To the DS Cave!
The entire concept of a LEGO video game is a little weird: the game portrays LEGOs depicting popular action characters, unnecessarily removing the audience an extra degree from the plot. Yet the series has proven a remarkable success, entertaining children and, for whatever reason, captivating adults.
The latest title is LEGO Batman, which we explored on the DS. Like its predecessors, it’s a 3-D platformer/beat-‘em-up loaded with LEGO puzzles. It’s not challenging in the least, and at times it feels like you’re just going through the motions, but more often than not, it’ll trick you into spending more time with it than you’d planned. It also manages to keep its childish nature while infusing a touch of the dark, brooding atmosphere that makes the Batman story so powerful. In short, it’s no Game of the Year nominee, but it’ll do the trick.
The basic gameplay is about what you’d expect. For most of the levels, the action is confined to the top-screen, with a jump button, an attack button, and a button to switch between Batman and Robin. The A button fires projectiles and also takes on various tasks like flipping switches. The D-pad moves the character, of course (and as in most 3-D games, it’s occasionally hard to maneuver through the more maze-like puzzles). Other actions are (unnecessarily) confined to the touch screen, meaning you have to use your thumb on the screen, smudging it, or keep the stylus handy between your index and middle fingers.
LEGO Batman strongly emphasizes puzzle-solving over fighting. The fighting scenes come up only sporadically, and though once in awhile an enemy (usually a boss) will demand you employ some strategy, by and large getting close and mashing the attack button will work out fine.
Batman and Robin have different abilities, and power suits can give them even more ways to work around the game’s various obstacles. Typically, you’ll explore the area, smashing everything you can, picking up the little LEGO “studs” that go flying, and looking for a way to proceed. Standing atop a twitching pile of LEGOs and holding A will direct your character to build a predetermined item. Usually, only one of your characters will be able to move on; for example, there’ll be a tightrope to walk, which only the delicate-stepping Robin is capable of. At the new location, there’ll be a way to make a path for the stranded Batman, be it a grapple point, a simple ladder, etc.
The exceptions are the 2-D shooter levels, in which you drive vehicles like the Batmobile or Batwing, swerving to avoid collisions and shooting everything you can. These levels display one big picture across both the DS’s screens, which takes some getting used to, especially given the gap between them. Also, we found a glitch in the Batwing level; we managed to get the plane stuck on an obstacle, and we nearly reset the console before it became unglued. Still, they’re a great break from the relentless platforming gameplay.
Rinse and repeat! That’s about all you’ll be doing, at least in Story Mode (it takes about five hours to beat Batman and Robin’s 15 levels). It is impressive how many abilities they came up with for the two main characters (the aforementioned grappling and tightrope walking, plus resisting cold, walking through toxic gas, walking up magnetic ladders, climbing through vents, gliding, detonating explosive barrels, and probably some more we forgot), but the puzzles aren’t always that clever. Simple intuition will get you through most of the game, and when you do get stuck, it’s not because the game is challenging you intellectually; it’s because it’s not clear where the heck you’re supposed to go next.
The life system doesn’t add any challenge, either. You’re given four Zelda -style hearts, and when they’re gone, you simply lose some of your studs and come back to life immediately. If you get down to zero studs, you stay at zero, and still come back to life. It’s unfortunate no one thought to add adjustable difficulty; this might entertain a small child, but an adult will often feel bored with no chance of dying.
Oddly enough, given how intent the developers seemed on keeping this game as easy, simple, and user-friendly as possible, there’s quite a distance between save points, which occur only at the ends of the roughly 20-minute levels. One of the DS’s advantages is that you can take it out and play it on random stretches of free time (a ride to work, a lunch break), but LEGO Batman demands you schedule your free time around its save system.
After beating the Batman and Robin levels in Story Mode (or before then, for that matter), you can visit the Arkham Asylum, from which all the bad guys you’ve beaten had escaped (and then plotted all sorts of mayhem), according to the game’s original story. From there, you can play through 15 more levels as bad guys with, you guessed it, different abilities that surpass different obstacles.
(Disturbingly, some of these levels involve hitting and shooting guns at what, at least to us, appear to be uniformed police officers. Did Ice-T advise the development team? Did some of the data for Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars somehow end up on the LEGO Batman cartridge?)
You can also spend your LEGO studs to unlock more characters, and go through the levels with them in Free Play mode. Or, you can search the levels for hidden items, which purchase even more treats. Sure, it’s repetitive, but there’s no denying that there’s a ton of material here.
The presentation, naturally, takes a bit of a hit relative to the big console versions. The cutscenes are gone, replaced by still pictures drawn in a comic-book style; to the developers’ credit, it looks like they took some time with the illustrations. The comics depict LEGO figurines in the midst of action sequences, with style and a haunting color palette. It can be hard to figure out what’s going on (there are no words), there are perhaps too many of them, and there’s no way to skip these sequences, however.
Other than that, the DS version of LEGO Batman looks and feels good. The visuals won’t amaze a PlayStation 3 owner, but it is impressive how much power they can cram into the palms of your hands these days, with countless breakable items inside a vast 3-D world. Gotham doesn’t have a whole lot of character to it, but it is gritty for something made out of LEGOs. The soundtrack comes from that of Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman flick, making for a dark, majestic mood, and the sound effects are magnificent, bringing out everything from the cute tap-tap of LEGOs fitting together to the cartoon-worthy “Pow!” of your fist meeting a bad guy’s face.
This series has hit its stride, and conceivably the developers could keep pumping out decent games for years to come. A lot of fans will surely ache for a franchise reboot (maybe LEGO Batman Begins?), but until that happens, LEGO Batman will do just fine.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 3.9 Graphics
Nothing mind-blowing, but this is a good-looking game. 3.3 Control
For the most part, the heroes and villains control well, but it’s annoying to have to use the touch screen for some functions. 4.8 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
Classic Batman tunes and great sound effects. 4.2
No challenge, but weirdly addicting, with lots of secrets to come back for.
3.8 Overall Rating – Good
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.