Back in blocks
Jack Sparrow sails in to port – as iconic as the first time you witnessed this scene, yet somehow flatter and blockier. He observes two fellow pirates strung up under a rock formation. He salutes, and as they swing by their legs they give him a little wave - as does their monkey. Sparrow is suddenly aware that his ship is both sinking and about to crash in to the dock. Moments later his vessel shatters into a hundred multi-coloured pieces. The braggart himself finds himself on dry land and, of course, unscathed.
It can only be a LEGO game. Having hit upon a winning formula with its reimaginations of LucasArts properties and other family-friendly icons, LEGO’s team-up with Disney is as fitting as it was inevitable. Despite their titles taking place across space, jungles, fictional metropolises, and wizard schools, LEGO have developed one coherent formula across them; combining mimed retellings of the source material by blocky caricatures with a playful, puzzle-solving smash-’em-up that parents can play as happily with children as gamers can with their console-illiterate partners.
‘Fun’ is a word that permeates LEGO Pirates’ every pore, and as dismissive as that word has become among gaming’s more high-brow apologists it is no criticism here. Pirates is nothing more or less than fun to play. Treasure chests explode with LEGO gold, enemies can be dispatched with a liberal mash of attacks, and all puzzles can be solved by testing every character with every item and switch until something clicks.
Learning to share
It is not by any stretch of the imagination a difficult game, but then LEGO’s strength is in their universally accessible co-operative experiences. Exploring the colourful environments together is always enjoyable, and a dynamic split-screen allows you to detach from your friend without the tug-of-war of traditional screen-sharing. Unfortunately, this doesn’t remove the difficulty caused by character-specific solutions, which can often leave you resorting to the time-honoured cry of: ‘Come. Over. Here!’ and the seamless split-screen can cause blind-spots and is rendered useless whenever the camera refuses to adjust to fit your individual location. Despite this, the knock-about enjoyment of crashing through each area is largely enough to excuse any technical complaints which often become only a further element in the chaos.
LEGO titles work almost exclusively on a collective nostalgia, and working your way through familiar narratives with a friend has always been the key to their playability. As always, the story of LEGO Pirates is retold by elaborate dumbshows and characters’ grunts which can be as entertaining to attempt to decipher as the actual puzzles. These cut-scenes are often witty, clever and successfully evoke the same goodwill you felt towards the original film. However, this bare-bones storytelling is less engaging the more unfamiliar you are with the films. Levels based on the second and third films were increasingly incomprehensible for this reviewer.
After the first film’s introduction separate ports are unlocked for each film in the series for you to play in whatever order you wish - though there is clearly an intended difficulty curve in order to get accustomed to the various elements. It is notable that Pirates is second only to Star Wars: Clone Wars as the youngest franchise to get the LEGO treatment. Including levels based on the recent On Strangers Tides shouldn’t be a surprise given Disney’s history of tightly-scheduled game tie-ins. And yet, with the plot of this film explained in only enigmatic charades the suggestion that you rush out to see the film in order to enjoy these sections is an unexpected inconvenience given LEGO’s usually retrospective appeal.
The bright, bold graphics pop with satisfactory LEGO style and the great variety of characters and items included in the game make up for the economic spattering of individual animations. The ‘voice’ acting involved in each character’s incomprehensible murmurs is delivered effectively, with a special recognition due to whoever was tasked with summarising Johnny Depp’s hearty drawl down to monosyllables. A faithfully rendered version of the Pirates of the Caribbean soundtrack accompanies each level, and while this can begin to grate as it loops during more thorough exploration, it at least maintains an appropriate level of adventurous pomp to the proceedings.
Easily burned through in a handful of hours, LEGO Pirates’ playtime can be doubled depending on how deliberateness of your treasure collecting and how responsive your second player is. More efficient pillaging of the game’s practically endless treasure may lure players back for repeated play but unless you have multiple offspring/girlfriends to coax through the game, LEGO Pirates will likely be a single-trip adventure for most.
Not that it is an experience to be dismissed. LEGO Pirates is a well crafted adaptation and there are undeniably far more obnoxious child-friendly tie-ins on the market for which that can’t be said. The value you get from it will rely heavily on whether you are familiar enough with the subject matter or are patient enough with a loved one who is. All in all, LEGO maintain supremacy as the masters of the casual co-op experience, and if you have enough interest in a LEGO version of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise to have read this far then it’s probably for you.
A joyfully simple, limitlessly accessible puzzle adventure.
A frustrating camera and repetitive elements can grate.