With Disney Infinity having recently kicked the bucket, you could be forgiven for thinking that there may have been a few sleepless nights for developers hard at work in the "toys-to-life". But from what we've seen and heard, there's no sign of nerves around Activision. Instead, the Skylanders creators seem practically buoyant, as they double down on the series that started it all, and are aiming for an explosive 2016. With a new TV series set to launch this year, and a tablet based card game, Skylanders Battlecast bringing "cards to life", we were invited down to London to take a look at the last piece of the trifecta - and arguably, the most ambitious Skylanders game of all time, known as Skylanders Imaginators. And, as you'd likely expect, your imagination plays a key role in this year's outing. Boom!
Our tale begins many eons ago, in the age of the Ancients, who harnessed a mysterious power known as Mind Magic to create everything in the Skylands. However, in all their ineffable wisdom, the Ancients realised that such a power could be dangerous should it ever find its way into the wrong hands, and so they decided to seal it away. Back in the present day, as you've probably already guessed, perennial series bad guy Kaos has discovered the power of the Mind Magic and unleashed it on the Skylands once more, using it to create an unstoppable army of Doomlanders, the likes of which have never been seen before. And so it falls to you, as a seasoned Portal Master, to put a stop to his evil scheme in the latest Skylanders instalment.
According to the Senior Executive Producer, Jeff Poffenbarger, "Since the original Skylanders came out, it's always been about innovation - finding a way to make something brand new to reinvent the genre of Toys-to-Life". Inspired by the huge, huge amount of artwork they've received from their fans over the years since the first Skylanders game, some of which were brand new Skylanders they were "practically begging us to put in the game", the hook for this year's game is a decidedly more creative one. For the first time in the series' history, you'll be able to create your own Skylanders characters to help take down recurring villain Kaos. And boy, are there a lot of options to pick from.
First off, you need to decide on what type of character you want to create - there's ten different character classes to choose from, from the big, burly Smasher class to the long-range specialist Slinger to the spell-wielding Sorcerer, and each one dictates the kind of weapons, attacks and abilities your finished Skylander will use. Then comes the fun part, as you can customise and tweak the look of your Skylander to your heart's content, with an impressive amount of tools at your disposal. In our brief introduction to the editor, we saw fire axes and acoustic guitar weapons, Flynn faces, Chompy heads, rainbow unicorn tails and a Kaos backpack to name but a few of the pre-made possibilities - but the creativity doesn't stop there. In a twist of genius, each of your Skylander's body parts can be tweaked in every which way too, whether it's in terms of size, shape, muscle definition and colour. And while they didn't really go into it too much in our short demo, you can also pick and choose the moves your Skylander will learn in its upgrade tree.
But what was perhaps our favourite aspect of the whole creation process was the ability to give your custom Skylander their own voice and catchphrase. Picking from a variety of vocal presets that run the gamut from pirate and robot to faerie and regal, you can then play with the pitch and apply various effects to give your Skylander a unique - and likely hilariously inappropriate - voice. Creating a catchphrase involves mashing up a few set phrases into a nonsensical custom battle cry; "Don't mess with… flower power", "You can't handle... my superior technology", "This one goes out to… glitter" and "Give me more… zombie dance parties" are sure to strike fear into the hearts of your enemies! Then all that's left is to give yourself an appropriate theme tune and you're ready to take on the world as your very own Skylander.
What brief glimpses we got of the actual Skylanders Imaginators adventure suggest the game itself will play out in much the same way as previous instalments, focused on beating up bad guys, hunting for hidden areas and solving a few rudimentary puzzles as you make your way through your mission to foil Kaos' latest evil scheme. There are, however, a new range of collectables to discover, in the form of customisation parts and pieces, which can be found hidden in new Imaginite chests, with a random new piece in each one. As you'd likely expect, any new bits and pieces you find can they be used to upgrade your created character, much like the hats of years gone by (and we hope they're still a fixture too!). In fact, it appears you'll be able to chop and change most of your character's bits and pieces whenever and wherever you feel the need, although it looks like you will be locked into whatever character class you opted for at the start. However, the developers were keen to impress on us that they're still fine-tuning which things you can change, and which will be locked off - so things may always change between now and the game's release.
