stealth Elf keep it centered for young fans.

A word of warning, however. “Imaginators” is the first game in the franchise to push microtransactions, and it’s a bit unseemly. After opening up all currently collected loot chests, it’s extremely easy to accidentally press X one extra time and wind up in the store, spending real-world money to buy more chests. Considering the young demographic, it’s a dodgy upsell. Parents, consider yourself warned.

“Skylanders” has always been a game about gating (ie. you can’t enter an area without having a Skylander of the right element or class) and “Imaginators” continues that with its new Sensei characters. You get two of those, plus one Creation Crystal, in the game’s Starter Pack ($75), but if you want to see the entire game, you’ll need to buy more.

It’s tempting enough as is — the Sensei are big, beautifully built action figures — but Activision takes it a step too far by tying the level cap of your created character to the number of Sensei you own. Each new Sensei increases your created character’s level cap by one, so if you only own the two that came with the Starter Pack, you’re limiting how powerful your created character can become. It’s another unnecessary aggravation designed, it seems, to drive you to the store so your kid doesn’t have a tantrum.

Already flush with monetization schemes, Activision and Toys for Bob developed a new one that’s actually pretty cool. Players can transfer their creation to an iOS or Android device and then order t-shirts, cards, and even legit 3D-printed versions of their characters that work just like store-bought Skylanders. It’s a cool idea, and the tech powering the data transfer between console and phone is brilliant. While it’s yet another way to separate you from your money, transforming digital creations into physical goods is playful and makes sense in this context.

And like the other revenue streams attached to “Skylanders,” you can ignore it and still enjoy another well-built, kid-friendly video game. The ability to craft your own monster and endlessly tinker with its look is a strong hook that, coupled with the fun gameplay, leads to another quality title in the long-running series. But it struggles to get out of its own way, featuring perhaps its most complicated buy-in system yet. Creativity knows no bounds, but your checkbook certainly does.

What’s Hot: Create your own Skylander; tons of loot; gameplay and graphics up to snuff; Sensei figures look great

What’s Not: Overly aggressive push to purchase more stuff; can’t delete creations; Sensei unlocking levels stinks

Platform reviewed: PS4

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Ben Silverman is on Twitter at ben_silverman.


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