While we've never really understood the allure of the yearly FIFA instalments - after all, the only thing that seems to change from year to year is the odd player name, and a few shirt sponsors - there are a few annual iterations we can get behind. While we've seen several new LEGO games each and every year, one thing they can't be accused of is similarities, with the game covering franchises from Star Wars and Harry Potter to Marvel and Lord of the Rings, before giving them a brick-over, and turning them into some seriously good co-op platforming adventure games. But it's not just the film juggernauts that have been getting the LEGO treatment, as over the past few years, a few of their original set themes have been getting a gaming makeover too. This year's 3DS/PS Vita LEGO game hails from the Ninjago series, which originally began life as Lego sets, before being spun off into a TV show, and several tie in games, of which Lego Ninjago: Shadow of Ronin is the third.
While it won't win any awards for a deeply moving plot, Shadow of Ronin is still surprisingly well written, with a heavy dose of humour to help move things along. Lifting the characters from the LEGO Ninjago TV show, if you (or your kid) have ever seen it, you'll be pleased to know all the favourites are there - the hot-headed and impatient Kai, cool and calm Cole, the sometimes-too-literal and socially awkward robot Zane and the light-hearted and clumsy Jay, under the watchful eye of Sensei Wu. It's essentially Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles with a dead pan robot thrown in for good measure, all done in the familiar slapstick Lego style. We're particularly fond of Jay too, who's basically the game's main comedy relief character, whether he's wistfully wanting to be attacked by a giant muffin, losing his trousers to a snake or trying not to embarrass himself in front of his girlfriend Nya (and failing), he's sure to raise a smile with his antics.
This time round, the gang are facing off against the titular Ronin, who's been waving his weapon around and wiping folks' memories - including our ninja crew, who've lost their elemental attacks as a result. So, to counteract Ronin's Obsidian Glaive, Kai, Cole, Zane and Jay need to track down their own Obsidian weapons and take the fight to him, before the world of Ninjago falls into his hands. What follows is an entertaining romp through the fantastic four's memories and powers, from trap-filled caves to toxic swamps to Jay's parents' junk yard and many more in between, beating Ronin's shadowy samurai army into submission as you make your way through this accessible adventure.
If you've ever played a Lego game before, you'll likely know what to expect from LEGO Ninjago. An easy to pick up and play blend of platforming, bad-guy bashing and simple puzzle solving, LEGO Ninjago: Shadow of Ronin isn't unlike any of the other multitude of LEGO titles out there - but as the old saying does, if it ain't broke, don't fix it. Levels vary a little from stage to stage, although all stick to the same timeless formula - travel from area to area, beat up the bad guys, smash every piece of Lego scenery you can, before walking over to a pile of bricks and holding a button to rebuild it into something more useful to open the way to the next area. Rinse and repeat. Mix in some switches, platforming puzzles and some hilariously over-the-top solutions to problems, and you've got a recipe for a great LEGO game. While nothing ever gets too tricky, and the puzzles never really get too hard, when we say they can be a bit over the top in terms of sheer weirdness, we mean it. One of them involves a rather long-winded Mouse Trap style-way of getting a piece down from a ledge, involving building a spring, so you can grab onto a roller coaster track and dislodge a tyre to send it rolling down the track, landing it on a seasaw to catapult a washing machine into a propeller to light a chandelier to set fire to a rocket to blow up the cart and knock the piece down to the ground. As you do. Punctuating the more traditional LEGO-style levels are vehicle stages, where you get to fly/drive a bike/plane/car/dragon (luckily, only in a 2D plane), moving left and right to avoid obstacles, take out bad guys and pick up collectibles - and while they're nothing especially revolutionary, they do make a nice change.
In traditional Lego style, you aren't just limited to one playable character in each stage, either, as you can switch between characters at any point. As each character comes with their own unique abilities, this is a trick you'll need to make the most of if you want to complete the levels and find all the collectibles. For starters, the ninjas' trademark Spinjitsu tornado attacks can do double duty, being useful for both beating up baddies and spinning up the various Spinswitchu pads you'll come across from time to time, while girly ninja Nya is the only one who comes with a grappling hook, using it to reach higher platforms or pull down useful objects. Kai and Sensei Wu can use their sword and staff respectively to operate different types of switches, while Cole acts as the muscle, lifting and throwing heavy objects with ease. Being a robot, Zane is obviously equipped with x-ray vision, letting him reveal the innards of various electrical objects so wires and such can be lined up to make it operational again - and speaking of fixing stuff, no-one's a better mechanic than Jay, who can fix up any broken down machinery with a couple of spanner whacks. Jay's also the only character that can do the 'scrap builds', where you need to drag and drop the highlighted bricks to complete the oversized Lego model within a very lax time limit.
As you slowly recover the Obsidian weapons, the ninjas will slowly start to recover their elemental attacks too, starting with muscle man Cole, who can wield the power of earth. This means he can create boulders from nothing and cause (mini) earthquakes with a stomp - with the former coming in quite handy for breaking the occasional cracked wall (often leading to a secret area), and the latter creating a massive fissure in the floor, shaking apart those pesky piles of rubble that sometimes block your path. Kai meanwhile has the power of fire, which means he can walk through fires with ease. His powers can be concentrated into a beam for heating up golden Lego objects to destroy them or to cut doorways into massive golden blocks, as well as lighting special torches to help open the way to new areas. And of course, nothing toasts bad guys as well as a fireball to the face.
For those who like their games to have a bit of replay value, each level also has five 'gold brick' bonus objectives to complete. The first three are the same for each of the game's thirty or so levels - one for simply completing the level, another for collecting a certain number of studs, and the last for finding all the collectables hidden in the stage. The other two gold bricks vary from level to level, and add a bit of variety to the mix, being awarded for things such as surviving a chase section, catching four enemies in a tornado attack or smashing a number of alarms. For completionists and collect-a-philes, this is a great way to give you another reason to go back and replay levels to search for any missing collectables, especially as more often than not, getting the last few gold bricks will require a special ability or character you didn't have when playing through for the first time.
In fact, perhaps the only real drawback to LEGO Ninjago: Shadow of Ronin is it's length. Thirty or so levels might sound like a lot, but when each only takes about ten minutes to complete, you're looking at about five hours or so to whiz to the end - which seems decidedly miniature compared to the console behemoths of Lego Marvel, Batman et al. In reality though, you'll likely want to replay levels to get the last few hidden collectables and finish off the gold brick challenges, eking things out a while longer. And the levels do feel decidedly longer and more varied than last year's Nindroids game, too, whose blink-and-you'll-miss-it stages were mostly filled with button-mashy combat rather than LEGO-y puzzles, so that's good too.
All in all though, if you're looking for a light-hearted ninja-themed adventure, you could do much, much worse than Lego Ninjago: Shadow of Ronin. It may be a tad on the short side, but it's a solid enough romp while it lasts, with entertaining characters, a witty script and the same timeless Lego formula we've come to know and love.
Format Reviewed: Nintendo 3DS