The games industry can be a bit fickle, sometimes. While some games sell without even lifting a finger, others do something genuinely special, and yet still struggle to get the success they deserve.
Last year's Skylanders Superchargers was, hands down, the very best entry in the series so far, bringing with it oodles of co-op fun, plenty of characters (and plenty of character), whilst packing in enough innovation to keep everything feeling fresh - something that's quite a challenge for a yearly game that was then in its fifth instalment. Unfortunately, though, sometimes making a great game doesn't guarantee commercial success, and against stiff competition (particularly from LEGO Dimensions), Superchargers wasn't quite the commercial success Activision were hoping for.
So for Skylanders Imaginators, they've pulled out all the stops.
Launching alongside a Netflix animated TV series, and following on from the virtual card battling iOS/Android app Skylanders Battlecast, Imaginators is the main gaming instalment in this year's Skylanders assault trifecta - a drop-in, drop-out co-op adventure which, as the title suggests, is as much about using your imagination as it is about smashing up bad guys, exploring levels, and solving puzzles.
As a toys-to-life game, the same basic concept applies here - plonking your real life Skylanders toys on the bundled portal base will let you play as that Skylander in game. Launching alongside a more streamlined figure offering, there's still a varied range of figures you can buy to enhance your experience and play as new characters - but this time round, they're all of one type. The Senseis.
While previous games have offered minis, giants, lightcores, trap masters, and all sorts of limited editions, Imaginators "just" has the Senseis - a range that takes in both brand new characters, and, perhaps more interestingly, reformed villains. That means that for the first time in Skylanders history, you'll be able to buy figures of Chompy Mage, and Pain-yatta to play as in game - and we know we'll be forming an orderly queue outside our local store as soon as they launch. For more on the range of figures you can buy, check out our complete list of Skylanders Imaginator characters
While there are a range of starter packs on offer, all come with at least a handful of things in common. You'll get two Sensei figures - King Pen and Golden Queen - the game itself, another portal to add to your collection, and, most importantly, a creation crystal. But we'll get to that later.
At its core, Imaginators is an adventure much like the Skylanders games that have come before it, with a few tweaks and changes to keep things feeling fresh. Perennial baddie Kaos is up to no good again, and has discovered an ancient force known as Mind Magic, which he hopes will let him take over the Skylands once and for all. With help from a giant brain, he creates an army of Doomlanders, and sends them out to destroy the Skylanders. It's up to you (and a friend) to put your Skylanders to use, and smash your way through the game's levels, as you seek to put the diminutive villain back in his place.
What's new for Imaginators is that you won't just have humanoid characters like the overly serious Cali, enchilada fanatic Flynn, and happy-go-lucky Tessa to guide you on your way - instead, the story will be driven by a range of classic Skylanders, from Spyro to Stealth Elf, and from Trigger Happy to Pop Fizz, helping the game feel a little bit more like the TV series. So whether Eruptor's acting as your chaperone on a trip down the river, Jet Vac's letting you borrow his giant, flying battleship, or Trigger Happy is asking you to shoot him down in his balloon (he's a bit of a strange one, that Trigger Happy), there's always a familiar face nearby, which is a nice touch.
While for the most part, each level does stick to the same winning formula - you'll need to beat up a few baddies, explore every nook and cranny of the level hunting for secrets and collectables, and solve various puzzles - there's plenty of variety here too. While it may not quite follow in SuperChargers' footsteps of trying to offer something totally new for every level, there's still plenty of memorable moments to be had.
One of the most memorable levels sees you visiting Pop Fizz's homeland - a whacked out, psychedelic dream land where swallowing a potion will change almost everything about the level. Trees become living, grinning beasts; boxes suddenly get eyes that follow you around the level; and everything turns a bizarre shade of pink - it's all very creepy.
Another level sees you infiltrating a casino-type area known as the Golden Arcade, where Trap Team villain Wolfgang's cousin, Sal, will show you around, and a poster outside hints that the regular entertainment is a troupe of Trigger Happys in drag.
