For years, people have associated LEGO video games with ones based on licenses, and with good reason. From LEGO Star Wars to LEGO Batman and LEGO Pirates of the Caribbean, the games have represented good action that both kids and adults could enjoy. However, the franchise has sought different genres to expand its reach and fulfill its mission to make just about every genre kid-friendly. When LEGO Battles was first released, it was a noble effort at making a kid-friendly RTS that ran well on the Nintendo DS. For its sequel, LEGO Battles: Ninjago, the development teams decided to keep what worked and improve on some of the flaws in the first game. For the most part, they got things right.
Unlike the original title, Ninjago's plot and setting are more focused. Long ago, there was a master of Spinjitzu who possessed four powerful weapons that gave the owner the ability to take over the lands with ease. Upon his passing, he handed down the weapons to his two sons, Sensei Wu and Lord Garmadon, for safe keeping. Sensei Wu wanted to uphold his father's wishes while Lord Garmadon sought to take the power for himself. After a long, hard-fought battle, Sensei won and had his brother banished from the land. Years later, Lord Garmadon returned with a skeleton army in tow, seeking out the weapons once more. Due to his advanced age, Sensei Wu began training four warriors in the way of Spinjitzu to defeat his brother and keep the weapons safe once more.
Like the previous game, this is a simple RTS. You only have two classes to worry about: the builder and the hero. Heroes tend to have tougher defensive capabilities and higher defense, making them perfect to defeat enemies and take down enemy structures. They also have magical abilities to deal more damage to enemies or produce defensive tactics for the rest of the team. Builders, while weaker in both areas, can build just about any structure and are necessary for harvesting resources. Speaking of resources, the only type you have to worry about are bricks, which are used to pay for building new builders, buildings and heroes. While ricks can be obtained on the field and after defeating enemies, they're primarily gathered in large brick piles.
While you only have to worry about two classes, you have to be wary of the limits, such as a six-builder limit for one team and the number of active heroes you can have at one time. For those starting out in the genre, the decision to not complicate things with different classes of units and resource types makes for some good training wheels for the genre as players come to grips with battle tactics and the fog of war.
While Ninjago certainly caters to those who aren't used to dishing out complicated strategies, that doesn't mean that it's perfect in its simplicity. Character pathing from one spot to another works most of the time, but there are moments when it breaks, and characters either stop moving because of obstructions or fail to find alternate ways to their destination. The biggest gaffe to deal with, oddly enough, is the combat. For the most part, you'll be grouping up your heroes as you encounter enemies and their structures and anytime you encounter resistance. Enemies don't do that, so you'll end up ganging up on enemies one at a time and wiping them out in the process. It makes battles easier, but in terms of teaching people how to employ better tactics, this is so bulletproof that the notion of tactics goes out the window.
There are several different modes to partake in, keeping in line with the mantra of the other LEGO games, where breadth of content is king. Story mode starts off with you playing the role of the heroes as you try to find the weapons to stop Lord Garmadon from using them to gain untold power. There are four levels to traverse, each with a set of sublevels. Each level has a primary goal to complete, and upon completion of the level, you're given the chance to either progress to the next mission or continue exploring the current area. This not only gives you the opportunity to see the lay of the land but also a chance to collect gold bricks, hidden studs and minifig collections to unlock more content for later use and viewing. While this may already seem lengthy enough for a portable game, it becomes even longer when you realize that after completing the heroes' first level, you also gain access to the Lord Garmadon missions, which are just as lengthy. With the amount of content for story mode alone, your total gameplay hours could equal those of two or three portable titles combined.
Battle mode has its own set of submodes, though only four of them cater to multiplayer. Annihilation is a standard match where the loser is stripped of his structures and forces. Capture the Flag is exactly what you'd expect, with a variable score limit being given per match. King of the Hill has you trying to occupy a designated spot for as long as possible while Brick Race has you trying to reach a set amount of resources before your opponent does. Survival, one of the mode's single-player affairs, has you trying to survive wave after wave of enemies for as long as possible while Goliath tasks you with trying to take down a massive enemy. All of the modes play well, especially the challenging Goliath, and the maps are well laid out and designed. The only real complaint is that everything related to multiplayer must be unlocked through single-player first, and since the host has control over what can and can't be played, the multiplayer becomes severely limited if your host hasn't touched the Story mode yet.
The controls feel better this time around. Picking abilities and characters seems less finicky, and picking out spots for them to go to is a breeze. Scrolling through the map with the d-pad feels responsive and quick, and selecting unit groups is no problem. The same goes for attacking other units and buildings, though there are issues when you have your builders attack those who are going after buildings because they target the structures instead of the enemies. Overall, it does well with the Nintendo DS hardware.
Graphically, Ninjago is better than its predecessor but still not something that takes advantage of the NDS. Everything is still sprite-based and shows some improvement by having characters be much larger than before, and the game is capable of showing more characters on-screen at one time. However, this excitement is soon diminished when you see the game sporting rudimentary colors that were last seen in the GBA era. It's also diminished when you see that the character animations aren't exactly smooth. It's humorous to see builders flail around when fixing structures or harvesting bricks, but seeing enemies break into pieces with missing animation frames doesn't feel satisfying. The camera perspective is isometric, instead of the traditional top-down of the prior game. While this gives it a more classic RTS look, there's no way to turn the camera to see if any builders or heroes are obstructed from view.
Sound-wise, the game does decently. The music isn't excellent, but it does a good job of fitting the mood. With the ninja theme going on, you can expect to hear some specific instruments more than others, but it doesn't hurt the score. The effects are at a minimum, with the same hit and brick construction sounds played quite often throughout the game. It's not grating, mind you, but the same effects play often enough that you'll begin to wonder if other sounds are also in the game. Voices are kept to a minimum, like all other LEGO titles before this, but at least the cries of each character as you select them are distinct enough that you can begin to tell who you selected.
LEGO Battles: Ninjago is meant to be an introductory RTS for young gamers. The simple strategies and opponent AI may turn off genre veterans looking for a portable experience, but those who are just getting into the genre will find that it teaches them the basics without overwhelming them with tons of other gameplay mechanics. What you see from a technical standpoint may be decent, but it could certainly be improved. The amount of available content almost makes up for that fact. LEGO fans who are interested in more than just adventure games should be fine with this, as would people who are interested in a simpler, friendlier and more portable RTS.
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