LEGOs – perhaps the most perfect toy ever created. That a set of colorful little blocks can be stuck (and unstuck) together to form practically anything the heart desires is pretty amazing. The same could be said about the LEGO branded videogames, with our favorite connectible blocks have brought classic franchises like Indiana Jones, Batman, and Star Wars to blocky life in a series of whimsical adventures that have that rare ability to appeal to fans of all ages. Continuing the RTS (real-time strategy) fun of 2009’s LEGO Battles from developer Hellbent Games, LEGO Battles: Ninjago retains the same top-down gameplay while adding characters and scenarios from the popular LEGO Ninjago themed sets. It’s sort of like a LEGO StarCraft, but like its namesake a little rough around the edges.
It’s the oldest story in the book. Sensei Wu and Lord Garmadon may be brothers, but they couldn’t be any more different. One’s a man of peace wisdom, courage, and all things good; the other isn’t exactly sugar and spice, if you catch my drift. Their father, a pretty high fellow in the art of Spinjitzu, leaves his collection of mystical (and golden) weapons to his progeny. This doesn’t sit well with Lord Garmadon, whose ambitions go well beyond world peace. Sensei Wu (pretty honorable) must now embark on a suitably epic quest to safeguard these sacred (and golden!) weapons from the evil Lord Garmadon (not so honorable).
The game’s surprisingly long campaign is split between two separate campaigns: the Ninjago Campaign, which has Sensei Wu collecting the warriors of Spinjitzu to protect the weapons, and the Skelton Campaign, which lets you explore your darker side as you help the Skulkin army revive Lord Garmadon and snatch those pesky weapons for his dastardly deeds. Each campaign breaks contains four acts spread across several chapters, and while the main heroes/villains may be different, both play remarkably similar to each other. You'll get to unlock several extras and bonus features by collecting all the miscellaneous parts and blocks as you progress, much like other LEGO games.
One thing that won’t impress anyone are the game’s archaic visuals, which look like they’ve taken a trip straight from the days of 486 PCs, huge chunky sprites and all, all drawn with a disturbing lack of animation. Perhaps this was a way to get so many characters running at one time on the hardware, but the DS is capable of so much better than this. Practically everything lacks detail, which can make it difficult to hunt down and select individual characters (its a lost cause when they’re grouped together), and the quaint use of the familiar ‘fog of war’ effect to obscure unexplored areas is a little too nostalgic for my transparency-loving tastes. At least the mini-movies that are interspersed throughout the campaigns are fun, but you probably expected that from a LEGO branded game.
The most troubling thing about LEGO Ninjago is its control scheme, which should have worked like butter on the DS’s RTS-ready touchscreen controls. There’s a lack of polish and finesse that’s really troubling, especially coming from a developer known for their RTS games (Supreme Commander). Controls are spread across both the bottom touchscreen and buttons, and you’ll need to physically hold the DS to really play the game. Selecting items, characters, and buildings is handled via the stylus, while moving around the map and cycling characters is handled via the d-pad, shoulder, and face buttons. In theory, this should work, but in practice its often more trouble than its worth. Select a character with the stylus and you’ll have to de-select them using the L-trigger button…forget to do this and you’ll have warriors and builders scattered all over the place, none doing the task you just assigned them.
Another issue is the lack of explanation for, well, pretty much everything. The game does make a solid effort to create a more accessible RTS experience for younger audiences, but often fails miserably in the process. Practically nothing in the game is explained or given context, and you’ll often be tasked with handling some pretty weighty chores without so much a hint. One particular battle mission drops you into an empty map with the objective simply to ‘defeat the skeletons’, but that’s it. Doing so requires you to build block (i.e. gold) mines, barracks, soldiers, and towers; none of which was ever taught or even hinted at prior to that moment. This confusion further extends to warrior/Hero class upgrades, using items, and even managing resources in larger strategic missions. What do these symbolic menus mean? How do I upgrade my forces – thereby making more powerful units available – using these colorful boxes?
There are several single and multiplayer skirmish modes available, thank goodness, when you’re looking to take a break from completing the campaigns. Genre staples like capture the flag, king of the hill, and others will certainly help break the tedium, although you’ll want to collect each and every one of the campaign’s goodies to really take advantage. The game even promises “Hidden Heroes” from other popular LEGO toy lines… I wonder who they might be?
There is fun to be had with LEGO Battles: Ninjago, especially for those diehard LEGO fans that can look past its dated visuals, wonky controls, and oversimplified interface. Fans of the original Battles game will feel right at here here as Ninjago employs the same RTS system, for better or worse, while updating the roster and storyline to reflect its Spinjitzu sporting theme (and presumably guide your future LEGO set buying purchases). Two fairly large campaigns and surprisingly robust single and multiplayer skirmish modes means you’ll definitely get your monies worth, especially those just taking their first steps into the ordinarily complex world of real-time strategy gaming. Seasoned RTS fans will probably want to steer clear, unless they’re looking for a family-friendly RTS primer for the kids.
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Warner Bros. Interactive