The Lego Ninjago Movie Video Game Review
You'll need nunchuks where we're going
Much has been said about both the continuing successes of the LEGO spinoff franchises in the video game space, and film to game adaptations. With The LEGO Ninjago Movie Video Game, the streams are crossed once more. This latest release comes with a lot less heads-up compared to the typical LEGO Game launch, but that's perhaps because it is available alongside the newly released movie of the same name. Perhaps the publisher Warner Bros and developer TT Games were hoping that the excitement of the film would be enough to entice young fans to seek out a game that would continue the fun. And at least in that, Ninjago Movie Video Game does meet expectations. That's not saying much however, since this gaming series has managed to work up to quite a decent reputation up until now, and this feels a bit more like a cash-in than a proper full standalone release.
Seeing as the title of the game is of the blandly unoriginal "Movie Video Game" variety, fans can expect the content and story to follow closely to that of the film. If the title didn't give it away, this particular LEGO property focuses on the path of ninjas and adapts an appropriate visual and thematic style. The main hero of the story is Lloyd, who along with a few others (Nya, Jay, Kai, Cole, Zane and Master Wu) are in charge of defending Ninjago City, located on a secret island. But the city is under threat by evil Lord Garmadon and his Shark Army minions; in an attempt to stop him, Lloyd causes an unfortunate catastrophe that does more harm than good. Now that the whole island is at risk, he and his team must make it to the heart of the island where would find the mysterious power that he seeks to save the day.
As one would expect from a LEGO game, the story is filled with plenty of gags and slapstick jokes. It remains entertaining and friendly throughout, an approach that both the games and movies have got down to a formula at this point. But the key issue of The LEGO Ninjago Movie Video Game arises from the fact that it is based on a movie, and that causes a two-fold issue. For one, without having seen the film, the narrative doesn't flow as well as it probably would have if this was a standalone original story. Characters are introduced with little fanfare and story beats come and go with little time to breathe. And secondly, the story chapters are quite short, wrapping up in well under four hours and leaving you with an unsatisfying conclusion. This is quite brief, even for a LEGO game, never mind one that costs full price.
The gameplay will also be familiar to any LEGO fan, at least at first. You're still roaming around mostly linear story levels, breaking apart everything in sight in order to collect studs and find golden bricks. While each level still has an indication of how many studs can be earned, your overall collection meter is now continuous. This means even if it takes a few levels, once this persistent meter is filled you'll get unlocks and a new collector rank. Another change is the fact that unlocking new characters no longer requires you to also purchase them with studs, a welcome design alteration given the adjusted stud collecting mechanic. Apart from breaking things apart, you'll be doing the typical LEGO platforming, light puzzling, combat and on-rails sequences. It's all functional, but also very familiar and very safe. By the end of the game, even despite its brevity, things can grow tedious for experienced players or those who've already dedicated a lot of time to other LEGO titles.
There is typically one feature that each LEGO game boasts that helps it standout at least a little against the seemingly overwhelming number of these titles. For The LEGO Ninjago Movie Video Game, that feature is appropriately combat. Unlike most titles in this series where enemy encounters are simplistic single-attack affairs at best, the ninjas do not mess around. The combat is combo-based, meaning you can string attacks together to deliver some devastating, and often cinematic, blows. You can deliver a series of fast slashes all around the enemy, deliver a dash or a body slam, or you can juggle them high into the air like you're playing Devil May Cry. Some enemies have shields that need a specific attack to overcome, but most of the time you can still button mash to your heart's content. Chaining attacks together for massive combos isn't required, but it gets you more studs.
These unique aspects carry into the platforming. On certain parts of the environment, the characters can perform moves such as wall runs, parkour, high jumps and other flashy traversals. There's not much skill required here, but it complements the game's setting. Over the course of the story, the heroes also earn new abilities and experience as part of the Wall of Ninjanuity. This fairly straightforward unlock system grants you access to unleash harder-hitting moves and other typical benefits. Having said all that, there are some occasional bugs, particularly when you get stuck in the game world or during platforming. On the whole though, The LEGO Ninjago Movie Video Game does manage to pack a memorable gameplay element thanks to its action packed combat.
After completing the story chapters players can explore the large levels freely, and that's where the typical LEGO collect-a-thon kicks in. The locations are based on the scenes from the movie, but also the Ninjago TV show, so dedicated fans will be sure to appreciate the variety. As you explore these city, mountain, volcano and jungle environments across the island, you will collect plenty of hidden secrets using characters that you've unlocked over the course of the game that now let you traverse previously unreachable paths. There's probably over 100 characters on offer, and the game helpfully displays and allows sorting by their ability type. If you're looking for more action, you can visit one of the unique Challenge Dojos where you must defeat increasingly difficult waves of enemies, do some platforming and defeat a boss. In these small levels you're chasing better combat results on the way to better unlocks and setting the highscore.
To promote family fun, the game once again supports drop-in cooperative play for the entire campaign and all of the modes. This is always a welcome feature, but in the case of The LEGO Ninjago Movie Video Game that means when playing solo, a mostly useless AI character will be following you along throughout. For more, you can head to one of the Battle Arenas where up to four players can go head to head in split-screen matches. The matches come in three types, but are all riffs on the keep-away mechanic. In Samurai Showdown, you collect flags for points and others can steal them; in Mystic Bounty you collect artifacts, and drop them if attacked; and in Ultimate Ultimate Weapon, you try to keep hold of said weapon for as long as possible. The maps have various pickups such as those that freeze your opponents' screens, make you huge, or make you fast. It's lighthearted and passable fun for a family.
The LEGO Ninjago Movie Video Game keeps the brick-focused visual style of the series without a hitch. Although it's not the most technically impressive game, the art style is good and voice actors do OK, though they are not the ones from the movie. The cutscenes actually use what appears to be footage from the film, rather than the typical in-game, which can be a bit jarring. Problems begin to arise with the UI design, which feels poorly laid out and cluttered. The studs you collect are unnecessarily prominent and the foreground effect can actually block your view of the flashy combat. When you're performing some of the cinematic ninja moves, the camera can get quite confused and point into nothing. And finally, the loading times leave a lot to be desired.
The LEGO video game series is clearly doing well enough to keep going and produce a multitude of titles year after year. 2017 already saw the release LEGO Worlds, this title, and Lego Marvel Super Heroes 2 still to come. With so many games on offer, the quality is always likely to have its ups and downs; in the case of The LEGO Ninjago Movie Video Game, it's a middling result. The combat and the Ninjago theme are clearly the highlights here, and if you've been desperately waiting to explore this particular corner of the LEGO megafranchise, this isn't a half-bad way to do it. But for many players, the disappointing story, short length and extreme similarities to all the games that came before it are enough to put their ninja ambitions aside for now.