A level that's less focussed on the battling, you'll have to win a variety of video-game style mini-games (a top down tank game, and a side scrolling platformer), not to mention a match of Imaginator's take on Skystones, Creation Clash.
It should go without saying that Imaginators puts exploration at the top of its list of priorities, too, with secret areas waiting to be found, and oodles of collectables. There are soul gems to search out, which grant a special power to one of the new Sensei figures; books that have been stolen from the library, that you'll need to re-unite with Hugo; Sensei shrines, which let Senseis of a specific class get a special, screen clearing power on the right trigger; Troll Radios; and, of course, the all important imaginite chests, which tie into the game's biggest new feature - the ability to create your own Skylanders.
We mentioned earlier that the game's crystal was arguably the most important thing in the box, and it's this bundled crystal that's key to the creation aspect. While placing a Skylander on the base will let you play as that Skylander in game, placing the the creation crystal on the portal will actually let you create your own Skylander. And, as you'd likely imagine from the team that usually packs around 300 hats to collect into each and every game, this is about as mind blowing as you'd hope.
In fact, Imaginators provides a creation suite that puts other games to shame (we're looking at you, WWE), as you can customise almost everything about your Skylander - height, weight, colours, effects, weapons, the whole caboodle - giving you complete creative freedom over creating your character. You can even choose colours, and set the size of individual body parts separately - if you want to make a Skylanders with a tiny torso, who somehow has arms that could deadlift 5,000 lb, you can do it. Mix together a massive torso and a tiny pair of legs, or vice versa for the funniest effects. We dread to think how many potentially possibilities there would be if you tried to put a number to it.
And yet, creating how your Skylander physically looks is just scratching the surface. Not only can you choose a head, arms, torso, legs, and a whole variety of accessories (hats, backpacks, weapons), but you can change their voice, and set their theme music too. If you want to replace the music in each level with a techno rhythm played through a retro 8-bit filter, you can. If you want your character to make cartoon noises when they whack things, or, even better for kids of a certain age, fart, you can.
But the bit we had the most fun with was setting up a catchphrase. Options like this always provide plenty of room to have a bit of fun - as anyone who remembers the interviews you could do in the earlier Pokemon games will tell you ("He caught a tricky Magikarp, and had this to say: "BICYCLE!"), and Imaginators is no different.
Every Skylander has a catchphrase, and your Imaginator wouldn't be complete without one. Letting you choose an intro and an outro, along with a voice in which to say it, and an effect to stylise it, the sky's the limit for the ridiculous things you can make things say. So while our Smasher Sensei leaps out crying "Make way for... nothing!" in the voice of a cowgirl, our Ninja sinisterly claims "I will avenge... pinatas", with a ghoulish twang.
Even the crystals themselves are immensely cool - with a kind of steampunk inspired, magical design, the crystals inside the egg-timer type canister actually glow when placed upon the portal base, much like a giant, or a lightcore figure, using some sort of crazy technology that still boggles our minds even today.
For the first time, Skylanders Imaginators takes the series down a slightly more role-playing game-esque route, too, by bundling both the created characters, and the Senseis into one of ten different classes, each of which plays rather differently. Bowslingers are great ranged characters with powerful bows and arrows; Smashers are your power class, great for dealing damage up close; Ninjas are diminutive characters that strike with throwing stars; while Bazookers... well, you can probably guess what they do.
Choosing a character class for your character is not only one of the most important things you'll have to do - it's also the very first thing you'll have to do, and it's here where we have perhaps our biggest sticking point with Imaginators. You see, once you've placed your crystal on the base, a screen will pop up asking you to choose a class - and once you've chosen that class, your decision is final, and that crystal will be locked to that class. It's not your character that's locked to that class - that would be fairly reasonable. Instead, it's the crystal itself - you can change your character as many times as you want, but you can never change it from being that initial class.
And this rankles for two big reasons. The first is that, technically, we can't see any reason why this should be so. And the second is that, if you make a mistake, and decide you'd rather be an Imaginator of a different class, there's no way of changing it round at all.
