Lego Batman

Lego Batman is special to me: it’s a game whose existence I predicted, in a comment thread on this very blog. It just seemed like a natural next step after Lego Star Wars, as Batman kits were one of Lego’s bigger sellers. I actually bought and played it a bit years before my current Lego kick, but didn’t complete it then, mainly because it’s effectively twice as long as the other Lego games, consisting of two entire trilogyworths of levels. As of this writing, I’ve completed both trilogies in Story Mode, but have not yet 100%ed it. The trilogy as an organizing principle is obviously a holdover from Lego Star Wars and Lego Indiana Jones, but here, for the first time, Traveller’s Tales isn’t adapting a trilogy of movies. Instead, they’re just making up a completely new set of villain team-up stories, unencumbered by the need to pretend that a scene that was compelling on the silver screen necessarily makes for good lego play.

Mechanically, it brings two new things to the table: batarangs and special-purpose costumes. Batarangs are just a projectile weapon where you can program in a certain number of designated targets (either enemies or breakable lego objects), like in that one scene at the beginning of Batman Returns. Doing this — both selecting targets and waiting for the batarang to flit between them — is slow enough to make it not very useful in combat, except to pick off people shooting at you from unreachable ledges. It’s sometimes used as a puzzle-solving tool, to break things out of reach. but guns work just as well for that, when you have them — which you obviously don’t, when you’re playing as Batman in Story mode. Most of the villains carry guns, though, when you unlock them.

Costumes are a way for Story Mode to partake in some of the variability that Free Play mode gets by letting you switch characters: Batman and Robin are each effectively multiple characters, with special abilities determined by what they’re wearing, which they can change at designated costume-change pads (which you typically have to assemble from pieces). So it functions a bit like the pick-uppable tools in Lego Indiana Jones, except that they’re tools that can only be used by specific characters: Batman has Batman costumes, Robin has Robin costumes. (Batgirl doesn’t appear in Story mode. If you unlock her in Free Play, she’s treated as just a variation on Batman, and uses Batman costumes.) The specific abilities costumes grant are an odd assortment. There’s some obvious ones, like the one that lets you glide and the one that lets you plant explosives, but there’s also things like a costume with a sonic device that breaks glass (which, contrary to expectation, is the strongest frangible material in the game and can’t be broken in any other way, even by the aforementioned bombs) and, for Robin, magnet-boots that let you walk on metal walls and a vacuum device for collecting scraps and recycling them into useful objects. It all reminds me of the goofier sort of action figure accessories, the kind where a toy company just makes up vehicles with no basis in the source material.

But goofiness is the order of the day, isn’t it? This is a Traveller’s Tales Lego game, and that means making everyone a little childish, to excuse the fact that even the heroes spend most of their time smashing scenery. The Lego Movie and The Lego Batman Movie have forever defined the character of Lego Batman for us, but that was years away when this game was made. Instead, it seems to draw inspiration from a mishmash of the Tim Burton films, Batman: The Animated Series, and the Adam West TV series. (The comics that inspired all three sources don’t seem to be much of a factor directly.) You can see this most clearly in the villain roster: among others, we’ve got a Joker with a lethal joybuzzer (with enough juice to power electric motors), the monstrous B:TAS version of Clayface, and Killer Moth. The Penguin’s special ability, in addition to umbrella-gliding, is that he can release exploding penguins, like in Batman Returns, but otherwise he’s solidly Burgess Meredith-based: this is a Penguine who prances about with joie de vivre, swinging his umbrella around like a swashbuckler.

The character animation in all these games is excellent, by the way. The stylization leaves the faces with limited room for expression, so they compensate in the walk cycles and combat moves. There’s one detail I find particularly pleasing: Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy both have a double-jump ability, but they execute it completely differently, Harley going into an aerial somersault like a circus acrobat, Ivy seeming to ride the wind like an earthbound goddess.

At any rate, as usual for Batman, the villains are the highlight. Which I suppose is why they have their own trilogy.

It’s done in a narratively interesting way. After you play an episode of a trilogy as Batman, you get to play the villain version of the same episode. The gleeful destruction feels more appropriate this time around. The cutscenes go into more detail about exactly what the villain was trying to accomplish, and how. Sometimes you’ll be going through the same familiar level geometry that you did as Batman (just fighting cops instead of minions this time), sometimes your path will break away and go somewhere completely new. But you always ultimately wind up in the boss room, where Batman confronted the villain you’re playing, and you know that the level is about to end — specifically, that it’s about to end right at the edge of triumph, just before Batman bursts in and ruins everything. I’ve mentioned before the idea of a Lord of the Rings game where you play as Gollum, where the final level would end right after Gollum triumphantly wrests the ring back from Frodo at Mount Doom, before we see what happens next. It’s a bit like that.

There’s something a little uncanny about the villain episodes, too. When you play as Batman, it feels like you’re playing through a series of challenges and obstacles set up by the villain. But then you get to be the villain in the same situation. To some extent, you’re engaged in setting up the things the way Batman found them, but you’re doing it in a context where things have been set up for you to set them up — including in scenes that, in-story, were improvised, the result of the original plan going off the rails. If the Joker prepared the way for Batman, who prepared the way for the Joker?

1 Comment so far

  1. matt w on 18 Sep 2021

    It makes sense that glass would be the strongest material in a Lego world. Other materials are composed of many bricks that can easily be taken apart, but glass is typically a single panel.

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