Lego Indiana Jones

I’ve had a lot to say about puzzle books and puzzle boxes this year, but it’s been fully three months since I posted about an actual videogame. What have I been playing? Well, for one thing, during the summer sales, I bought several of the Lego games by Traveler’s Tales, some of which have been sitting on my Steam wishlist for an entire decade. These are all cast from the same mold as Lego Star Wars, but with different IP franchises. As of this writing, the only one I’ve finished (and indeed 100%ed) is the earliest application of the formula to a non-Star Wars franchise, Lego Indiana Jones.

I seem to recall that this game was critically panned on its release, although I don’t understand why. It seems to me a perfectly serviceable instance of its type. Like all of these games, it’s mainly about breaking everything in sight, turning them either into showers of lego studs that you can use to unlock power-ups, or into collectibles of various sorts, or just into piles of bricks that you can assemble into something else (although you have no control over what). Assembled objects are often bridges or mechanisms necessary for proceeding through a level, and there’s basically no way of predicting which random bits scenery have to be torn down to make the things you need, so you really do wind up smashing absolutely everything you can, just in case. There’s also combat and puzzles.

As in the other Lego games, completing a level unlocks it in “Free Play” mode, which means you can replay it with different characters and use their special abilities to access secrets and collectibles that were unavailable on the first pass. Ah, but what kind of special abilities do Indiana Jones characters have? The interesting thing is that (A) characters are mainly distinguished by tools rather than innate qualities, and (B) the same tools can sometimes be found lying around loose. So, for example, the airplane mechanic from the first act of Raiders of the Lost Ark has a wrench, which means he can repair machines, but so can any other character who picks up a wrench. The mechanic is still valuable in Free Play mode, because he has a wrench all the time, and thus can repair machines in places without environmental wrenches. There’s a repeat-the-sequence mini-game that can only be attempted by a character holding a book, and books are built into all the Academic characters: Belloc, Marcus Brody, Henry Jones Senior, Elsa Schneider, but notably not Indy himself, even when he’s dressed as a professor rather than an adventurer. But when Indy picks up a book, he’s as academic as anyone. There’s one case of this that was so contrary to sense that it left me stuck and in need of hints: in the Temple of Doom sequence, there are certain statues of Lego Kali. Approach one, and help text helpfully informs you that the Thugee know how to use these statues to reveal hidden passages. I took this at face value: to access the passage, I’d have to use a Thugee character in free play mode. But it turns out all you need is to be wearing a turban.

Weapons, too, count as tools in this sense. The unsung hero of my playthrough was a nameless German solder (who obviously switched sides in Free Play) whose power was simply a built-in rocket launcher, useful both for ending fights quickly and for demolishing lots of scenery at once — including shiny metallic objects that are only vulnerable to explosives, and which tend to have puzzles built around them that the rocket soldier bypasses.

As to the content, mainly it just strikes me that Indiana Jones is a deeply strange choice of IP for this treatment, and probably wouldn’t have been done were it not for its general proximity to Star Wars. There’s even an entire set of secrets in the game built about finding out-of-place Star Wars characters, which culminates in — what else? — unlocking Han Solo for use in Free Play. In fact, I’ll admit that all the gameplay centered around unlocking secrets fits Indiana Jones plots very well — that’s basically what everyone in the movies is trying to do, right? The Ark of the Covenant, the Sankara Stones, the Holy Grail: all are essentially powerful upgrades that grant special abilities, hidden behind puzzles and/or combat challenges. This game just expands on that, taking fairly short sequences from the films and folding them out into something more substantial.

But it also sillies them up, and that’s where the whole thing becomes strange. This is a kid-friendly E-for-Everyone game based on really disturbingly violent films that were directly responsible for changes in the film rating system. Temple of Doom in particular is a sickenly cruel flick, with a paranoid world-view, where seemingly friendly people are secretly plotting to entrap and enslave you, not even for any personal benefit but simply in the service of pointless evil. Even the well-meaning can be subverted and controlled and made into enemies, and the only way to turn them back is with pain. By hurting them until they’re your friends again. And the game just puts a thick layer of goofy slapstick over all that. The nightmarish human sacrifice scene, where the Thugee lower a caged and struggling man into the bowels of the earth, is recreated here in lego, except the victim is basically fine afterward, the fires below having merely burned is clothes off embarrassingly.

My personal experience is also made peculiar by the way that I’m a lot less familiar with the movies than I am with other games based on them. My first impressions of Temple of Doom came not from the film, but from the 1985 coin-op arcade game. I saw Last Crusade in the theaters before I played the classic LucasArts point-and-click adventure, but I spent many more hours on the adventure. So it’s largely these other games that I was reminded of while playing it. Particularly the music — there’s a ton of incidental background music that’s seared into my memory in its Soundblaster arrangements. Hearing the full film score versions provokes an odd recognition: Whoa, that’s what I was supposed to be pretending I was hearing?

In Lego Star Wars, you could wander around the Mos Eisley cantina between missions, and all the characters you had unlocked would be there too. In Lego Indiana Jones, this role is taken by Barnett College, which makes the juxtapositions more startling: after a while, the campus is crawling with Nazis, Thugee, and Grail Knights. This is supposed to be an institution of learning, not a wretched hive of scum and villainy! It does, however, culminate in using all those characters’ special abilities in a puzzle sequence right there in the hub world. Did Lego Star Wars have anything like this? If it did, I’ve either forgotten about it or just never noticed it. Again, I think the genre helps. The idea that there are secret passages all over the place fits better here, even if the characters that make it possible don’t.

Apparently there’s a second Lego Indiana Jones game that basically just does Crystal Skull. That seems to be the trend now, doing individual movies instead of trilogies; there’s a game just for The Force Awakens as well. I’ll probably give Lego Crystal Skull a miss unless someone recommends it. I just don’t have the same connection to it. But if they ever do Lego Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, I’m definitely interested. Last Crusade has given us an example of what a classic point-and-click adventure and a Lego game based on the same source look like, and I’m fascinated by the idea of doing the same thing again but without the source.

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