Ever since it was kickstarted by Mattel's U.B. Funkeys titles a decade ago, the 'toys to life' genre has become a juggernaut, raking in billions and becoming the bane of parents' wallets worldwide. Skylanders is its flagship, a colourful platforming series with a now gigantic selection of stylised action figures to import into the game world via the 'Portal of Power' – a USB hub device that creates a playable avatar from any toy placed upon it.
For many of us, Skylanders is known as that kid's game with the weird version of Spyro who looks like he's on steroids, and with Skylanders: Imaginators – the sixth title in the series – it's now spearheading the celebratory return (not including his excellent cameo in Uncharted 4) of Sony's first console mascot, Crash Bandicoot.
The 'Crash Pack' of Imaginators comes bundled with the new and improved marsupial alongside his nemesis, Dr. Neo Cortex, and a bonus stage that'll have you crying out for the impending remasters. Aside from his bizarre speech patterns, Crash himself is great fun to play, complete with his goofy run animation and trademark moves, and Cortex gets just as much loving attention to detail, with some of the best lines ("It's my celebration too!"). It's fan service pure and simple, and could be enough to entice veteran PlayStation parents over to the series.
The main hook of this latest instalment centres on series bad guy Kaos discovering an ancient power that allows him to create new enemies and pit them against our titular heroes. To combat this threat, the portal masters (that's us) can now design new Skylanders from scratch. This new character creator is borne from the many letters and sketches sent to developer Toys for Bob, by young fans demanding designs with a more personal touch, and the creation tools on offer are a robust and rewarding result of this audience feedback.
Place a creation crystal on the portal and you can choose a combat class to tie to the element of the crystal, tweaking it using body parts and gear collected from loot chests in the main adventure. There's enough here to make some of the most gloriously silly avatars this side of a WWE game, helped in no small part by the offbeat options available. You want a fire ninja with with tentacles for ears and a robot voice that listens to trance music? You can have exactly that. Why not give them a bushy tail while you're at it, and make them constantly tell you that they're amazed by their own muscles? You can tweak your creations at any time during the game and there's even a mobile app that lets you create new characters and upload them to the title. Different crystals unlock gear sets and abilities of the corresponding elements, so they still carry with them similar restrictions to the actual preset characters, but the creator adds a sense of freedom that's refreshing in a franchise built on a foundation of microtransactions and gated content.
It's somehow surprising to discover that there's a cutesy brawler hidden under all the wallet-driven infrastructure, mixing light platforming, breezy puzzles, and RPG-like elements, as well as an addictive card battling game and wave-based arena fights. The combat is solid, and aside from glacial movement speed, the stages themselves are full of things to see and do. Well voiced characters and at times stunning animated sequences complement a decent story, and it's nice to see Spyro as a central character again. What's more, the humour is sharp, despite its target demographic, with some dialogue that's bound to go over the heads of youngsters.
It's a shame, then, that at times, the sense of levity feels too stifled by the almost overwhelming focus on trying to entice you into spending more money – an element that's intrinsically linked to the core experience. Each hero has an assigned type, and these types are not only stronger in certain areas of combat – which comes into play frequently on harder difficulties – but can also unlock other levels in the hub world. Different Skylanders are also able to use minigames scattered around the stages, rewarding in-game currency, gear, and special abilities. It soon becomes frustrating to traverse a stage and hear the announcer declare in a booming voice that only bowmaster types can play this shiny new minigame that's just begging to give you more items that you so compulsively crave. If only you had a bowmaster type, eh?
Another caveat is the loot system, which is tooled towards obtaining (or purchasing) chests that contain several flavours of crystal, which then decrypt to a random bit of gear or customisation option; think a more cartoony version Destiny's engrams. On top of all that is character level progression, which is locked to how many Skylanders you actually have in your collection.
Luckily, though, the business model doesn't sully enjoyment of the game too much, as Skylanders: Imaginators is a generous package out of the box, even without the content available outside of starter packs. Still, this game isn't going to convert those that have been put off the series before, as it's still very much a title mechanically tooled for kids. That being said, it can be a genuinely enjoyable experience, with surprising depth and scope.
The overall experience at the centre of all Skylanders: Imaginators' toys and loot chests is so charming and feature-rich that kids will enjoy it and adults won't begrudge playing it alongside them. If you don't mind the potentially large financial undertaking that a Skylanders game represents, then this is perfect for younger players. The return of Crash is also good value; it's simply heartening to see that the 90s mascot feels at home in a modern platformer.