Kids these days sure have a lot of characters to play with, whether they're into superheroes, "Star Wars" or classics like Barbie and G.I. Joe. But their most memorable imaginary friends are the ones they make up on their own — say, aliens made of Legos or exotic dinosaurs created with crayons and paper.
Skylanders, Activision's six-year-old universe of crazily diverse critters, seems particularly well-suited to children who aspire to make their own monsters. And "Skylanders Imaginators" (for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Wii U, PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360; $74.99 for starter pack) allows just that. If classic Skylanders like the pirate octopus Wash Buckler and the reptilian Rattle Shake give you nightmares, wait 'til you see what the kids come up with.
Imaginator creation takes just a few minutes. After booting up the game, you place a crystal on the portal attached to your console. The crystal determines your elemental type — say, fire, water or magic — but everything else is up to you. You can choose one of 10 battle classes, like brawler, sorcerer or ninja. You can build a Skylander from dozens of heads, torsos, limbs, headgear and other accessories. You can name it and give it a catchphrase. (My go-to guy is an undead skeleton with an eyeball for a head. His name is Stinky and his catchphrase is "Unleash the bananas.")
Activision is going all-in with the build-a-monster creation concept, offering a separate mobile app called "Skylanders Creator." It includes all the character design functions, as well as allowing you to order T-shirts, trading cards and even 3-D figurines of your favourite beasts.
"Imaginators" also introduces an entirely new type of character, the Master Sensei. These creatures are not just unusually strong, they also enhance the skills of Imaginators of the same element.
Given all this — not to mention an animated series coming soon to Netflix — the video game itself could get lost in the shuffle. Not to worry: "Imaginators" is the best game yet in the series, with more places to explore, more enemies to battle and more varied puzzles to solve.
The plot behind this is the usual silliness: The villainous Kaos has another deranged plot to take over the Skylands and unleashes his own batch of "Doomlanders," like a giant beast made of guacamole.
But the real appeal behind Skylanders has always been the way they scratch the collector's itch. Of course, the hardcore hoarder will want to round up all the beautifully crafted Sensei figurines (which cost an extra $15 apiece). But more budget-minded players can spend dozens of hours tracking down all the Imaginator gear — body parts, hats, armour, weapons — hidden throughout the vast game world.
At some point, "Skylanders" is bound to crash into franchise fatigue. But six years in, I have to admit I'm kind of delighted to see these varmints take over my living room every October. Three-and-a-half stars out of four.