I've long been a defender of Toys to Life as a genre. My son grew up playing Skylanders. Spyro's Adventure was the first game he ever beat. The series holds an important place in my heart for that reason, but I'm concerned about this year's game.
Each year, the franchise adds a new concept. The second outing featured some bigger figures, after that we were able to mix and match, in year four we were able to trap and use villains, and last year we had vehicles to play with. This year, you're going to be able to create your own Skylander.
I did that today. It was extremely cool, with lots of customization options for visual appearance, gear, catch phrase, and voice. My Life elemental knight (a combination of one of ten elements and ten classes), looked like an armored bug that could needle enemies to death with his sword or shoot out vines.
Customization starts with picking one of the ten classes. However, doing that locks that class to the crystal. You will never be able to wipe the crystal clear and truly start fresh. You can only tear your creation down to its pre-customized form and create a new hero in that class.
This is troubling. Chances are you are going to want one of each element and class. Effectively, this is 10 more smaller Skylanders to buy, for a total this year of 43. That's right in the range of figures that have been available in most recent years. It's not the number of different crystal types that's concerning.
Each of the crystals costs $10. In order to use them to their fullest, you need to also purchase the $15 Sensei characters, which both increase all of your Imaginators' level caps by one and unlock a unique special talent for their class. So, let's say you have an Undead Quickdraw Imaginator and want to have its full move set available. You'll need to buy two Quickdraw Senseis to teach it the other two moves.
This is the first time I can recall in the series that a Skylander requires other specific characters to unlock all of its abilities. Additionally, parents will likely need to explain to their kids that their decisions are permanent. I can see trouble brewing here, as education needs to happen with the adults first. There has never before been an instance in which a Toys to Life character couldn't be reset for trade, sharing, and yes, for resale.
Let's say you buy your kid 10 Imaginator crystals. As an informed adult, you might know to plan carefully to look at elemental abilities and find the best matches for certain classes.
As an example, one of the two Life elemental abilities allows you to turn into a sheep to confuse enemies. I can see a great use for this in ranged characters that don't fight quite as well up close. But for my knight, it wasn't going to be the right choice. I want to be able to fight when enemies get close.
You can't play around with combinations of element and class before you lock in the class either, there are just videos. Seeing skills that are permanently locked in is not as helpful as playing with them. You're making blind decisions that have permanent impact. And if you accidentally duplicate a class and want one of each? Guess you're going to the store to spend another $10.
I asked Toys for Bob co-founder Paul Reiche about the decision. "We wanted to make sure that there wasn't a sea of options, and that there weren't so many different factors affecting the gameplay of the character that you couldn't focus and create what we thought of as a class," he told me. If you could constantly shift absolutely everything about it, you almost lose the fun of having a particular kind of character and the distinctions that we have. So as we were building it, we didn't know to what degree people would be changing their characters. What we have found is that they settle on a physical form for the base character pretty fast. Then they'll adjust gear, because it has stats. And if something shows up, like a new tagline piece or voice, they might experiment with that. It sort of resolves itself in less than an hour, and then people stick with that character and press forward. It is primarly to give people a direction. We think that helps define the name you give it, the appropriate voice, the color set you choose."
We confirmed that resetting isn't an option. You can still reassign owners, but you can't tear a Imaginator back to its base form or reset its level.
"We allow changing of ownership, but we're not resetting the Imaginator," Reiche says. "You can tear it down all the back to the star form. The idea is that they start as a constellation, and you pull them out. They're made of stars, and then you make them more physical. You can go back to that as much as you want. But you can't go through the reset functionality."
The "star form" Reiche is referring to is what you see after choosing the class, but before applying any of the many customization options. These include head, body, arms, legs, ears, eyes, and more.
The process can take as long or as short as you want. Changing abilities, aesthetics, and gear can happen on the fly. It's a fun process, that I spent 15 minutes exploring, as I shaped my very own Skylander. But I still made the wrong class choice for the element I was given and I couldn't undo that.
There's still time before Skylanders Imaginators is released, and I hope Activision and Toys for Bob revisit this. There's great fun in this year's game. The Crash Bandicoot-themed Thumpin' Wumpa Islands (designed by franchise collaborator Vicarious Visions) is gorgeous with unique musical puzzles. The figures (including the first one of series villain Kaos) look better than they ever have.
But this decision around locking classes to the crystals feels like a mistake in a series that has been known for engaging kids at their level and fostering their enthusiasm. I wouldn't want to be the parent that has to figure out why their child is crying because they can't make the Skylander they really wanted to after an errant button press.