At this point, "Oh, look! Another LEGO game!" is a phrase that can only be said with genuine excitement or seething, bitter sarcasm. Regular releases in the LEGO series of video games have become such a constant in the industry that these action-adventure titles are on the verge of becoming a genre of their own. Not to leave the fans empty-handed before the upcoming releases of LEGO Jurassic World and LEGO Dimensions, a new title in the LEGO Ninjago series has made its way to the Nintendo 3DS. Acting as a sequel to 2014's LEGO Ninjago: Nindroids, the newly released LEGO Ninjago: Shadow of Ronin builds off of the framework that came before it, but not in all of the right directions.
Based on the TV show of the same name, the LEGO Ninjago games revolve around a band of ninjas determined to protect their home. When a new villain by the name of Ronin comes to town and steals the ninjas' memories, it's up to the heroes to regain their memories and stop the forces of evil from taking over Ninjago. Like the rest of the modern LEGO games, TV shows, and films, Shadow of Ronin features silly characters in absurd situations fully equipped with a hilarious script. The characters and environments are brought to life through top-notch voice acting and a soundtrack that compliments the Ninjago world, but with all that going for it, it's such a shame that so much of the package falls apart.
The game begins by throwing its players right into the action. Anyone who has played a previous LEGO video game will immediately feel comfortable, but this prologue also works well as a guide to gently introduce newcomers to the standard controls and procedures. The control setup works well, relying on the Circle or D-Pads for movement, the lettered buttons for combat, and occasional use of the touchscreen for various other actions. Despite the effective control scheme, it doesn't always work nearly as well as it should. For a game that often relies on quick movement and attacks during platforming and action sequences, the inputs are not always as responsive as they need to be; on more than one occasion combat controls stopped working altogether. Thankfully this only happened in more exploration-heavy segments, so we weren't at a complete loss, but controls suddenly dropping out in any situation is a major red flag.
When the controls did work, it was apparent that the majority of combat was simply pounding on the Y button until all enemies fell to pieces. There's a distinct lack of depth in the combat, especially when you realize that all basic enemies can be instantly eliminated with a single jump attack. You can essentially single-hit KO your way through every skirmish rather than having to engage in battle at all. This lack of depth also brings about a lack of challenge, and it doesn't take long for a game that is both easy and shallow to become a bore.
The campaign progresses linearly with collectables to find within each stage. Stages feature five unique tasks to complete as you work your way through in order to earn gold LEGO bricks, but completing the campaign is not dependent on this whatsoever. Completed stages can be replayed at any time in order to conqueror these additional challenges, but because the campaign can be completed without having to focus on these collectables they really only exist for the completionists among us. It's too bad that the gold bricks weren't incorporated into the gameplay in a more significant way in order to actually encourage players to return, and instead end up feeling like fodder to extend an otherwise quick experience.
The visual presentation has not strayed at all from previous LEGO games, employing an isometric perspective that works well as you guide your ninjas along the mostly linear paths. The environments are detailed and look unique from one another, but the visuals aren't without their problems. As is the case with every portable LEGO title, the cinematic sequences look compressed and muddy, an unattractive element in an otherwise appealing game.
The other major visual issue is the handheld's stereoscopic 3D. Having the 3D switched on adds a bit of depth to the environments, but it ends up taking away much more from the presentation than it adds. As soon as the slider is pushed up in the slightest, everything suddenly becomes jagged and slow. All of the once smooth edges become very apparent, and there is such a significant drop in frame rate that the action seems to slow down to about half its pace. It's incredible how detrimental the 3D effect actually is to this game, turning it into an ugly, sluggish, cumbersome mess. If you're going to play this one, be sure that it remains strictly two-dimensional to avoid all of the jagged lines and sluggish movement.
The LEGO video games are in serious need of fresh mechanics, and LEGO Ninjago: Shadow of Ronin is just another example of the lack of progress. The usual humour and charm that the series is known for is alive and well, but the gameplay has gone inexcusably stale. Add ugly 3D effects and a stuttering frame rate into the mix and you've got a concoction that's difficult to recommend to even the biggest Ninjago fans. When the 3D is turned off and the repetitive combat is ignored, what remains is a family-friendly action-adventure title that doesn't quite offer enough. This is the exact type of game that has the opportunity to build off of its predecessor, but instead sticks to the basics and ends up suffering for it.