The LEGO franchise and the Switch have been good bedfellows of late, with both LEGO City Undercover and LEGO Worlds releasing on the console so far. The former we enjoyed. The latter? Not so much. Unfortunately for all of us, The LEGO Ninjago Movie Video Game - from now on referred to simply as Ninjago, because that title is a mouthful - is more Worlds than Undercover.
If you've played a LEGO game from Traveler's Tales, then you know what to expect. Like most movie tie-in LEGO titles, Ninjago puts you in command of one of the group of ninja at a time. The levels are guided but somewhat open-ended as well; while you're given a set objective at the beginning of the level, there are numerous secrets to find, structures to break and studs to collect. The game tries to entice you into replaying levels by hiding untold numbers of secrets behind puzzles that can only be solved by a ninja not currently in your party, or with an ability you don't currently possess.
The level designs themselves, however, feel somewhat uninspired, and left us feeling like there wasn't much reason to return. After each level you're treated to a clip from the movie, most of which we found enjoyable; if anything the game is an effective advert for the film. Telltale's writing chops are still as good as ever as well, with dialogue that is every bit as funny as that found in other LEGO franchises.
Areas are quite detailed, and the sheen on the faux LEGOs is pretty convincing, but there was nothing in the varied environments that had us wanting to come back for a second look. More importantly, long load times made us dread changing areas. The loading screen features a view of the area you'll be playing in as though it were a real LEGO playset, which is interesting, but it's not worth spending 15-30 seconds on each time.
Mechanically, Ninjago works about as well as you might expect it to. Combat is strictly a button-mashing affair but it gets the job done. There are abilities, dubbed Ninjanuities(groan) which can be purchased using Ninjanuity Tokens (double groan). Each time you earn a token you are forced to spend it immediately; each ability costs a single token, so there's some value to that, but it's harmful to the overall experience to be removed from what you're doing to buy an ability you may not need at that moment.
Two-player co-op play is available but we can hardly recommend it. The screen is split vertically and the framerate takes a nose dive. It isn't entirely unplayable in TV mode, but in portable mode you're can kiss your chances of understanding what's happening goodbye. Playing with a friend definitely adds value to the game, as your AI partners are typically useless in any practical sense. While you clear an area of enemies, all too often you'll find your AI buddy struggling with the same foe they were on when you started. The partner you have exists only to be window dressing and for you to control when the game demands that both ninjas solve a puzzle.
Running around smacking bad guys is fun to an extent, but it's when the game starts to wander from the beaten path that we experienced trouble. Not content to adhere strictly to a known formula, Ninjago introduces some new gameplay types, such as a Panzer Dragoon-esque on-rails shooter in which you fly around Ninjago (the city) fending off evil forces - but the game doesn't really handle this well. The framerate takes a very clear dip here, and the Switch sometimes chokes under the number of enemies on screen at once. It's easy to think this is the fault of the system, but we've seen much more impressive feats pulled of on the console from other developers.
New gameplay isn't the only fault we found with Ninjago, either. Many times during our playthrough the game would inexplicably freeze, or the camera would lock in an area where all we could see was the top of our hero's head. This wasn't limited to gameplay either, as we noted this happened several times during cutscenes. During the course of our playthrough for the purposes of this review, it became standard practice to quit the game if a black screen appeared for too long, as it sometimes did during scene transitions.
LEGO games are typically quite good. Movie franchise games are typically quite bad. The LEGO Ninjago Movie Video Game is, both, but ultimately it feels more like a movie game than a LEGO game. Poor level design, long load times and bugs make for a game that doesn't realise its full potential; funny dialogue and entertaining movie clips can't elevate this one to greatness. If you're looking for a great LEGO game for your Switch, stick to Undercover for now.