Imagine kids' video games without toys-to-life, yes there would be a lot more money in the wallets of parents, but without them we wouldn't have the likes of Skylanders, Lego Dimensions or Disney Infinity.
When Skylanders first graced our screens it had a collection of 30+ figures, one year later Skylanders Giants came out with another 40+ collectibles. Year on year the figures are remodelled, added to, and expanded. Last year's offering of Superchargers even included vehicles to separate more cash from your bank account. For serious collectors this amounts to a massive investment and this year's instalment adds another 60+ figures (some of the previous games villains have also been added to the Skylander roster to spice things up).
This array of new and improved characters are now called Senseis and make up the backbone of gameplay, giving you a firm starting point. The original line-up - Spyro, Stealth Elf, Eruptor and friends - take a backseat on this one but appear as NPCs to help drive the story and give some familiarity to younger players (but don't worry, all your existing figures will all still work just fine). But what makes Imaginators different is the new Imaginator Crystals which have replaced the standard figures. There is over 30 new crystals to collect, although just one of each element would be more than enough for any wallet!
Each Crystal Shard comes in a tube decorated relative to its element and when placed on the Portal the Crystal pulses with a heartbeat. What makes these Crystals special and really separates this game from the previous incarnations is your ability to create. Yes, you can create your own Skylanders now and the possibilities are almost endless.
We chose the Fire Element Crystal to begin with and when placed on the Portal for the first time it opens a creation menu where the player can design from scratch their own unique Imaginator. First of all you have to choose a battle style (from a list of 10). We went with Quickshot as we were firm favorites of Trigger Happy and Bouncer from earlier Skylander games. (Be warned, though, once you pick a Battle Style it's not possible to change or delete it, meaning you're not able to experiment with them unless you buy another crystal).
Every part of your Imaginator is customisable, starting with head, chest, arms, legs and even tail if you wish. Weapons and armour adjust your stats, and you can tailor your creations to your personal fighting style. Moving on through the options, colour schemes can be adjusted, names, personality, you can even put together a catchphrase for your Skylander to say while playing. To begin with these options are fairly limited, but that's where the new Imaginite chests come in; these can be earned everywhere in the game, completing objectives or defeating enemies. Each can unlock items to customise your Skylander and the rarity of these items can vastly increase your stats. Epic and Ultimate items are by far the best and are locked until you are a high enough level. One slightly annoying feature is that every time you access the Imaginite Vault to open your chests you are given the opportunity to purchase additional chests from the Store (another attempt to make you part with more cash).
The Sensei Skylanders are the mentors for your Imaginators, each one giving a boost to corresponding elements and fighting styles. They also unlock Sensei Realms, fun little side missions that can unlock elemental themed items.
The gameplay itself is the same as its predecessors, a simple 3D platformer, with the only noticeable difference being the size of the hub world (now called M.A.P.). From here the story unfolds and yet again your foe is Kaos, the bumbling fool who claims to be ultimate evil in the universe. He's hell bent on destroying Skylands and this time has decided the best way to do it is create his own Doomlanders, which become the core bosses of the game.
Each of the stages is full of great level design, wonderful rich colours and tones, and this all combines to help make it feel like a living cartoon world. The gameplay, although simple, is absolutely solid and ensures that it stays accessible for all ages, and kids will have no trouble picking up a second controller and splitting a screen with you.
There is also a Creator app available on Play Store and App Store, and it utilises some fun new tech called Chirp. You can transfer your newly created Imaginator over to your phone or tablet to customise to your heart's content; just open up the transfer page and hold your device near the TV as it listens to the R2D2-esque beeps and whistles and hey presto, as if by magic, your Imaginator appears on your device. From here you can visit the Creator Shop and order T-shirts, cards or even a 3D printed copy of your personal Imaginator (although this last feature isn't currently available). The one problem is that although you can edit your Imaginator and even open chests to acquire new items, none of this is transferable back to your console, rendering the entire experience basically pointless other than trying to get more money from you via merchandise.
The overall gameplay experience was, as usual, really enjoyable, and there's a lot of humour that kids will really appreciate. However, the overwhelming feeling that the game has constantly got your wallet/purse in its sights left a sour taste.