It’s been a humdrum year for licensed games. Hulk, Hellboy, and Iron Man have all had their turn in whatever infernal machine churns out lackluster tie-ins, and none of the results have been particularly noteworthy. While it’s true that decades have passed since one of these wastes of shelf-space single-handedly brought down the entire industry, repetitive beat-’em-ups differentiated only by color scheme don’t make me want to buy most of them.
Defying this trend is LEGO Indiana Jones: The Original Adventures, the latest installment in the improbable collaboration between publisher LucasArts, British developer Traveller’s Tales, and Denmark’s most famous toymaker. The first two LEGO movie games, each based on three Star Wars films, proved to be sleeper hits, combining a kid-friendly atmosphere with the nostalgic one-two punch of film property and toy line. LEGO Indy doesn’t deviate much from this formula, providing simple yet engaging gameplay while drawing players into a funny retelling of the first three Indy movies.
George Lucas’ film trilogies translate surprisingly well into slow-paced platforming action games. LucasArts had a period of success in the early 1990s, but that was mostly due to graphic adventures like Day of the Tentacle and the Monkey Island series. The LEGO games are far different from those games in both form and function. The ’90s-era LucasArts library, heavy with the literary baggage common to point-and-click games, appealed to a very specific set of hardcore gamers. The LEGO series seems aimed at a broader crowd, with a particular focus on preteens.
While not strictly following the formula that put its publisher’s games on the map, Traveller’s Tales goes right with the LEGO series in ways that recall those early LucasArts titles. Instead of simply aping styles found in modern third-person action games (as fun as LEGO God of War might sound), the LEGO series overlays the genre with its own template, creating a game world that’s faithful to its inspirations and fun to explore.
If you’ve never played a LEGO franchise game, here’s a quick rundown: It’s LEGOs. Harrison Ford? Ruggedly handsome LEGO with a whip. Sean Connery? Bearded LEGO, funny hat. Major Toht? Angry LEGO in black. Short Round? Short LEGO.
It’s all very intuitive. Their movements are the blocky, somehow jovially stiff motions you’d expect from animated figures, and their interactions with the LEGO-rendered Indy-world consist of iterations of the simplistic construction mechanics you’d expect to encounter in a world made entirely of Danish building blocks. Obstacles are conveniently accompanied by just enough loose bricks nearby to build a solution, and fight sequences, though they’re resolved quickly enough no matter what tactic you use, invariably take place in areas filled with various forms of improvised weaponry.
Guiding Indy and Co. through the game’s 18 levels is demanding but not frustrating. Each of LEGO Indy’s 80-plus characters has access to the basic array of punching, jumping, and item-use skills, and most have a special skill or item (Indy’s ubiquitous whip, Jones Sr.’s hieroglyph-deciphering book, Short Round’s shortness) used to further progress with levels or provide access to the game’s secrets.
Don’t expect any visual surprises if you’ve played the previous LEGO movie games. The next-gen bump provides some additional sparkle, but there’s only so much you can do graphically with virtual plastic bricks. Frame rates have increased, and the BPE ratio (bricks per explosion) has gone through the roof. But a hi-def Temple of Kali Ma isn’t much more of a technical challenge to render than a lo-def Mos Eisley Cantina.
But that’s not why the LEGO games are popular. LucasArts gave Traveller’s Tale’s a degree of freedom with their interpretation of the Indy storylines, allowing them to create whimsical slapstick pantomimes that endear them to players without pandering to, or alienating, any particular demographic. LEGO Indy’s presentation ends up clever for all its simplicity, sacrificing the extraneous but delivering an experience no less entertaining for it.
Every aspect of LEGO Indy shares that unifying technique. It has a rich personality that can’t be quantified by simply throwing industry buzzwords at it until a suitable sound-bite sticks. As a fun little throwback to an era of polished, cartoony platformers that now only happen with a new Mario release, LEGO Indy brightens a genre too often rife with dull, uninspiring knockoffs.