Platforms: 3DS | PS Vita (reviewed)
Developer: Hellbent Games | TT Games
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive
LEGO. Ninjas. Both of these things are undeniably excellent in their own right, so I suspect that the LEGO Ninjago toy line can boast the shortest brainstorming session in company history. "We haven't sold Ninja-themed kits since 1998. So how about... more ninjas... only this time on a futuristic alien planet with multiple armies that we can keep expanding on with new sets? Also some of the ninjas are robots. We can call them Nindroids."
"That's terrible. Let's do it, and also make a mechanical dragon. We can call it the MechDragon. Have a raise."
So Ninjago was born, and in fine transmedia style, spawned an animated series followed finally by a handheld game on PS Vita and 3DS. It's the sort of eye-rolling predictable play that you'd expect from any big company, but does it live up to the usual standard we expect from TT Games?
Be in no doubt: Nindroids is aimed squarely at fans of the Ninjago playsets and CG series, as evidenced by a storyline that manages to be both simplistic and impenetrable for newcomers in classic Saturday Morning cartoon style. In the interests of brevity, a group of futuristic teachers also happen to be powerful ninjas, who find themselves fighting to save their city from the clutches of an evil virtual overlord, his robot armies and their fantastically-named line manager General Cryptor. Containing both scenes from the series and some stylised comic book segments, the fan service is impressive, though some terrible voice acting and annoying timeskips will keep relative newcomers out of the loop.
Never mind, because LEGO and Ninjas are fairly self-explanatory. What matters is the gameplay, which Hellbent Games naturally base on the legendary work of Traveller's Tales. Once again we'll smash up everything in sight to collect studs, collect hidden red bricks, collect more studs, collect hidden minikits, collect even more studs and gradually wield a fantabulous fountain of studs to unlock new characters and cheats back at a compact yet quirky hub town. The impossible-to-fail action platforming framework is still very much intact, but Hellbent have made a couple of interesting deviations from the norm.
It's clear that they've been taking feedback on board, in fact, since Nindroids has clearly been designed around its new portable platforms. Whereas Legends Of Chima's levels were too long for 'pick up and play' sessions, Nindroids is packed full of bite-sized stages that run from anywhere between two and ten minutes, packing in a variety of objectives as you clatter through corporate headquarters, city districts, countryside settings and plenty of attractively-designed cyberpunk environments. To accommodate this shorter runtime, there's more of an emphasis on combat as opposed to exploration this time around (see also: Ninjas), with a simple yet accessible combo system, ground pounds and dodge roll. It works well enough, though often feels spongy and unresponsive versus dedicated action games.
Better yet, a selection of surprisingly tough challenges encourage you to revisit completed levels with new characters. Some push you through tight limits, others encourage scenery destruction, fulfilling special conditions or rationing special moves. This constantly gives you an addictive reason to fire up Nindroids for a quick blast little and often. Coupled with some neat touchscreen minigames that use the Vita's screen in interesting ways and a survival mode dojo to earn extra studs and you have a recipe for success.
A recipe, sadly, that tastes rather bland after being undercooked. Glib metaphors aside, the problem is that while the huge number of short levels contain an impressive variety of gameplay styles (a pleasing few of which contain actual stealth or at the very least some light spatial puzzling), there's also a lot of padding and uninspired inconsistent design on show here. Many stages are just oppressively linear corridor crawls against the same opponents you've fought countless times before, with 'secrets' just requiring you to press a button or enter a door with a particular character. You'll encounter precious little of the imaginative and zany spirit that characterises TT Games' best work, that anarchic sense of humour and discovery that puts silly and hilarious things around each corner if you go out of your way to look, meaning that things can quickly get stale.
Moreover, the less said about a selection of deeply dull and simplistic rail shooting vehicle stages the better. The combat simply can't carry Nindroids all the way, and repetition sets in very quickly indeed if played in a long sitting. Thank goodness for all those studs and the 'pick up and play' mission structure, then.
The Vita version's visuals and performance (try saying that five times quickly) are solid and shiny enough, if sometimes serving to highlight some of the rougher edges in terms of clunky animations and annoyingly inconsistent collision detection. I've lost count of the number of times I've fallen off a platform or tightrope that should have been a dead cert, but thanks to instant respawns and infinite continues, it's only frustrating if you're pursuing a survival challenge.
A budget RRP could have saved the day, but at £34.99, it's hard to recommend Nindroids over most of the previous LEGO games, unless you happen to be a massive fan. Be sure to look out for a smart bargain... and be sure to think twice about the 3DS version. Which, according to several of my peers, is utterly horrendous.
- Addictive bite-sized LEGO missions with replayable challenges
- Eyecatching visuals and art design (reviewed on Vita only)
- Studs. Many, many Studs.
- Inconsistent, linear and often simplistic level design
- Several dull rail shooting stages
- Some rough mechanical edges
- £34.99 is a big ask: superfans only
The Short Version: LEGO Ninjago Nindroids is what it is: a functional tie-in that will cater to dedicated fans of the toy line, but lacks the creative spirit and exploration of core TT-developed LEGO titles. Fun in moderation, though arguably money you could put towards that awesome MechDragon instead...
NB: This review and score is only applicable to the Vita version.