In the ongoing arms race that is the "toys to life" genre, the warring factions have found and played to their strengths. Skylanders excels at solid action-platforming mechanics and Diablo-lite upgrade paths, while Disney Infinity banks on a huge swath of beloved characters and tends to offer better figure quality to boot. Disney Infinity 3.0, the Star Wars iteration we all saw coming from parsecs away, is not the game to challenge Skylanders on its own turf — but it does begin to close the gap.
Since the beginning of the series, Disney Interactive and Avalanche have had an eye for design when it comes to their figurines, so it should come as no surprise that this latest iteration continues the trend. Disney Infinity figurines tend to be not just game pieces but showpieces. Star Wars is front and center in this version, but I never find the fine detail on humanoid characters quite as endearing as the more cartoonish ones. Anger from Inside Out, in particular, is such a nicely designed little figure I'd gladly use him as a desk decoration even if I hadn't seen and loved the movie.
The figures modeled after real people, like many of the Star Wars and Tron figures, are still very visually appealing in their own way. Quorra from Tron and Ahsoka Tano from Star Wars are my personal favorites of that type. Many of the designs borrow heavily from the venerated Clone Wars cartoon, which fits the existing Disney Infinity style like a glove.
As Star Wars is the showpiece, it was the first playset I tried. I suspect many older Star Wars fans like me feel lukewarm about the Clone Wars era. The Twilight of the Republic set that comes with the game tells a simple, compelling mystery story that fits into the Clone Wars fiction, even utilizing some of its original and returning characters. The cutscenes were beautifully animated too, though undermined by an audio bug that would cut the voice acting from time to time.
Having played last year's Disney Infinity when Marvel was the marquee franchise, the improvements to the presentation were immediately striking. Disney Infinity 2.0 had a tendency to look too simplistic in some spots and jagged in others. Perhaps because Star Wars is known for its iconic environments, the studio really seems to have paid special care to make sure to capture the unique geographical qualities of each of the four worlds you visit.
Having seen that portion improve by leaps and bounds, I was slightly disappointed by the combat. Even with the guiding hand of Ninja Theory, the motions still feel stiff and disconnected. Animations don't flow into each other smoothly. You can feel Ninja Theory's influence with some of the combos, but otherwise it's very similar and flawed in the same ways as the previous game. It's also continuously galling to me that the primary attack button is nonsensically mapped to Triangle. At this point it may just be a legacy issue with old games, but it just feels so strange.
There's also the matter of differentiation, though that's ultimately not Ninja Theory or Avalanche's fault. The Clone Wars era was filthy with Jedi, and while they do have some minor differences, all Jedi are essentially sword-wielders. It would've benefited the story as well as the playset to include a blaster character — random and clumsy as it may be.
Speaking of differentiation, though, the Inside Out playset is a great example of how flexible this engine can be. It's a full-fledged, and rather long, platforming game consisting of both 3D and 2D stages. Both versions of play feel completely natural, and the platforming design even gets ingeniously tricky in ways that scratched my old-school itch.
I also have to give Avalanche credit for an unusually pro-consumer move in the Inside Out set. Each of the personified emotions has its own unique abilities, but without counting on consumers owning all the figures most studios would resign to vanilla stage design. The Inside Out set instead has "costume change" stations wherever another special ability is needed, so you can reasonably make it through the entire game playing as just one character. I appreciated the studio making that possible, without compromising some of the more clever platforming puzzle opportunities created by the different abilities.
I played mostly as Anger — partly because his long-range attack is really powerful for the sparse enemies you encounter in the set, but mostly because he's voiced by the inimitable Lewis Black. Also, again, the figurine is a thing of beauty.
If the Star Wars and Inside Out playsets seem to indicate a clear line between combat and platforming, you have the right idea. They do feel like walled gardens in practice, both in terms of sheer mechanics and in the continued insistence that we can't mix franchises within their own playsets. All of those walls are broken down in the new Toy Box Takeover expansion, a charming set of add-on missions that mix combat, platforming, and light loot grinding with A.I. companions as rewards. Best of all, the franchises can intermingle as they please in this mode, letting you finally have that Yoda-Mulan team-up you've always dreamed of. Or maybe that was just me.
The Toy Box itself feels largely similar, right down to the various (seemingly arbitrary) character models that serve as tutorials for the different content types. I've always been a passive observer who has never considered himself a gifted level creator. This year's Toy Box certainly does pack some improvements, like custom pathing, but now comfortably in its third incarnation the system is getting tweaks instead of overhauls.
Thankfully, the same can't be said for the package as a whole. While I wish the combat had undergone more dramatic changes, better combos do help it inch its way towards a more naturalistic feel, and the achievement of combining it with a flexible platforming engine makes any omissions pretty forgivable. The Inside Out and Toy Box Takeover sets are the standouts for me, and show a promising future for this series. If it keeps iterating on ideas like those, Skylanders may find the war encroaching on its land.