We may be 28 years young, but gosh darn it do we love a good kids film (except perhaps some of the Pixar ones that have made us cry). And when it comes to good kids films, they don't get much better than the LEGO films. First there was The LEGO Movie, with our spirit animal Unikitty, and the brooding super hero loner Batman never failing to raise a smile - while his stand-alone sequel film The LEGO Batman Movie was pretty great too, especially in the soundtrack department. So it's safe to say we've been pretty stoked for the LEGO Ninjago Movie for some time too - not to mention its tie-in game. Finally breaking the habit of expensive-yet-disappointing LEGO Dimensions story packs, LEGO Ninjago marks a return to the good old days of film tie-in LEGO games, packing in a traditional co-op adventure, and plenty of film clips along the way to boot.
Following the story of the accompanying film, The LEGO Ninjago Movie Video Game follows the plight of Lloyd, a poor boy destined to be a social outcast because his father happens to be a supreme bad guy who keeps attacking the city of Ninjago. Little do the general populace know though, that Lloyd is actually the Green Ninja, part of a group of masked do-gooders who drive back the evil Garmadon's forces each time they threaten the peace. Under the guidance of Master Wu, Lloyd and his secret ninja friends must look within themselves and master their true powers if they ever hope to defeat Garmadon for good.
The odds are, if you've ever played a LEGO game before - and we think we'd struggle to find many people who haven't by now - then The LEGO Ninjago Movie Video Game will be inherently familiar. It sticks to the tried and tested formula of bad guy bashing, scenery smashing and light puzzle solving the series is known for, and, as always, lets you and a friend get your ninja on together in split-screen co-op. The traditional silliness is back too, with everything from a yeti ice cream man, to a Ninjitsu master who happens to be a chicken, to a Texan ninja who needs your help rounding up the totally non-valuable stones he misplaced, yes siree.
However, that's not to say The LEGO Ninjago Movie Video Game doesn't experiment a little - in fact, it's perhaps the biggest shake up the traditional formula has had in a while. While more recent LEGO entries have adopted the idea of a larger hub world filled with short quests and secrets as a supplement to the usual stream of levels, Ninjago kicks everything up another notch. Now, the levels take place in the hub worlds themselves, whether it be Ninjago City, the Uncrossable Jungle or the Unclimbable Mountain, with each offering a standard LEGO level for you to play through, before opening up when you return in free play mode. As is always the way, returning in free play, where you can play as any of the characters you've unlocked, will let you access the rest of the world's secrets, with some areas requiring skills you don't have when you play through in story mode, and some bonus mission characters not appearing until afterwards. Still, levels do feel much more expansive that previous games - and on the flip side, much easier to get lost in.
But the larger levels are a relatively minor tweak compared to some of Ninjago's other changes. Perhaps the most sacrilegious is that they've got rid of the collectible red brick multipliers - a staple since the earliest LEGO Star Wars title - in favour of a vague upgrade system for your ninja abilities. As you play through the story, you'll earn 'Ninjinuity' tokens, which you can trade for improved combat skills - perhaps an additional shockwave, an extra punch in your combo, or a slight bonus that'll make enemies drop twice as many studs when defeated. Perhaps a side effect of the more combat-heavy nature of ninjas, most of your multipliers now come in the form of extra studs for defeating Garmadon's shark army with different attacks.
Yes, you read that right - different attacks. The LEGO Ninjago Movie Video Game actually boasts a revamped (yet still very simply) combat system that takes advantage of the ninjas' more aerobatic fighting style, expanding beyond the simple repeated punches of past games. With names such as the 'Stinging Bee', the 'Rushing Boar' and the 'Floating Butterfly', which loosely translate into standard string of punches, a dashing kick and a powerful punch/kick from a high jump, there's a surprising variety of moves on offer here - even if you will mostly find yourself simply punching away like before. That said, there are some pretty cool special moves in here - like 'Skyward Dragon', which sees you hurling your opponent into the air with a flurry of as many fast punches as you can get in from mashing the square button.
The more enemies you defeat in one go, the higher your combo meter goes, and the higher your stud multiplier gets - meaning the better you are at beating up the bad guys, the better your monetary (or at least stud-tary) rewards become. It's not a bad system really, although our main gripe is that the game often makes references to your moves by their names - yet bar a really brief tutorial from Sensei Wu in the opening minutes of the game, there's no way for you to figure out which move is which - a problem compounded by the fact the names of said moves aren't particularly descriptive, and proven by the fact we had to go and look up a promotional video just to write this paragraph.
While it may take a good long while of playing through the story to get there, your ninja crew will eventually unlock their coveted elemental powers, which will work their way into many a puzzle during the course of your adventure. Cole's earth power lets him smash through cracked stone walls, whilst Nya's water spewing skills are prefect for turning wheels or putting out flames, and dead-pan robot Zane can harness the power of ice to freeze waterfalls and create an easy way up to the top. Likewise, the different ninjas all have their own unique weapons they favour, from Kai's dual swords, which make the perfect makeshift handle for pulling a switch, to Zane's bow and arrow, which is great for shooting far away targets. It's your fairly standard LEGO game affair of making use of the different characters' unique abilities to solve simple puzzles - and frankly, if it ain't broke, don't fix it.
In all, then, LEGO Ninjago is a satisfying return to form for the series, after the disappointing LEGO Dimensions, yet one that perhaps strays a little too far from its roots. While none of the new tweaks are inherently bad, and it's nice to see the LEGO studio mixing things up sometimes, we still can't help feeling like the tried and tested LEGO staples were still the best. As such, while The LEGO Ninjago Movie Video Game doesn't quite reach the lofty heights of the very best LEGO games - like Harry Potter, Marvel Super Heroes and LEGO Batman - it's still a game you'll want to pick up. Packing in plenty of fun, and with a story peppered with regular clips from the film, and a decent amount of replay value, The LEGO Ninjago Movie Video Game is a solid game for LEGO fans of all ages, and one we're glad got a full release rather than being streamlined into a LEGO Dimensions add on - now if only they'd go back and redo the LEGO Batman Movie pack as a full game...
Format Reviewed: Nintendo Switch