As the holiday shopping crunch approaches, many of us will need to think about what to get the young (or old, no judgment) gamers in our lives.
Chances are pretty good that toys and accessories for the latest “Skylanders” game are somewhere on the list. The toys-to-life franchise is in its sixth year, having outlasted competitor “Disney Infinity,” which was discontinued in May. This year’s “Skylanders: Imaginators” is the third one I have played through, and it is by far the best one I’ve seen.
Each entry is essentially the same game with an added perk. In 2014, it was traps. Last year’s had race cars. This year’s allows players to create their own playable creature, rather than relying solely on the toys included in the starter bundle or sold separately. A fantastic creation suite allows players to customize their Imaginators’ looks and abilities. It even lets you create a custom catchphrase, which I had far too much fun doing for someone who is 28 years old and childless.
However, more customization options bring complexity. My coworkers made fun of me for sitting in our conference room with a bunch of toys and “Skylanders: Imaginators” on the TV screen while I was furiously scribbling in a notebook. But my system worked. I have a fairly good grasp on what the dozens of toys and accessories do, and I even have a few favorite Skylanders to recommend.
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First of all, I judge Skylanders based on three things: The character’s look and background, its skills and its voice lines. Keep that in mind.
Publisher Activision sent me the Crash Edition start pack, which includes the game, the portal controller, a poster and four Skylanders: Master King Pen, Golden Queen, PlayStation character Crash Bandicoot and his villain, Dr. Neo Cortex. The set retails for $75 and is exclusive to PlayStation. Crash Bandicoot’s skills suck and he has no real voice lines, but this set is the same price (as of Nov. 22) at most stores as the regular starter kit, which only has King Pen and Golden Queen. So you may as well grab this one if you have a PlayStation 3 or PlayStation 4.
Master Mysticat, a magic sorceress, is the worst of the new Skylanders. Do not buy her for your child.
Both the standard and Crash sets come with a creation crystal. This is what players use to create their own Skylander, which the game calls an Imaginator. The crystals have an element: Light, dark, fire, water, earth, air, magic, life (grass), undead or tech. This element indicates what kind of magic powers the Imaginator will use. The Skylanders have elements as well.
The player pops in a crystal and chooses what weapon set to use (guns, swords, bare fists, etc.). Once a weapon choice is made, it cannot be unmade. If players pop in a fire crystal and choose swashbuckler, they will not be able to use the same crystal to create a fire sentinel. You will have to buy a new $10 crystal in order to do that. That seems a bit harsh, asking a kid to make such finite choices, but the toys-to-life genre exists in part to bleed parents dry. We must never forget that.
You can, however, change your Imaginator’s appearance and skills. You can also download a free app that allows you to customize your character on a tablet or smartphone. You can even get a T-shirt or toy made for your specific character, but that’s subject to availability.
The individual toy characters are called senseis, because each $15 figure teaches Imaginators a unique ability and increases the maximum level an Imaginator can reach. So you have 10 senseis, you have access to 10 abilities and the maximum level each Imaginator can reach is increased by 10.
The senseis can only teach skills to Imaginators of the same weapon type. For example, Master Starcast, a dark ninja, can only teach other ninjas. So if your Imaginator is a ninja or you ever want to make a ninja, you probably should have a ninja sensei. If you’re buying for others, find out what kind of Imaginator they use, and match the weapon type. Some of the sensei characters are new, while others are from previous game.
My favorite sensei by far is Wolfgang, an undead bowslinger. He’s a bad guy from “Skylanders: Trap Team” – an Australian werewolf whose bow doubles as an electric guitar. His special ability is a power slide. He is amazing. If your kid is cool or you want him or her to be cool, get Wolfgang.
I also liked Master Chopscotch, this adorable undead smasher who is basically a tiny skeleton with a ponytail as long as she is. What’s that skeletal hairstyle called? A boneytail. I could die.
Master King Pen, a water brawler who comes with the starter kit, is pretty awesome. He is basically a “Penguins of Madagascar” character, which is sweet. Tae Kwon Crow, a fire ninja, has really funny voicelines. Hood Sickle, a dark sentinel that is basically a grim reaper character, is cool looking, and Barbella, an earth sentinel, has an amazing starting ability.
Players can also choose special theme music for each of their Imaginators.
GameStop also sells a Dark Edition starter kit, which comes with the game, portal, dark versions of Master King Pen and Golden Queen, a poster, three creator crystals and Wolfgang. It’s pricey at $100, but I imagine it will sell out quickly.
If you want to spend more than $10 or $15 but not give someone a starter pack, consider an adventure pack. Activision gave me the Gryphon Park Observatory pack, which came with Master Air Strike, an air brawler, as well as an earth creation crystal and a little observatory toy that unlocks a new level. Since you can beat the starter levels pretty quickly, expansion packs like this will eventually be needed if you don’t want to keep repeating levels.
The senseis are playable throughout the game, of course, as are Skylanders from previous sections. But Imaginators are stronger in certain parts of the game and clearly the focus, as they’re the only ones who can use gear. Gear is equipment (weapons, armor, trinkets) unlocked by playing the game or spending actual money on digital treasure chests. You can also unlock new customization options through play and chests. You’ll want to have at a few Imaginators, but you probably don’t need one of each type.
One last thing: Try the game out. If you’ve been on the fence about it until now, pick up “Skylanders: Imaginators.” It’s almost certainly the best game in the franchise.