When my replacement XBox arrived back from Microsoft this week the only un-played game in my house was Lego Batman. I’ve played all the double branded Lego games, but now that the license is moving beyond the pure nostalgic high point of the classic Star Wars and Indiana Jones films I think that the line may be starting to show some of the limitations of the format.
Part of the problem is that the slapstick dumb-show used for the story elements only really works well if you’re already deeply familiar with what’s being parodied. That worked out great for Star Wars, and it was fine for Indiana Jones, but it doesn’t really make much sense in Batman. It’s a fun way to satirize the familiar villains (Riddler, Joker, etc.), but there’s no well known story there, so we get a lot of physical comedy, but none of the ironic, assumption-shattering meta-humor that made the earlier games seem so cheeky and fun when they were razzing Darth Vader, or mocking the Cantina scene. Instead it comes off feeling oddly similar to the old Batman TV show from the sixties. The characters are mostly defined by their strong visual traits and not much else, and their function tries to follow their form. Except, in this case, the form seems to have been defined to serve the gameplay and it weakens the story.
Here’s an example of what I’m talking about: Both Batman and Robin are given a number of alternative “suits” that can be activated when they’re found inside a level. They’re sold as giving the player amazing new abilities, but the powers they confer are incredibly specific, and rather than opening up the player’s experience of the world they seem to limit it. Robin, for example, can get a magnetic outfit that allows him to walk on metal surfaces. But the places it actually lets him explore are clearly marked, and few and far between. So you end up in this goofy outfit, waiting for the next obvious place to use it. It doesn’t make sense in terms of the source material, and it doesn’t feel all that fun after the first few times you do it.
Ultimately the core dynamic in the Lego world is collection, and there are plenty of things to try and grab, with money being the most important. The way you get stuff is busting up objects in the world so you can gather up all the juicy Lego coins that spring out. In order to do this effectively, you move through the world like a lawnmower, cutting down everything you can, until the environment has been cleared of anything destructible. Breaking things also reveals lego pieces that you can use to build new object. Unfortunately they’re pretty random. Breaking apart a bank vault door allows you to build a giant laser wielding robot, for example. This worked great in Star Wars, where you were creating cool stuff from the movies, but here it just seems kind of abstract and forced.
One of the most frustrating parts of the game is that there a lot of the objects that only become accessible once you’ve unlocked more of the content. You can see all this cool stuff hanging around the level, but you don’t have the ability in the game to actually get them, because the things you’d need to reach them are locked away until after you’ve finished a level in the story mode. This makes it available for “open play”. And in that mode you to access any of the suits and characters you’ve unlocked at any time. So the first time through in the Story Mode you end up feeling like a sightseer, passing by collectible objects that can’t be collected, and machines that can’t be used. Or at least it seems that way… There’s often no way to tell if something is a mandatory now puzzle or an optional later puzzle. And it’s entirely possible to replay a level and still not have unlocked what you need to collect the bonus content. It just doesn’t have the elegance of something like Metroid, where the frustration of the unreachable is always a tease that the world will become more open as you power up.
You could argue that this dynamic makes the whole game a meta-puzzle; get the characters you need to go back and get the stuff to get more characters and abilities to get more stuff that you need. That’s a good idea, but it really doesn’t work so well in this case. There’s an initial rush, but after a while it seems like everything is constantly being kept just out of your reach. It ends up being a negative feedback loop, so at this point I have oodles of money, but nothing to spend it on because I haven’t unlocked enough stuff to go into the levels and find the stuff that will unlock the stuff that I’m allowed to spend my money on. So now, instead of being focused on the moment to moment gameplay, I’m constantly having my lack of resources rubbed in my face as I trudge through that limited story mode.
Having said all that, this isn’t a bad game. It’s polished, rich, and smart. It’s also got a great “fun for kids of all ages” feel that we don’t get enough of these days. For the most part it is also easy to play, with the only punishment for failure being the loss of a little cash.
Still, Lego Batman feels a bit like the end of an era for the Lego line. Traveller’s Tales have managed to create a number of great titles, hitting a high water mark with the Original Trilogy version of Lego Star Wars. But like any successful series, it’s possible to become so focused on improving and innovating in the fundamentals that you fail to occasionally add in the kind of wild innovation that made your original products so great.