Not much can be said to introduce TT Games’s phenomenally successful Lego game series these days—even less can engage the imagination of a discerning reader without seeming patronising or flippant. Of course, flippancy and straight-up dismissal are to be expected with regard to children’s games, movie-tie-ins, or just successful and long-running franchises, which are all categories that the Lego games fall into. Every six months or so a new entry comes, and they can still be fun because, believe it or not, the developers at both Traveller’s Tales and TT Fusion are talented industry veterans who know how to deliver a quality product.
The history of TT Games’s Lego series begins with a bang. The original Lego Star Wars and the titles that followed were exciting, silly tie-ins that broke the mould with fan-pleasing and family-friendly results. In the decade since, despite film tie-ins including Batman Begins and Iron Man falling to the wayside, Lego games continue on. One might expect the familiarity of two or even three Lego games annually would bring contempt—or a descent into mediocrity—but the expected drop never happened. The series has continued to engage kids and families, as well as fans of each relevant franchise around the world, employing clever level design and fun animation even as the ‘thrill of the new’ has worn off.
That said, the franchise has seen peaks and valleys, ranging from the high-end, enjoyable romps such as The Force Awakens to the obligatory Lego Movie tie-in. Much like the film, The Lego Ninjago Movie Videogame hews rigorously to the formula of The Lego Movie without anywhere near as much novelty, making it the least interesting of all the recent Lego games.
From the opening, the commitment to style keeps the proceedings from becoming boring. Ninjago is a pan-Asian world of legends and lore similar to Avatar: The Last Airbender, though perhaps too recent to be granted the same level of pop-cultural cachet. Even for players unfamiliar with the property, the developers at TT Games clearly had fun paying homage to the ninjas, tokusatsu, and martial arts movies that influenced Ninjago, beginning with a retro studio ident awash in film grain and sound distortion.
As with last year’s Ratchet and Clank, the movie tells a simplified hero adventure rather than trying to adapt all of the characters and dense mythology that has accrued to the franchise over time. This streamlining beckons the videogame tie-in to bring back some of that mythology, and expand the various featured locations into full-fledged levels. Also similar to Ratchet and Clank, Lego Ninjago makes the most of the source’s simple story by combining clips from the film with in-game scenes. Unfortunately, Lego Ninjago is not as entertainingly written as Ratchet and Clank, comprising surface-level jokes, characterless characters, and The Lego Movie‘s self-effacing tone without the wit. Worse, the rapid-fire delivery of the movie scenes leave the game bewilderingly opaque to anyone unfamiliar with the story. Sure, no tie-in should be expected to obviate the film, but a little more explanation of what is happening would not have hurt.
The game’s story mode fares significantly better on the mechanical side. Players progress through pleasantly crafted, linear levels based on locations from the movie, punctuated by less-exciting vehicle segments that thankfully never outstay their welcome. Combat with the various baddies in these levels never changes up too much, but offers a new-gamer-friendly assortment of one-button combos. At the end of a level, each location transforms into a semi-open playground with extra collectables and side-quests that extend the game’s play time. On the whole, without breaking any new ground, Lego Ninjago continues the mission statement of the series by being accessible enough for gamers of all kinds without being stuffed with busywork.
Technically, however, Lego Ninjago is a bit of a mess. Reviewed on PlayStation 4, a variable framerate and long load times between locations extended the game’s core story into tedium by the end. Played in a laid-back co-operative setting, the semi-open structure of the game’s plentiful optional content might mitigate the long loading somewhat, but for a single player who wants to complete the game level-by-level, these technical shortcomings can be distracting—especially in this reviewer’s case, when a hard crash just minutes from the end required the entire last level to be replayed. Additionally, game sounds are treated as an afterthought. In-game dialogue is mixed quite low, a choice that makes enemy barks and other important cues easily missed. Unintentionally, this quality also reinforces the flatness of the characters and the pointlessness of the story. Music, on the other hand, is enjoyably kitschy with memorable motifs for different achievements during play.
The Lego series is home to much better games, from the polished The Force Awakens to the expansive Marvel Super Heroes, a sequel to which is due for release later this year. Without being able to speak for fans of Ninjago, the game is also beholden to the derivative new movie, rather than the apparently sprawling and more sincere adventures told in Masters of Spinjitzu. On the other hand, TT Games’s Lego series still boasts a higher level of competency than almost anything else on a similar scale. Lego Ninjago is hard to knock too much when the game contains more raw entertainment value than so many other titles to either side on the shelf.
Despite an unengaging story, some repetitive combat, and long load times, the game is far from a failure. For single players who have grown up with video games, Lego Ninjago offers very little. Meanwhile, young and first-time gamers or parents playing with their children could do a lot worse than Lego Ninjago. Just try out Star Wars, Marvel, Lego City Undercover, Batman, or any of the other Lego games first.
Reviewed on PS4.