26th Oct2017

‘The LEGO Ninjago Movie Videogame’ Review (Nintendo Switch)

by Rupert Harvey

lego-ninjago-switch

The latest in the long line of Traveller’s Tales tie-ins is this cumbersomely-titled effort, and as gaming experience it’s precisely what you would expect – a fact that brings a hint of comfort and a sprig of joy, but also a sense of laziness, and the nagging feeling that the well-worn LEGO game formula is wearing thin.

After a grainy “FusionScope” introduction (such a shame that the ‘70s ninja movie vibe is not reflected in the tone or plot of the game or the movie), the player is thrown into Uncle Wu’s (Jackie Chan) training dojo for a tutorial, which culminates in a face-off against The Master Chicken. Everything you need to know about the game – from the typically irreverent humour to the simplistic gameplay – is contained in this first sequence.

The LEGO games are basically puzzle adventures, although Ninjago’s core gameplay is naturally somewhat more combat-focused. With its dashes, double-jumps and joypad-busting combos, it feels at times like a stripped down, baby Bayonetta (Babyonetta?) – albeit with none of the fluidity, sophistication or visceral impact of Platinum Games’ masterwork. Throw in a drunken camera and it’s a recipe for button-mashing randomness. Kids’ll love it.

Fighting enemies and exploring the world will help you to gain “Ninjanuity Powers”, which are passive upgrades to health, power and bonus drops. The bulk of the game takes place in semi-linear levels, fighting enemies and solving easy puzzles in order to proceed. There isn’t much new to the puzzling here, although occasionally the player is expected to build items in a specific order – a task which serves only to slow progress. Off the beaten track are tons of costumes, studs and gold bricks to hunt down, although you’ll easily max out your powers by sticking to the main path.

The plot follows the LEGO Ninjago movie fairly closely. Lloyd (Dave Franco) is the estranged son of Lord Garmadon (Justin Theroux), an evil overlord who regularly attempts to take control of Ninjago City. When an even greater evil – a curious cat, which bats away buildings in a single swipe – Lloyd and his ninja kin are forced into an alliance with Garmadon, in order to locate the Ultimate, Ultimate Weapon, and save the world. Along the way, the super(hero)-ninjas will harness their elemental powers – fire, water, lightning etc – and Lloyd himself will try to understand his own, mysterious power of “Green”, whilst trying to forge some kind of a relationship with his ruthless father.

Having played the game before watching the movie, it was apparent that those elements of storytelling that the movie did with impressive efficiency – for example, introducing the squad of main characters – is not handled well in the game. Not only are the movie excerpts poorly integrated with the in-game cutscenes, with shoddy black screens between transitions, they are questionable in terms of their storytelling value. And at times the clips seem to be unfinished cuts: in my game, the entire final scene played out with sound effects but no voices whatsoever.

It may well have been a bug, of which I encountered many. Some were bearable glitches – flickering graphics during the loading screens; consistently imperfect lip-syncing – but others were game-halting. At one point, on the Ninjago Port level, I was forced to reload when vital game artefacts failed to materialise. Combined with the very inconsistent framerate (ranging from buttery-enough 30fps to a virtually unplayable judder) and the excruciating load times (see also: Lego City Undercover), and it’s clear that the game is a sloppily unoptimised port.

It’s frustrating because, when everything comes together, LEGO Ninjago can be an impressive game. The Uncrossable Jungle level is super-smooth, and dazzling in its Uncharted-like dappled loveliness. Early on there are a couple of Star Fox-lite flying sections which, while ridiculously easy, give a sense of chaos and scale that’s rarely seen in LEGO titles. And there’s a great flashback level which lets you play out the battle in which Garmadon and Koko (Olivia Munn) fell in love, which feels briefly like a Musou title.

And that’s an apt comparison to finish on. For, like many a Musou game, what you get out of the latest LEGO game will largely depend on your affection for the source material. Luckily, the movie is strong, and its events are well-suited to the formula. It’s just a pity that the game so often feels cobbled together in a hurry, two or three patches from completion. For fans of the LEGO game series, it’s a no-brainer; for fans of the film, it’s a cautious recommendation; but for everyone else, perhaps wait until it has dropped in price.

The LEGO Ninjago Movie Videogame is out now on Nintendo Switch.

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