The LEGO series is becoming a prominent part of gaming culture, bringing new twists on mainstream franchises such as Star Wars, Indiana Jones and Harry Potter to fans. It is little surprise that Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean has signed up for the LEGO treatment, but is LEGO Pirates of the Caribbean a blockbuster or missing the vital pieces?
As with LEGO Harry Potter: Years 1-4, all four movies are included. These, particularly At World's End, are notorious for their complex narratives, so developer TT Fusion has taken on quite a challenge to incorporate all of these tales onto one 3DS game cart. It is helpful that the LEGO style of storytelling allows for a humorous, satirical portrayal of the plot, with some of the cutscenes memorably poking fun at the more convoluted storylines.
Even with the trademark humour present and correct, however, there are some problems. For one thing, the 3DS version has been scaled back to four levels per movie, giving you a total of 16 stages. The home console equivalents have about 20 – as with previous LEGO titles, this version has been cut down, which has a noticeable effect on the flow of the story as well as the pre-rendered cutscenes being shortened significantly. Narrative sequences are often cryptic in LEGO titles at the best of times, but they are practically indecipherable in this version for all but the most hardcore fans. It is a shame that those less familiar with the films will, in all likelihood, be lost and confused by the cutscenes and transitions between levels.
Also setting the handheld version apart, the levels here are streamlined and linear affairs, which brings some welcome structure to proceedings while avoiding head scratching, 3DS-throwing moments. Stages are typically broken up into a number of smaller areas, each requiring you to smash and build blocks, activate switches and levers, and engage in some swashbuckling sword fights. It is always obvious what needs your attention as items requiring interaction are signified by clear visual prompts.
The developers have not only made it easy to figure out how to progress, but have also pulled back on the level of difficulty. Enemies sometimes forget to fight back, difficult platforming is mostly stripped away, and regenerative hearts are abundantly available. Alongside the hand-holding and simple puzzles, this lack of challenge may divide players; though the title is catered towards less experienced gamers, there is a danger that others will crave a tougher challenge.
This accessibility continues with the controls, which utilise the 3DS feature set particularly well. The circle pad or d-pad can be used to move, the former feeling accurate and comfortable, with A, B, Y and X doing the rest. There are also sword-fighting boss duels in the form of quick-time events using the four face buttons. These are easy to control and fun to watch, though their charm fades with each subsequent battle. Finally, as with previous LEGO titles, you control multiple characters with differing abilities. Swapping is mapped to the touch screen, and the ability to do so with a simple tap feels intuitive and keeps an enjoyable gameplay flow. As with the handheld LEGO Star Wars III: The Clone Wars, this suffers due to a lack of two-player co-op. As a series staple, the option to adventure with a friend would have been a welcome addition.
A no-frills playthrough will take around four hours, but to complete the story and stop would be to miss the whole point of the game. It would be impossible, for example, to collect all items in each level as the main mode doesn’t supply you with all of the attributes needed to break strong barriers, use portal shortcuts and so on. To access everything, you need to complete the game, unlocking characters of varying abilities as you go, and then return to do it all again. It's fun and exciting to explore every nook and cranny in the hunt for bottle-ships, red bricks and golden coins. Free Play gives you eight characters to use in each level, this motley crew accounting for all of the special skills that you need, and only observant and thorough adventurers will find everything. For completists this collect-a-thon will, at the very least, double the length of the game.
There are other goodies too, such as a StreetPass feature that allows you to choose a favourite character to duel with others. You select three attack and defence options – high, medium and low – and when a match is initiated it is a kind of rock, paper, scissors face-off. It’s simplistic stuff, but if you have a friend with the game who you can regularly battle, this may be a fun diversion.
Other extras are more modest: the hub village includes stores and taverns where you can view collected models and purchase extra characters, items and hints with your hard-earned studs. The tailor's shop is perhaps the most fun, allowing you to create your own custom LEGO person that is then playable in Free Play Mode. There are over 70 characters, plenty of items and even a cannon shooting mini-game, sure to prolong and enrich the experience.
The production values are a mixed bag. The graphics are a treat, with impressive effects and animations on show; Jack Sparrow’s distinctive running style is a particular delight. The 3D effect, even on the full setting, doesn’t add a great deal of depth, but still provides a pleasing visual experience. The downside is that the 3D can have a significant impact on the framerate. It is never game-breaking, but we did notice some areas where the slowdown was substantial. Additionally, the prerendered cutscenes are often pixelated and over-compressed.
Sound effects are strong and the orchestral music is nice, though the transitions between different loops are often poorly executed. Whenever enemies appear, the score suddenly shifts to an up-tempo number and then abruptly back to a relaxed beat when the battle ends after five to ten seconds, coming across as clunky and unnecessary.
LEGO: Pirates of the Caribbean is, for the most part, an enjoyable addition to the series and a fun experience. The level design and lack of difficulty make this particularly suitable for less experienced or casual gamers while potentially disenchanting seasoned players. There are some disappointments, including lack of co-op play, less levels and shorter story sequences than the home console versions, as well as some presentational hitches. However, this title is packed with fan service, unlockables and replay value, as well as undeniable charm and humour. All in all, this can be a fun, sometimes even swashbuckling adventure.