It's a new month, which means that the team behind the ever-popular LEGO games has a new release to share with the world. Rather than building a game based off of a popular book or film series, the latest addition to the LEGO pantheon is based on the company's own Ninjago universe. Acting somewhat as a sequel to 2011's LEGO Battles: Ninjago for the DS, this 3DS release launches the franchise onto the current generation of portable consoles and changes up the formula quite a bit. Though different from its predecessor, the real question is whether or not LEGO Ninjago: Nindroids provides a unique enough experience to stand on its own.
Gameplay is exactly what you might expect if you've played any of the recent portable LEGO titles. Sticking with linear stages and a fixed isometric view, the majority of action involves running through each area and smashing your enemies to bits with wild taps of the Y button. As you attack, a combo meter will count your hits up to 12 and fill a special attack meter. When your meter is full, pressing the L button will unleash your special Spinjitzu ability, an attack that sends your character spinning across the stage, dealing damage to any enemy who stands in your way. Some stages change up the formula, adding in giant mech suits that you control or playing more like an on-rails shooter, but these stages are so few and far between that you'll likely forget that they even existed between the usual repetitiousness.
One of the biggest changes here is the addition of the ability to jump. Lately, the portable LEGO games have omitted this basic power, focusing much of the gameplay of puzzle solving rather than platforming. Appropriately for Ninja action, this game instead opts for precision platforming and combat over puzzles, making the experience feel more focused on action. Landing on small platforms can be difficult with the fixed camera, but overall it works well and is by no means unreasonable. There are 31 stages in total, including boss battles, and the whole campaign can be played through in just around seven hours.
From the perspective of storytelling and humour, the LEGO games tend to be at their best in their original properties. Seeing brick versions of you favourite superheroes or '80s action film stars carries with it infinite amounts of delight, but LEGO City Undercover: The Chase Begins and The LEGO Movie Videogame prove that the franchise does not need to rely on a familiar face to gain audience approval. The plot in LEGO Ninjago: Nindroids sees the Ninja protagonists recovering Technoblades - powerful weapons bearing mysterious abilities - to stop the evil Overlord from taking over New Ninjago City with his army of robotic ninjas known as Nindroids. It mostly comes down to a battle of good versus evil, but the cyberpunk aesthetic and vibrant cast of characters helps to keep the whole thing from feeling played out and dull. The majority of story elements are animated and fully voice acted, making it easy to get a feel for the characters as individuals, including the villains - characters who are surprisingly humorous with their appreciation for some truly groan-inducing jokes.
The campaign may be short, but it provides plenty of incentive to play through stages multiple times. Stages are unlocked linearly as the story progresses, but each has 10 gold bricks that can be earned by completing specific tasks. Collecting gold bricks is not necessary, but this aspect does extend the game's life by quite a bit for those obsessive collectors among us. Collecting gold bricks will sometimes result in new characters or abilities becoming available in the in-game shop, all of which can then be purchased with the studs that you've collected in stages. This extra content won't appeal to all players, especially when considering the 3DS's lack of an achievement system, but there's no denying that it cultivates an almost necessary amount of replayability.
Unsurprisingly, the art style shared by previous LEGO games has been retained here. Though the style remains largely unchanged, this latest title looks a bit crisper than previous games, but not by much. The 3D effect does little to improve the experience, and it isn’t present at all during cinematic sequences, but jagged edges during gameplay aren’t as obvious and the cutscenes look significantly less muddy. As this game was developed exclusively as a portable entry, we assume that the cinematics weren’t simply ripped and compressed from a higher definition home console version, resulting in improved visuals during the story elements. The voice acting and the techno soundtrack help to enhance and bring the futuristic setting to life. 3D effect aside, LEGO Ninjago: Nindroids is crafted well from an aesthetics standpoint and is an improvement over those that came before it.
There’s no question that the majority of home console LEGO titles have been great - with the glaring exception of The Hobbit - while their portable counterparts have been good at best. Though the releases have attempted to consistently maintain a certain level of quality, they're also cursed with the burden of familiarity. It's very obvious that the developers here know what works in their games and what doesn't, allowing them to continue building games to hold up to their standard, but it also means that they don't tend to take very many risks. As such, most of these games have become interchangeable, simply swapping characters and settings out and calling them brand new releases. LEGO Ninjago: Nindroids is no exception to this. It's a fine game and it plays well, but it's also disheartening to see that little has been done to make this original property feel unique.
For the most part, LEGO Ninjago: Nindroids feels like just another addition to the ever-expanding brick-based universe. The gameplay works well as an action platformer and the characters are fun to get to know, but overall this game is let down by its insistence on not taking any risks. Rather than providing an experience that feels unique on more than just a superficial level, this is yet another example of the same old portable LEGO formula changed up just enough to re-brand and re-release. All that aside, if you’re a fan of the previous LEGO games, and obviously if you’re a fan of the Ninjago series, there’s a good chance you’ll have fun with this one as well. The old saying goes “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” but we’re definitely getting tired of the lack of variety.