2009 saw the release of LEGO Battles to complement the action orientation of the main series titles, with a second iteration now aiming once more to provide a light and accessible real time strategy experience within the LEGO world. Unfortunately, LEGO Battles: Ninjago tries to spread its shallow formula too far and comes up with a thin overall experience. There are a few fun moments along the way, among a great many areas that just don't work.
Ninjago could serve well as an introduction to the RTS genre, or as an uncomplicated approach to two-player strategic competition. Its formula is quite simple – you've got one type of builder and seven varieties of fighters; you can have up to six of the former in play at once and you're allowed one of each of the latter. Builders construct a small assortment of structures including protective towers, Barracks to spawn more fighters and Keeps, the most important of the bunch. These allow you to heal nearby warriors, birth builders and research two upgrades for each category of soldier. Your builders will also carry back gold bricks, the one collectible resource, from self-regenerating stacks scattered about each map. The variations between each soldier type are mostly superficial; there's much ado about the five types of Spinjitzu, for example, but when it comes down to it, it just amounts to a slightly different graphic appearing on screen, a temporary transformation into a tiny tornado and a very similar effect on your opponents.
There's not much more than this to the battle mode, but once you get past the somewhat cryptic graphic and symbol-based menus, it provides a great framework for two teams to duke it out without things getting terribly complex. Two friends can compete in Annihilation, Capture the Flag, King of the Hill or Brick Race matches, while one player can enjoy the above as well as Survival and Goliath modes, the latter of which pits your army against one giant boss. Battle mode is where Ninjago shines brightest – it's nothing terribly special, but it's simple and malleable enough to mould into a fun experience, especially if you've got a friend around for competition.
It controls like you might expect an RTS – you move the camera with the D-Pad and perform most actions with the stylus, including clicking or dragging boxes to select characters and send them to locations, gold brick piles or enemies. The controls serve as the downfall of Story Mode, which utilises the real-time strategy framework to construct a single-player mission-based quest. The best levels borrow their gameplay from Battle Mode, but the majority of stages – about 20 in all – exist in a strange world between an adventure game and an RTS, making combat tedious and repetitive.
Every mission, with the exception of perhaps one or two, is extremely linear. You're presented with a problem, and immediately something makes itself apparent as the object to collect, the enemy to defeat or the button to press. You drag a box around your group, click where you want them to move and so on. Fighting is a matter of a few clicks and comprises sitting back and watching the action. This works well in RTS levels, where many fighters work together to defeat another army or topple a structure, but when you're fighting individuals or sporadic groups of enemies it feels shallow, failing to sufficiently involve the player.
The levels are extremely simple as well, and they never stray far from the basic formula of a medium-sized square map populated by enemies, obstacles, trees, walls, water and the like. The lack of any major twists or turns beyond the occasional trapdoor amounts to a largely dull collection of areas, and while it's interesting that you can quest as the ninjas or play through a separate story mode as the villainous skeletons, there's still not a lot of variety from mission to mission.
You can switch between three difficulty levels in one-player mode, which most noticeably affects RTS-based levels and can provide rather challenging matches when cranked up to hard. Still, adventure stages never feel terribly difficult, a fact that does not help their already simple and linear nature. The game includes a number of general hang-ups as well – your warriors sometimes grow considerably when upgraded, more easily getting in each other’s way, getting stuck on obstacles and finding it difficult to find their way past a simple bridge or staircase. Half of the time this feels like a strategic challenge, while the rest simply seem like a consequence of poor AI and collision detection.
Ninjago implements an uncomplicated graphical style that, while improving over its predecessor, still feels dated and bland, especially when it comes to its simple, choppy animations. The music is decent but unmemorable, and you'll hear the same tracks too often for any to really stand out. The game also tries to utilise the humorous nature of the LEGO series, but this is relegated to cutscenes that never feel quite as clever as the main iterations. This is perhaps because it's all in the context of a LEGO sub-brand, rather than the recognisable world of a film franchise. It also includes a hub world in the form of a giant dojo – there's a room for each subset of levels, a room for buying collectibles, even a room for the options menu, all of which can feel cumbersome and tedious.
Another mainstay of LEGO games, collecting studs and unlocking extras, is present as well, but again not in its best form. Since the levels are so simple, minikits and red bricks are never cleverly hidden. Additionally, in an RTS it makes even less sense that studs don't snap to your player and that you must stop what you're doing to run and grab them as they pop forth from a downed foe or structure. Unlocking maps also feels somewhat unsatisfying as none really stand out, and purchasing characters for your armies in Battle Mode is limited by the fact that, again, their only differences are superficial. Sure, it's a lot of fun to have a luchador, a zombie and a rocket piloted by a spaceman in the same militia, but an explosion is an explosion, and it's disappointing that you can't strategise very subtly around which warriors you choose to implement.
In single and two-player Battle Mode, Lego Battles: Ninjago provides a simple, approachable RTS that can make for a fun, uncomplicated and challenging experience. However, the main adventure can be tedious and disappointing, level design is lacklustre and warrior classes lack enough variety to make for a rich and subtle strategic experience. The component parts aren't bad, but they're too basic to fit together in many interesting ways, resulting in an entertaining experience of which you'll have seen all there is to see before long.