That old Lego, huh? It seems as though you just can’t keep a highly sophisticated, interlocking brick system down these days. If it feels as though it’s only been about five minutes since the last Lego game hit the Vita, that’s because it probably has only been about five minutes. This second Ninjago game is the ninth native release to hit Sony’s little powerhouse – and if you throw the PSP games into the mix you’d probably struggle to find another console with so many Lego gaming options.
Lego Ninjago: Shadow of Ronin sees you play the part of the Ninjago ninjas once again, controlling Kai, Cole, Zane and Jay as they battle the threat posed by the mysterious Ronin. Set well after the last game, Nindroids, Shadow of Ronin acts as a bridge between the last TV season and the next one – but don’t worry about starting the game overpowered, as our ninjas manage to lose their elemental powers and recent memories after an attack from Ronin. That old amnesia trope again huh?
Battling to regain their lost memories, the ninjas get to work their way through thirty bite-sized levels split into ten distinct chapters. This level structure obviously lends itself well to the handheld platforms that Shadow of Ronin finds itself on, although too often you’ll find that the proceedings manage to come to a halt just as the action was warming up to fun.
Being based on a TV show means that the characters and their voice actors are well established, and this is demonstrated through the game. This degree of polish helps set the Ninjago games apart from the earlier Vita releases, and as with Nindroids the video cut scenes within the game are much, much better than those earlier disastrous attempts. However, the development dependency on the 3DS can be seen in many places, and Vita purists will question why certain assets have to feel so low res.
With Hellbent Games, the developer of Nindroids, seemingly relegated to making free-to-play mobile Lego games, TT Fusion have picked up the Ninjago reins this time around for Shadow of Ronin. More than just a developer change, TT Fusion have discarded many of the changes that Hellbent introduced for Nindroids – gone is the isometric perspective, and the number of level challenges have been cut from ten to five – and most of those five are ridiculously easy to get.
However, Shadow of Ronin isn’t all classic Lego. The hub, for instance, has been reduced from running through a city to flying a dragon over a world map between the various chapters. Fancy purchasing one of your unlocks from the shop? Now the shop’s hidden in the menu system rather than existing as a physical location. As well as there being no hub, you’ll quickly find that there aren’t any optional side-games at all – so, instead of spending some time and working to introduce interesting scalable additional content the decision was made to cut it entirely.
This theme of scaling back feels as though it continues throughout – even the vehicle sections, such a differentiator for the Ninjago theme, feel exceptionally weak and dull. There’s no challenge to be found in them, and they end up feeling like a bit of a waste of time. No epic dog-fighting for you, no crazy motorbike chases through massively destructible environments. You have to wonder whether the developers have even seen The LEGO Movie.
Unfortunately even the more traditional levels prove to be nothing of a challenge, their shorter lengths and the ninjas’ spinjitzu combat special conspiring to ensure that only the youngest of kids would have any trouble here. In fact, with no real skill blockers and mini-cutscenes popping in at regular intervals Shadow of Ronin almost makes you feel as if you’re playing through a story arc from Lego Ninjago: Masters of Spinjitzu, and that may well be the point of attraction for the younger followers of the show. The more casual Lego fans, however, will be left wanting for meatier levels and a greater number of unlockables.
It feels as though the Ninjago franchise should have wonderful potential in the gaming world – it has a ready-made universe, a well grown fanbase and even professional voice actors who are actually invested in their characters instead of turning up for a one-off paycheque. Nindroids gave the impression that Ninjago could play host to a fresher style of Lego play, a playground to burst through some of the baggage that the Lego games have picked up over the years. Instead Shadow of Ronin feels like a step back - the potential’s been dropped, and franchise cash-in territory entered. It should be pretty fantastic for kids, however, and that might be all that matters in the end.