The character class you play as has far reaching effects, and affect everything from the body parts you can choose to the weapons you can equip, and the moves you can perform. It's a decision you'll want to be sure you're happy with - but with no way to try out each class before you commit, it's mostly a leap into the dark. There is a brief video preview you can watch of each class before you choose, but they're more ambiguous than we'd like. If you choose to be a Ninja and decide you want a character with a torso, well, sucks to be you (Ninjas in game are literally all of the "ball with legs" variety. If you choose a Swashbuckler, and decide you'd rather have legs - again, tough luck. That crystal is now locked to that class, and there's no way to change it back without buying a new one. We'll be putting together a full guide to the classes, so you can choose the class that's right for you - but the game should really provide you with more information to begin with.
It's not just locking the crystals that feels a bit disappointing, either, as while the character creator may be vast and varied, there aren't really that many choices for someone looking to put together a cute, girly Skylander. Most of the heads described as being cute actually look kind of creepy, and this is perhaps indicative of a drive at Toys for Bob that's swung too far the one way. When we spoke to studio head Paul Reiche III at gamescom, he couldn't emphasise enough how much he wanted to add "strong female characters" to the game. In practice, what that means is that the female characters we've got all tend towards the tomboy/masculine end of the spectrum - from Barbella the weightlifter (who let's face it, while she may be an awesome character, she doesn't half look a bit blokey to the casual observer), to Chopscotch, the sinister looking skull with legs - and seemingly the knock on effect is that the creator doesn't come with enough parts to make a properly cute Skylander. Perhaps it's an art style thing, perhaps it's because the company were scared of being accused of being sexist, but our female testers would have appreciated a few more girly parts!
In an unusual move, Imaginators also has a few too many sections where only one player can play. The egg-rescuing crane games (direct a lucky claw type machine around to grab the eggs before they get smashed up) are one player only, most shooting sections are one player only, and even the arcade games in the aforementioned Golden Arcade are single player too. It's never much fun when you're playing in co-op, and one player has to sit out, so it'd be nice to see the developers nip this in the bud before it gets too crazy.
While we're talking about the controversial aspects, this seems like as good a time as any to address the locked-off content. Much like every other Skylanders game, Toys for Bob have tried hard to get the balance right between giving you a reason to buy additional characters, without feeling like there's too much stuff locked off for your ordinary players. In Imaginators, there's actually not all that much locked off - although it certainly looks like there is, when you're wandering around the game's world map.
The locked off things here are the Sensei worlds, which you'll need a Sensei of a particular element to unlock. Kind of working like mini-levels, while the game's main stages will set you back 40-60 minutes each, these Sensei areas last more like ten minutes each, although they do have more of a story to them than any previously locked off areas on games.
In the tech world, you'll be building a toy, choosing its head, legs and torso; in the life world, you'll be helping some weird caterpillars blast away at rats that are terrorising them; while in the undead world, you'll enter a procedurally generated dungeon that changes each and every time you go in... You'll also earn three stars for completing each Sensei world, giving you an extra incentive to buy more figures.
In the face of everything the game gets so right, it's really the crystal-locking decision that lets the game down. Streamlining the range of figures is a great idea, as previous games have ended up with far too many choices. The create-a-Skylander mode, for all its faults, is a lot of fun, and it's great playing around with the different classes, and making a character to suit that class. There's even a selfie mode in here, which gives you free control over the camera, letting you take snap shots of your Skylanders looking cool - although it is a bit disappointing you can only save 20 at a time.
In essence, if you're a big Skylanders fan, there's plenty here that you'll appreciate. If you choose the right character class first time, there's lots of fun to be had in customising your character, there's oodles of collectables to find, a decent range of figures to choose from should you choose to expand (each with traditionally fantastic move sets), and, of course, a great co-op adventure to play through. But perhaps it's the future that leaves us most excited. With the TV series looking to bring in a new audience, and Imaginators itself taking the game down a more role-playing-esque road, could we be seeing the beginning of Skylanders evolving into being a rather different type of game? Only time will tell - but needless to say, Imaginators is a must buy for Skylanders fans. Just be careful when choosing your class.
Format Reviewed: Nintendo Switch