For whatever reason, LEGO games on Nintendo handhelds are never as good as their home console counterparts. Rather than harness the handheld's unique strengths from the ground up, they too often opt for creating a more compact version of the larger adventure. LEGO Star Wars III: The Clone Wars is no exception, providing an all-around fun experience but cutting back on everything that makes its Wii-based big sibling unique.
The third release in the LEGO Star Wars franchise, this title takes the TV series The Clone Wars as its base, which will make it less recognisable for the majority of movie-going fans while providing what to many will be a brand-new story. It's told through a combination of scrolling narration preceding each stage and video cutscenes in which the LEGO characters, as is their wont, speak only in comical grunts, aahs, huhs and the like. While it adds to the game's character, the non-verbalisation will make things a bit more confusing for the uninitiated.
The basic gameplay is a combination of kid-friendly action, platforming and puzzle-solving, your character moving about the top screen with full 3D control, though generally the environments are a bit restrictive. There's also a small number of flight-based levels, one of which even features a bit of Star Fox-esque on-rails action.
One of the major criticisms of the LEGO Star Wars games is that because you cannot die, instead losing a quantity of a currency called studs, fight scenes quickly grow tedious – with greatly reduced stake comes greatly reduced challenge. The Wii version of The Clone Wars makes up for this with innovative level design, enemies that necessitate strategising and multiple steps, and rarely relying on the fight as an end goal, placing the focus instead on clearing an exit or solving a puzzle. With the DS edition the series is back to its old ways, and while the above is true some of the time clearing every enemy is often a requisite step, and almost every bad guy, bosses included, simply requires that you hit or shoot it repeatedly. Of course, it's not all negative, and a few of the areas here are quite inventive or feature combat as an obstacle rather than an objective, but it's split about half and half between scenes of clever design and those of mindless, tediously risk-free button-mashing.
Many characters use the Force to assemble or repurpose objects to solve puzzles or collect studs, something that characters' special abilities come in handy for as well – some can place bombs, others use grappling hooks and so on. Where the Wii version provides enough manual segments to make the player feel in control of the action and have to use some lateral thinking, here the opposite is true – most of the time you'll find yourself simply proceeding from one automated action to the next as you either hold A or drag the stylus along the simple one-step directions on the touch screen to make it happen. The latter method makes you feel more connected to the action, but only as much as dragging the stylus up, down, left or right can manage, and it's cumbersome to switch between the pen and the buttons, with which you control almost everything else. Puzzle-solving is about as simple as it gets as well, again asking little more of the player than to hold down a button.
Flight scenes are a mixed bag. They break up the action and continually re-focus your goal on new tasks, but control is a tad awkward, navigation can get tricky when you're floating around in space, and the lack of consequences is felt even more strongly here as you won't even lose any studs when you perish. Top this with the fact that you accelerate with A and shoot with Y, which feels extremely unintuitive. It's fortunate that there are so few of these segments, and it's a shame that transitions into more interesting on-rails action happen so rarely and so fleetingly.
You'll always have two or more characters in your party at once, and here's where the DS game improves on the formula. On Wii your companions follow you around, and you must approach them and press C to transfer control, like in the movie Fallen. Here only one of them is on-screen at once, the face of each team member lined up at the top of the touchscreen for you to rotate through with L and R or click with the stylus. Whenever you need a specific person, their portrait will flash red, which makes things go more smoothly but diminishes the challenge a bit. Overall, this feels much easier and more natural than the console method of character-swapping.
The main story spans 13 levels split into three generally short acts apiece, making for a somewhat small main adventure, but that's before you count the unlockable mini-games, bonus stages, characters and more. You spend your studs on these in the less than intuitive hub world, and Free Play mode allows you to go back with any character to areas you've completed and use their unique abilities to search out secrets. Generally, however, these are concealed somewhat unimaginatively, diminishing the joy of exploration a bit.
The graphics are on the whole quite impressive, with many beautiful lighting effects and complex textures. Additionally, the video cutscenes play well on the DS and are hardly hampered by compression. Of course, the whole thing is told with trademark LEGO game slapstick style and tongue-in-cheek references, and as usual it's quite funny and charming while still serving well as homage. The music is a treat too, but a number of times it doesn't match the on-screen action, and overall it falls short of approximating the enveloping atmospheres of the console edition.
LEGO Star Wars III is fun, funny and charming, but it fails to innovate on the formula and relies too heavily on consequence-free combat, overly simplistic puzzle solving and automated interactions. Its young target audience will likely be turned off by the repetitive, risk-free fight scenes while still being delighted by the rest, but franchise newcomers have little incentive to make this their introduction.