Though the late '90s and early '00s saw a variety of Lego video games released across all genres, the launch of LEGO Star Wars kicked off a 30+ game run of co-op action platformers based around myriad popular IP that’s still going strong today. It’s a formula that’s worked well and evolved somewhat over the years, but it’s tough to deny that the gameplay hasn’t gotten a bit stale with time. Luckily, Lego (the company) has lately been experimenting more in breaking away from this tired formula with smaller titles like LEGO Builder's Journey that are more creative in scope. The latest of these is LEGO Bricktales, a puzzle-focused, slower-paced release that demands more of the player’s creativity and problem-solving skills. It’s a little rough around the edges, but the gameplay is solid and definitely worth checking out.
Lego Bricktales places you in the role of a minifig visiting your eccentric inventor grandpa, who has finally managed to successfully build a portal that can take you to other worlds. Unfortunately, he was so preoccupied with his work that he forgot to clean up the messy amusement park where his lab is based, and his landlord has promised she’ll seize the land if it isn’t cleaned up by the end of the day. Luckily for him, a helpful little robot named Rusty comes in to save the day and builds a machine to clean up the park in time. The catch is that the machine needs power, and it runs on happiness crystals which are sourced from grateful people. To help out gramps, you thus volunteer to use his portal to travel around with Rusty and help people, hopefully collecting enough crystals before he loses the park.
Gameplay could be best described as a mixture of Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker, Picross 3D, and Bridge Constructor (which makes sense seeing as this was made by the Bridge Constructor developer, Clockstone), with some Metroidvania elements thrown in for good measure. This may sound odd, but it all comes together quite well to make for a relaxing and engaging puzzle experience. After using the portal to travel to a new biome, you’re faced with a diorama-esque level that your character can explore at will. There are multiple dioramas to explore in a given biome, and each is packed with treasure chests full of goodies and brief environmental puzzles that open up new routes and secrets.
Though progression through each biome for the ‘story’ is relatively linear, you’ll need to use special items and abilities to unlock every side path and collect all the treasure. Some of these are obtained in the biome itself, but you’ll sometimes have to backtrack later on once you’ve gotten the requisite abilities in later biomes. Treasure chests contain things like more cosmetic items to deck out your character, special bricks you can use to add flair to your builds, or edibles like chicken drumsticks and bananas that you use as a currency to pay a ghost shopkeeper for more cosmetics. It’s not too hard to find everything in a given biome, but we appreciated how you’re often prodded to check out the diorama from all angles to find hidden rooms and switches that are smartly obscured.
Each biome will have a few people who you need to help for the story, such as rescuing the crew of a downed plane in the jungle or slaying a dragon poisoning the water of a fiefdom, and this is where most of the building gameplay comes in. At various points you’ll come across an obstacle, such as a river you need to cross or a cat in need of a scratching tree, and you will be asked to build something. This will take you to a separate screen where you’re then given a limited number of bricks and have to build a stable construct that meets certain criteria. You can be as creative and offbeat as you like in what you build and how you build it, the only thing that matters is that it meets all the requirements.
Before you can progress, your work has to pass a stress test where a robot runs across what you built or weights are dropped on it to test balance and sturdiness. Given that this is a kid-friendly Lego game, you don’t exactly need a civil engineering degree to produce a workable solution, though there are some puzzles that’ll make you think for a bit before you finally land on something that doesn’t fall apart.
This building aspect of the gameplay proves to be relaxing and quite rewarding when you finally get something that works, but one large downside here is how it controls. Maneuvering bricks around a 3D space to place them in specific configurations is quite a bear to navigate via controller and never feels natural. It kind of feels like you’re using a claw machine to put together Lego pieces.
For example, you’ll try to slot one piece between two you’ve already placed and it’ll keep jumping just to one side or the other. Or it’ll look like a piece is in place, only for you to realize the camera perspective was off, and it isn’t even connected to anything else. In handheld mode, you can use touch controls, which feel a little easier to manage, but it’s abundantly clear that building was designed for a mouse interface. You do get used to its quirks with time, and most pieces fall into place after only a little bit of fussing around, though we wish this felt more intuitive considering how integral this mechanic is to the whole gameplay loop. Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts proved many years ago that it's entirely possible to build a satisfying creator interface around a gamepad. Clockstone's effort here functions well enough, but feels nowhere near as fun or simple as just putting together Lego pieces with your hands.
As for presentation, Lego Bricktales does a great job of recreating the plasticky and toylike design of real Lego pieces while including some creative video game flair. For example, the smoke for your jetpack will shoot out as a flood of red studs that are gradually replaced by darker shades of red and finally black studs. It appears that everything actually sticks to real-life Lego limitations, too, so you could feasibly recreate any of the dioramas here in your living room if you had all the necessary pieces.
The drawback to this semi-realism, of course, is that the Switch hardware isn’t quite up to the task. There are fleeting moments where it seems things are running at 60 FPS, but we noted many instances of sharp, sustained drops into sub-30 FPS territory. Guiding your character around a diorama thus sometimes looks like stop-motion animation and not in a good way. Worse yet, there are moments where the building screen itself seems to struggle; sometimes there’s a pause for a few seconds after you select a piece while the engine catches up with the interface for all the tools that let you manipulate that piece. Though touch control is a nice bonus for Switch, these performance issues alone are enough for us to recommend you pick up Lego Bricktales on another platform if you have the option.
As for the music, we especially appreciated the chill soundtrack, which contains a collection of relaxing tunes which provide just the right amount of auditory texture for play sessions. While you’re brainstorming how you want to design a zipline, the soundtrack isn’t getting in the way with obnoxious or overly upbeat tracks, but it provides a nice background that’s better than uncomfortable silence. You probably won’t remember much from this soundtrack, but it’s great at providing the vibes.
Lego Bricktales isn’t perfect, but it offers up a refreshingly unique experience relative to the litany of action platformers based on licensed IP we’ve been getting for nearly two decades now. We sincerely appreciated the focus on low-stress building puzzles that encourage and reward creative solutions. It's the kind of game that you just take at your own pace and lose yourself for a bit to the relaxing tunes and simple act of building. It's a shame, then, that awkward controls hamper your creativity and hold it back from greatness. Couple that with performance issues on Switch, and we'd recommend playing on PC if you can. Still, Bricktales is the closest thing in years that a Lego video game has gotten to the actual feeling of playing with Lego, and those of you who appreciate the famous toy will find something to love here.