While we've been busy placing bets on what blockbuster film franchise will get the Lego treatment next (Guardians of the Galaxy has to be a shoe-in, surely?), it's easy to forget there have been plenty of original titles coming out of LEGO studio Traveller's Tales over the last few years. Whether it's bricktacular detective Chase McCain in the Wii U's LEGO City Undercover, or last year's LEGO Legends of Chima, which told the blocky tale of some warring animal tribes, the LEGO games haven't always been about films - sometimes, they're based on the sets instead, like LEGO Ninjago: Nindroids.
Taking its inspiration from the new LEGO Ninjago Rebooted TV show, LEGO Ninjago: Nindroids for the 3DS and Vita sees key characters Cole, Kai, Jay and Lloyd defending New Ninjago City from the evil Overlord and his horde of robotic Nindroid minions - it's the classic story of good triumphing over evil, and, er, ninjas triumphing over robots, with a vibrant cast of characters and cyberpunk shinobi stylings to stop it from feeling too clichéd. Armed with the mysterious Techno Blade weapons (which we're assuming comes from the same weapons factory as the Dubstep Gun), they smash, bash and Spinjitsu their way through a pretty well written adventure, rife with the much-loved Lego humour - it's just a shame it falls a little short in some places.
Technically a sequel of sorts to the more strategic Lego Ninjago for the DS, Nindroids is a return to the more traditional Lego game - an easy to pick up and play adventure, with bad guy bashing, LEGO re-building and hidden collectables aplenty. But while other games have featured plenty of light puzzle solving, with switches to be pulled, or sections that could only be accessed using a particular character's special moves to get past obstacles, Ninjago is a much more fast-paced and combat-orientated affair. With puzzles taking a back seat, mashing buttons is how you'll get through the levels, dishing out a beating, with each hit you land adding to your combo multiplier. The higher your combo, the more the special bar will fill, until you can eventually unleash a whirling dervish of ninja destruction, in the form of a coloured Spinjitsu tornado that makes short work of any enemies it touches.
Still, fast paced though the combat may be, it doesn't have a patch on the levels themselves. With each level only lasting a couple of minutes at best, having "31 levels" suddenly sounds a lot less impressive, especially as you could quite easily burn through the entire game in a couple of hours if you were determined enough. Compared to the likes of LEGO Marvel or LEGO Batman, which usually have lengthy, sprawling levels, Ninjago's bite-sized stages end up feeling unusually short. Most levels are restricted to an area or two, and have a clear path through, with only a few detours or hidden areas to find, making them little more than a quick smash from A to B, pulling a switch or two along the way. These levels are then interspersed with the occasional ship-flying shooter stage, or a level where you stomp round in a giant robotic mech suit to mix things up a little, but real variety is few and far between.
On the plus side, each level has ten bonus objectives to complete, on top of the Lego standard stable of collectable mini-kit pieces and red bricks. Adding some much-needed replay value, these range from the standard collecting a certain number of studs (for the coveted "True Ninja" status) and finding the aforementioned mini-kit pieces and red bricks, to the more inventive - destroying four post boxes, collecting three squeegees or getting beaten to a pulp three times in a single level. There's also challenges for completing levels in under a certain time (usually 2 or 3 minutes), not dying and for playing as certain characters, so there's certainly plenty of reasons to go back and replay levels. And for the serious completionists, each stage also has a final 'Multi-Challenge', which has three separate objectives you need to meet in one go - such as, for example, taking less than ten hearts of damage, shooting down four lifts, and getting at least 50% accuracy in a particular shooting stage.
As always, the Red Bricks, which are kind of hidden in some of the stages (although they aren't hidden very well), unlock 'cheats' and cool extras to enhance your game - such as giving everyone comically oversized heads, multiplying the amount of 'studs' (the game's currency) you earn, or letting you regenerate health when damaged. Once found in a level, you'll need to buy each cheat from the game's shop before you can use it, using the studs you've collected in the levels, although, somewhat disappointingly you can only have three active at once in a level. Studs can also be used to buy new characters, including familiar faces from the TV show such as Sensai Wu and Nya, as well as a gaggle of extra characters guaranteed to strike terror into the hearts of bad guys everywhere - such as the infamous Postman.
Each character also has their own set of unique abilities, with occasional secret areas that require a certain character's special power to access. For example, Kai's sister and fellow ninja Nya is the only one capable of hacking into computer terminals, whilst the staple small character hatches are reserved for mini mini-figs like Min-droid, and ice Ninja Zane has shurikens at his disposal, allowing him to hit far off switches, enemies and objects with projectiles. Each level usually gives you a few different characters to switch between in story mode, whilst free play gives you a much wider selection to help you comb through previously inaccessible areas for new secrets. It's a formula that's worked well for the previous Lego games, and will probably be still there for years to come - basically, if it ain't broke, don't fix it.
In all, though, LEGO Ninjago: Nindroids is a bit of a hard one to score - its story's rather short, and while it does try to increase replay value with a myriad of challenges, it still feels slightly lacking. That said, for the time it lasts, it's a thoroughly enjoyable romp for Lego fans young and old, with a well-written and funny script, with more than a smattering of groan-inducing jokes, proving that the folks at Traveller's Tales don't need a film licence to make an enjoyable game. In other words, it's possibly worth waiting for this to drop a little bit in price before making the leap.
Format Reviewed: Nintendo 3DS