Of course, it wouldn't be a Skylanders game without some kind of real-life collectable aspect to the proceedings. While you could be forgiven for thinking that such character creation would negate the need for the plastic models of previous games, you'd also be dead wrong, as Imaginators is going to launch alongside a huge selection of characters and toys.
You see, in a similar-ish way to how Trap Team used Traptanium Traps to store the villains you captured, Skylanders Imaginators uses brand new hourglass-shaped Creation Crystals to store the details of your created characters, so you can take them round to your friends house to play. There'll be ten different Creation Crystals on offer, one for each of the elemental types (that's Fire, Earth, Life, Water, Magic, Undead, Tech, Air, Light and Dark), and each crystal is capable of holding a single created character. So, while you can choose the character class of your creation - be it Smasher, Ninja or Sorcerer - your actual elemental type will be locked to the type of Creation Crystal you're using. And as we mentioned earlier, it also looks as if you'll also be locked into the character class you first choose when creating a character, and we wouldn't be surprised if the only way to switch from being a Smasher into a Sorcerer, for example, would be to completely wipe the Creation Crystal and start over - but that's just an educated guess at the moment. Perhaps most importantly, the crystal inside the Creation Crystal glows, Lightcore Skylander style, thanks to some technical wizardry we still have yet to fully understand.
However, these Creation Crystals aren't the only collectable toys on offer, as Imaginators will launch with a range of thirty new Skylanders, known as the Senseis. These Skylanders are special, super powerful characters who can wield spectacular screen-clearing Sky Chi powers in battle - and can also be used to teach your custom characters special moves. Much like your custom Skylanders, each of the Senseis falls into one of the ten classes, such as the Smasher class Earth dinosaur, Tri-Tip, who will unlock new moves for your Smasher class creations. Most notably, however, each Sensei you collect will increase the maximum level cap for all your custom characters by one level for each Sensei you scan in, making the new maximum level a theoretical 50. Around twenty of the thirty Senseis will be brand new, never before seen Skylanders, including the aforementioned triceratops Tri-Tip and the chubby penguin King Pen, while the remaining ten will see the triumphant return of some familiar faces - and no, we don't mean yet another version of Gill Grunt; we're talking about Trap Team's villains.
Apparently, following the events of Trap Team, the villains were given a choice by Eon of whether they'd rather return to Cloudcracker Prison for all eternity, or take the chance to change their ways, move over to the good side, and become Skylanders Senseis. Ten of Trap Team's array of baddies have made the jump across, although currently, the only reformed villain we know of is the Earth Sorceress and chief Trap Team troublemaker, Golden Queen, who's Sky Chi power summons a hoard of golden scarab beetles to swarm your enemies. Personally, we found Golden Queen to be one of the more underwhelming villains from Trap Team, and are currently crossing everything in the hope of the greatest villain in history, the Chompy Mage, and the brightly coloured Painyatta making appearances - but despite our relentless questioning and buttering up of one of the developers, they still remained disappointingly schtum.
Skylanders Imaginators will be hitting the Playstation 4, Playstation 3, Xbox 360, Xbox One and Wii U this autumn, on the 14th October - although the 3DS version is strangely absent from the list. As always, the game will hit stores in the form of a 'Starter Pack' of the game, alongside two Sensei figures - Golden Queen and King Pen - and a Fire Creation Crystal, letting you play co-op and tinker with the new creation tools straight out of the box. Interestingly, Activision have only released the box arts for the Xbox and Playstation versions of the game, with Nintendo ones noticeable by their absence, perhaps suggesting their could be another Nintendo collaboration in the works, along the lines of last year's SuperChargers/Amiibo tie-ins. In the meantime, why not check out the official gameplay trailer below: