"Why so serious?"
So says the evil Joker in The Dark Knight, the bleakest Batman movie ever. And, though the Joker wasn't talking to Batman, he might as well have been. Never the cheeriest of superheroes, Batman has recently become the cinematic poster boy for heroic angst. Indeed, the entire city of Gotham has become a place of nightmare, filled with shadows and darkness and impending doom.
Not exactly the right stuff for a kids' video game.
Unless, of course, you take Joker's snarling question at face value and ask LEGO to make a kinder, gentler (and funnier) Gotham.
Why So Silly?
LEGO Batman: The Videogame appears to reject today's bleak Batman and instead takes its cues from campier incarnations from days of yore: The Dark Knight is in his familiar gray outfit from the comics and Saturday-morning TV. Robin gallivants in chipper red, yellow and green duds. The music comes from Michael Keeton's 1989 Batman, and the game's plot is straight from the gamemakers' imaginations. Here's the best part: While today's cinematic Batman is the ultimate loner, this game is best played with a pal.
For half the game's 30 levels, players put on Batman's cowl (or Robin's mask) and fight their way through Gotham's seedy underworld, populated by a gazillion villains, most of whom can be easily (and literally) dismantled with a few well-timed whacks. Along the way, Batman and Robin use grappling hooks and batarangs, drive the Batmobile, change into new outfits (which give the dynamic duo special powers, like walking up walls or the ability to place and detonate special bat-bombs) and build virtual LEGO structures—many of which they need to advance to the next stage.
It's a relatively simple game, designed more for casual players than obsessive ones. Press one button and you punch. Press another and you jump. The game does a good job of training you in more "expert" maneuvers as you go along, and solving puzzles breaks up the monotony of, well, breaking up the bad guys.
But while LEGO Batman is simpler than some of those other video games out there, it has moments that will prove frustrating for some players. In the very first level, I was smashing bad guys, placing bombs and throwing grappling hooks like crazy when, all of a sudden, I got stuck behind a virtual wall and couldn't get out. (I had to ask my children for help.)
It's actually the cutscenes that are the most enjoyable segments of the game, anyway: An overanxious Robin leaps off a ledge while a more pragmatic Batman opts to take the stairs. Bad guy Clayface skids around in an office chair like a 6-year-old while his fellow villains plot and scheme. These little snippets are, in fact, far better produced than the Hanna-Barbera Batman cartoons I remember from my youth.
Crash! Bang! Pow!
But while Gotham may be a brighter place in LEGOland, it's not altogether sunny.
Compared to Robin's crayon-colored getup, the landscape around him feels a bit gritty. And the story, while miles away from Christian Bale's movies, is arguably a wee bit bleaker than those of previous LEGO games (Indiana Jones, Star Wars). Mayhem here is part of the intended fun, and players are encouraged to break as many objects as possible—from streetlights to walls to LEGO people galore. And while it doesn't appear that any cute little LEGO characters actually die during gameplay, hundreds are smashed into little LEGO bits. And when Batman sends the Joker to prison, there's a cutscene that shows the villain pointing a gun at his own head. (A flag that says "Bang!" unfurls when he pulls the trigger.)
The most problematic element of this game may come through the ability to play the bad'uns. Once you finish the first 15 levels, you've got to set aside law and order to become a dastardly supervillain, wreaking havoc as the Joker, the Riddler, the Penguin or a smattering of other nefarious nitwits. Now, instead of battling bad guys, you're walloping policemen, sending LEGO parts flying.
Also, the Joker carts around a special hand buzzer that, when he zaps someone with it, reveals an underlying LEGO skeleton. Another villain, Bane, is apparently able to break his victim's back (in LEGO fashion, of course) when using a special move. Players are asked to steal gold, too. And some of the characters are designed to evoke seductiveness—if not actually achieve it in their blocky LEGO form: Catwoman's dressed in leather and swings her hips suggestively during a cutscene, and Poison Ivy wears what appears to be a bathing suit of lettuce. (One reviewer said it made her look like she had a green, hairy chest.)
So it's a mixed bag of grappling hooks, batarangs and block-knocking silliness, to be sure. And what you think of it is all about what you compare it to. Stack it up side by side with a pile of real LEGOs in your living room, and it's a little disconcerting. But build it inside the movie world of The Dark Knight, and it'll put (as the Joker might say) a smile on your face.