Ah, it feels like it’s been weeks since we last had a new Lego game. Remember when you were a kid, and had to wait years and years to see more of your favourite franchise? Well, today’s younglings are spoilt in comparison – all it takes is a freshly signed franchise licence and the Lego game machine jumps to attention and begins pushing out more destructible terrain and bobble-headed characters. This time the bricky goodness manifests in the form of Lego Ninjago, a current set that is (shocking, I know) loosely based on various Japanese themes. It’s a fairly established set, with the supporting TV show Lego Ninjago: Masters of Spinjitzu recently entering its third season. In fact, the plot of Lego Ninjago: Nindroids is based on the first five episodes of the third season of the show, and sees you following the Ninjas Kai, Jay, Zane and Cole as they battle against a resurgent Overlord through all of the main Ninjago locations.If you try to avoid most of the rehashed portable Lego releases, or only play them under duress as a younger family member throws them towards you, then you may find yourself pleasantly pleased with some of differences that Hellbent Games has managed to squeeze into Nindroids. From the very start of the opening cinematic it’s clear that this is finally a Vita Lego game that has had some optimisation work performed – while it doesn’t feel native res it’s miles in front of any other Vita Lego game. The same massive strides have been made in the game’s audio as well, and no longer will you experience muddy or low sounds pumped through your headset. Get past the cinematics however, and some sense of sacrifice becomes obvious; it’s clear that the lead platform for Ninjago was the 3DS, and in a departure from past Vita tiles what we get here is a Lego game graphically cut down and presented in an almost isometric style.At last, FMV that doesn’t look awfulThat’s not to say that it looks bad, however – the somewhat simplified world looks crisp on the Vita’s screen, and there’s no fear of a repeat of the mugginess seen in, say, Lego Lord of the Rings. Far more important is the departure from the traditional level structure of a Lego game; instead of multi-section levels that could take you over fifteen minutes to finish if you are diligent in destruction, Ninjago instead serves up thirty-one smaller levels. There’s a greater level of focus on offer in the level design, and with character studs removed there’s not as much need for the levels to be full of initially inaccessible bits and bobs. Each level also comes with ten challenges, ranging from time attacks to damage limitation, and they’ll keep you coming back in free play time after time while you tick them all off. If you bear in mind the fact that, like Chima before it, Ninjago is a handheld-only game then the style of punchier, faster levels that come along with reasons to return makes a lot of sense.In fact, among those thirty-one levels a couple stand out as excellent examples of what can be achieved in game design using the Lego toolkit. ‘Return to Sender’ is especially fantastic conceptually – a Paperboy clone that gives you hope that future Lego games could even reach LittleBigPlanet levels of creativity. The rest, however, offer up more of the same Lego play you all know and love – run here, break this, fix that, smash up these guys. The inclusion of multiple vehicle levels could have been a saving grace here, and they certainly help differentiate from the standard play, but most of them aren’t fun or challenging enough to want to return to.Dodge the bad stuffThe positive differences are let down then in some areas by the same old Lego issues, and then in others by problems of the developer’s own making. Combat is still deathly dull, the new combo system adding only a numerical display of hits and some snazzy trail effects. Jump slamming, over and over again, still rules the day, and if you play for any length of time you’ll be likely to equip the special metre red brick and spinjitzu your way through every level. The new challenges do refresh how you approach replaying the levels in free play mode, but unfortunately too many of them are painfully simple, such as asking you to finish a level as a particular type of character. In an absolutely criminal turn the ability to switch between any unlocked character has been removed, and instead you only have access to a small (partially fixed!) selection each time you open the character wheel. The levels may be much shorter, but that’s no excuse to force you into replaying them just because you can’t jump between already unlocked characters.Other issues pop up when you start playing around in free play mode; once you select a level you can choose to equip up to three red bricks, then you choose a minifigure to play as your main character, and then you get to the loading screen with all the challenges. Which is an annoying way to do it, because those challenges might require a specific character type you didn’t choose. Then, when you make into the level, there’s no way to return to the level select screen, only the hub. Bearing in mind loading times it’s often faster to speed through the level than it would be to exit out, run to the Noodle Shop and enter the level select screen again. It makes everything just that little bit more painful than it needed to be, and it bewilders me why we have to deal with these kinds of UI issues when Lego games have been nailing accessibility so well for so long prior to this.Run from the choppa!Throw in other common Lego issues, such as an extremely boring hub sidegame based on combat (why isn’t there an option to play a randomised ‘Return to Sender’ score attack? Or anything additional to do with the vehicles?) and you have to count Lego Ninjago: Nindroids very much as a missed opportunity. The jazzed up level structure is let down by the failure to capitalise on the fresh look and new level structure, and you have to wonder if whether in the end a smaller handheld only budget hurt everything over and above the main game. As always, for younger franchise fans (and especially those who love the set or the TV show) the game delivers all the goods they need, for older fans the gameplay is starting to hint as being interesting again if you can manage to ignore those rough edges, while everyone else can stay sat back, awaiting that promised land of a complete package.
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