Why so serious?
HIGH Getting to be The Joker is probably a dream most comic fans have—Lego Batman allows you to cross it off your list of life goals.
LOW Being stuck in an area for half an hour, unsure of how to progress because the game's awful platforming mechanics had me convinced that the jump I knew I needed to make (and failed at multiple times) wasn't the correct one—and it turns out it was.
WTF Killer Moth? The Mad Hatter? They really scraped the bottom of the barrel for some of these villains.
After exploring a "galaxy far far away" and globetrotting around the world in the last two Lego games, developer Traveller's Tales chose a much smaller and more confined tableaux on which to paint their next blocky adventure: Gotham City, home to the Dark Knight himself, Batman. I'll be honest; this struck me as an odd choice when I first heard it. Yes, Batman is an iconic character with a rogue's gallery of villains unequaled in the pantheon of comics—but he lacks the pop culture punch of both Star Wars and Indiana Jones. A big part of the allure of those two earlier games was watching scenes we loved re-enacted by Lego versions of the characters. The stories of Indiana Jones and Star Wars are so familiar to us that a large part of the thrill and humor (and nostalgia) is achieved solely through the visual presentation. Lego Batman, on the other hand, never quite captures that magic because it's just not familiar to us. Couple that with game mechanics that almost feel like a step backwards for the series and you wind up with what is arguably the most underwhelming Lego game to date.
There are numerous reasons for why Lego Batman fails to resonate with players in the same way Star Wars and Indiana Jones did, but the most glaringly obvious one is because Traveller's Tales refused to base their take on the Caped Crusader on any of his more easily recognizable past appearances. Batman has been around for like 70 years—there's a plethora of classic comics, the old television show, Tim Burton's movies, the animated series, or the most obvious choice, Chris Nolan's re-interpretation of the character on which to draw inspiration from. Unfortunately, Lego Batman shuns all these potential jumping off points and sets out for territory all its own. The game stumbles right out of the gate. The story in Lego Batman is a generic three act affair that finds Batman and Robin fighting through "chapters" to stop The Joker, The Penguin, and The Riddler. Once that's done, the player reverses the flow, playing as the villains setting their plans in motion (and it should be noted, you never get to fight Batman). If nothing else, the game demonstrates that Traveller's Tales may be great at taking existing tales and adjusting them into speechless Lego-based comedy, they're not particularly good at crafting original stories.
This lack of familiarity with the story robs the game of much of what made Star Wars and Indiana Jones appeal to both adults and kids. There's no moment in Lego Batman where the player sits up and says "ah, that's the classic Batman/Joker scene from comic X!" Instead, the game trots out a story that doesn't really capture the essence of any of the Batman interpretations we've seen over the decades. Batman in this game is the guy who got his name on the box, but he's the least interesting character to play because he has no personality.
In many ways, this feels more like a kid's game than any of the previous Lego titles. The humor is simplistic and there's really no story to follow—the game is content to set players off on a romp through various stages bashing Lego badguys and collecting a seemingly never-ending stream of bolts (to pay for all the unlockables back at the Batcave). There's only one small problem that derails this notion—and it's that Lego Batman is occasionally too hard for a young child to play.
Most of the difficulty springs not from challenge, but from design flaw. Platforming in the Lego games has always been their Achilles heel and this outing is no different. In fact, Lego Batman's platforming is actually worse than it was in the previous titles. An uncooperative camera and floaty jump mechanics make every jump a leap of faith. This problem would be bad enough on its own, but the game has numerous points where the key to advancing is to make a specific jump. If making that jump leads to death two or three times (because of the game's shortcomings), players tend to assume that the jump isn't the proper way to progress and then waste time looking for another path when they were right in the first place.
The rest of the game's challenge stems from the fact that Lego Batman rarely gives players a clue as to what they're supposed to do next. In running through the bland and lengthy levels, battling hordes of enemies and smashing countless "bolt piñatas" it's easy to miss some key puzzle component. This can lead to lots of time sitting in a room trying to figure out how to progress. It's even worse when an area requires a character to use a power to advance—the game rarely gives any clue as to what's required in order to advance. I'm totally against games holding my hand while I play, but the opposite end of the spectrum isn't any fun, either.
In Lego Batman's defense, it still manages to be fun despite these problems. Batman's side of the missions isn't particularly enjoyable, but switching over to the villains and their missions was both funnier and more entertaining as a whole. There are some odd choices for the game's rogue's gallery (Killer Moth? The Mad Hatter?), but getting to be The Joker, The Penguin, Catwoman, Two-Face, and The Riddler makes up for it. There is, at least, more variety in the enemies to choose from in this title than there was in the past Lego games (where you got the same characters over and over—just in different outfits).
Lego Batman represents the first real misstep from developer Traveller's Tales in their moderately popular Lego franchise. The decision to craft an original (albeit generic) story for the game when there's such a rich mythology surrounding Batman to draw from is seriously puzzling. Because of that decision, the game fails to resonate with the older audiences who were so intrigued by seeing classic scenes from their youth recreated in Lego Star Wars and Indiana Jones. As troubling as that is, it's not nearly as problematic as the game's technical shortcomings. By this point, Traveller's Tales has had ample time to address and correct the issues with platforming in these titles, but Lego Batman feels like a gigantic step backwards. It's hard to believe, but the platforming is actually worse in this game than it was in the previous entries. That being said, the game's not a complete wash. There are some (mildly) funny parts and the core gameplay mechanics of grabbing bolts, building things, and driving the occasional Bat Vehicle still works. There's fun to be had in Lego Batman, but you're going to have to work hard to find it.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via the publisher and reviewed on the Xbox 360. Approximately 17 hours of play was devoted to single-player modes (completed 1 time) and 0 hours of play in multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains Cartoon Violence. Parents have more to fear from the game's tendency to frustrate players with vague objectives and terrible platforming mechanics than they do any of the title's narrative content.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: You have nothing to fear because there's no dialogue in this game.
A film critic by trade, specializing in Euro-horror, cult exploitation, and Asian action cinema, Mike has written reviews for a diverse group of print and online publications. He covers horror news, movies, books, and games at TheHorrorGeek.com and Horrorsquad.com and spent two seasons as The Horror Geek on Comedy Central's pop-culture game show, Beat the Geeks.
Mike's childhood was spent playing videogames any time he got a chance. His parents had a Pong console and his grandmother had an Atari 2600, where Mike cultivated his skills by playing hour upon hour of games like Space Invaders, Berserk, and Asteroids. From those early experiences Mike learned one thing: he loved games.
In 1999, Mike became a staff reviewer at Cinescape Magazine's website where he spent a year learning the craft of game criticism. After internal changes led to Mike leaving Cinescape in late 2000, he joined up with RPGFan in 2001 and spent several years writing reviews for them. Happy, but looking for an opportunity to expound on a wider variety of titles, Mike joined GameCritics.com and hopes to help Chi, Dale, and the rest of the GC staff bring a higher level of respect to the field of game criticism.