With the demise of Disney Infinity you may think that toys to life games are on the way out. However, with the Skylanders Academy show on Netflix and another new game for fans, Activision are pressing ahead - for the time being, at least. Skylanders Imaginators is this year's game and it offers a substantial twist on what has gone before. Rather than provide a complete set of characters, the game gives young players the chance to design their own. It sounds like a gimmick but it doesn't take long to become engrossed with creating your own Skylanders characters.
The creation mode extends beyond a basic selection of head, body and arms to defining a catchphrase, voice and even aura for your Skylander. This gets you started before you head into the game proper and start collecting more parts to apply at will - you can pause the game at any point and jump back into editing your creations. It's an incredibly flexible system, so much so that it has spawned hugely popular videos on YouTube where over-enthusiastic vloggers recreate favourite heroes and characters using the various available parts. Some of them are impressively realistic and testament to how much power the Imaginators creator tool offers.
The game proper follows a similar format to other Skylanders titles; it's an action adventure with various puzzles thrown in along the way. Visually the Wii U doesn't pack the same punch as Xbox One or PlayStation 4 but it does look nice and crisp, and suffers no slow down during intense action. While you're not getting the full visual spectacle here, we should perhaps be thankful that Activision decided to release on Nintendo's console at all, given that many other publishers gave up a long time ago.
Another nice touch this year is that all of the Superchargers racing content is included for free. It provides a digital vehicle that you can use to race with, or you can simply buy a cheap second hand one to plonk on the portal of power. You can play the game just on the Wii U GamePad if you so wish. When played in TV mode the GamePad doesn't offer a lot of value really - apart from displaying level goals. When editing it displays on both the TV and GamePad, which can help a bit.
As ever, along with the Starter Pack there are a range of characters to buy. This year these come in the form of Sensei and Villain characters. These each grant special powers to certain types of created characters as well as their own special moves. The villains are particularly nice and mirror many of the excellent Trap Team baddies. Here though they exist in both toy and fully upgradeable character form. Although they originally played second fiddle to the main Skylanders they have enough depth to warrant being dusted off again this year.
Key to not over spending is remembering that you can complete the whole game on just the Starter Pack; additional characters should be seen as a nice extra rather than a must have. Also, you can use all your old Skylanders (of which there are now more than 300) in the game. Perhaps the main niggle is that you can't reset the creation crystals once you have chosen a character class for your created Skylander; you'll need to buy additional Creation Crystals to try out the different classes.
While the Wii U version is undoubtedly inferior to the PS4 and Xbox One offerings in terms of presentation, there's no denying that the Skylanders Imaginators offers a lot of value thanks to its character creation mode. While some might argue that this focus on virtual creatures goes against the tactile experience so beloved of toys to life players, it's an interesting new direction for a series which needed a change to maintain consumer interest. If you're a long-standing follower of Skylanders then you'll find a lot to like here.