Disney Playmation puts toys rather than video games center stage with child-wearable tech that sparks exuberant fantastical adventures in bedrooms, living rooms, kitchens and gardens.

In place of collectible toy lines that largely exist to unlock onscreen action, Playmation abandons the screen entirely in favor of imaginative real-world activity. It’s a playful revolution packing the biggest brands in town.

Kids don Iron Man’s Repulsor Gear on their arm to enter a world constructed of spoken word, interactive lights, and motion detection. Through a series of Marvel chapters they run, jump, dodge, hide and shoot their way through various settings and enemies. Enemies take the form of Power Activator units that can detect the player and launch various virtual attacks at them.

The range extends to Marvel toy figures that plug onto the Activator and unlock new abilities, moving enemies in the form of the Prowler Bots and Gamma Gear fists for Hulk powers. It’s the product of Disney’s recently merged consumer products and interactive divisions and speaks volumes of the potential beyond screen-tied experiences for the House of Mouse.

What you’ll like

Active play

Disney Playmation may sound like a video game, but in fact it takes back play mechanics previously the preserve of role-playing toys that had become synonymous with gaming in recent years. Young players report that it feels like a video game, too, as they switch between stealthy creeping through jungles to all-out rocket attacks on enemy bases.

Here, though, it creates the action in the mind of the player rather than on the screen. The Repulsor Gear is the heart of the experience and instructs players what to do through each mission via its built-in speaker. It bolsters these with sound effects, lights, and haptic feedback, so the players know how well they are doing and what to do next.

It takes a little while for them to realize how good the tech is at detecting their movement and actions, but before long children are charging around the house, diving behind the sofa and crawling under the coffee table to take down the next supervillain.

I tested this out in the garden as well as in the dark, and it performed well in each of these settings. Taking it outside further underlined how good it is at getting players moving. With more space and a little less cover, the kids had to work hard to stay one step ahead. I was wondering how long the batteries would last, but it was the kids who wore out first.

Upgradeable fun

It’s a valid concern to worry how long these toys will engage with the supposedly short attention spans of today’s kids. Playmation does well here on a number of fronts. It has different mode, such as training or a range of built-in missions, and these help break up the action into manageable chunks.

As you progress through the different levels you slowly rank up your abilities as well as your weapons. The Repulsor Gear starts with a relatively feeble laser blast, but you soon receive rocket attacks. Advance further and you get specialist weapons like the freeze ray, which stuns enemies for a few seconds.

Adding in additional characters (sold separately) also unlocks new abilities along with new challenges. They can also go in battles to fight alongside you when placed on the Power Activators. Connect to the Avengers Net app and things really start opening up with new missions, upgrades and functions for the different elements of the game. Together, this underlines the video game-style play with steady development that encourages even short plays with a range of rewards.

Familiar brands

While I’m an advocate for not branding our children’s childhood, the addition of Disney’s Marvel brand adds authenticity and kudos to the experience. Certainly, I think my children may have thought twice about playing had Playmation not come in such recognizable form and with so many familiar heroes and villains.

Both the overarching narrative and the writing have high production values. The Starter Pack focuses on Iron Man’s equipment and abilities, but other expansions offer characters such as The Hulk. In the coming years Playmation has also promised to move on to address Star Wars and Frozen content.

While this kind of active play could translates well to Elsa’s freeze ray and Anna’s acrobatics, it’s Star Wars lightsaber that promises to best diversify the combat. An intelligent Jedi weapon that detects your motions and directs you through various adventures will sell itself on parents sentimental childhood memories alone. Who could resist a talking lightsaber?

What you won’t like

It’s not cheap

The Starter Pack as a recommended price of $120 and additional figures are $15 each. The Hulk wearable Gamma Gear is $90 and a second Repulsor Gear to add two player features is another $70.

And this doesn’t factor in batteries for both the Repulsor Gear and two Activator detector units. It has a charging kit that may ease this expense, but again at $24.99 each and three required for the two Power Activators and one Repulsor gear this will add close to $75 to the total price.

Left-handed awkwardness

Having played the game extensively among the family, my son was keen to share with his friends. Here I hit a problem. The Repulsor Gear is set up to wear on the right arm. When getting a left-handed child started, I instinctively switched to their favored arm. But the position of the thumb fire button is then on the wrong side.

I couldn’t see a way around this, so I resorted to getting even left-handed players to wear it on their right arm. More positively, the Repulsor gear adjusts to fit a variety of ages which reflect the likely age range of players — in fact also working with adults who want to join in the fun as well.

Tablet is essential

While you can enjoy Disney Playmation without connecting it to the app, you need to have a compatible iOS or Android device to get the best value. This not only enables you to perform upgrades to the Repulsor Gear but also download new locations, track achievements, and level up your smart figures.

The app also extends the experience with an animated ecosystem of menus and maps and generally fleshes things out for the player. Without it you aren’t getting the full Playmation experience.

Conclusion

Disney Playmation breaks new ground in the somewhat stagnant toy-video game space. Parents will appreciate the focus on active and real-world play, while kids will enjoy the Marvel adventures and feeling of empowerment.

While the experience needs continued fleshing out from Disney to offer strong ongoing value, as a first release of an entirely new way for children to game it’s impressive and well executed. With holiday deals making the Starter Kit considerably more affordable Disney Playmation is likely to be hugely popular this Christmas and could well sell out.

Disney Playmation is now available. Disney provided GamesBeat with a Playmation Starter Pack and 12 AA batteries.