Fans of Traveler’s Tales Games will be happy to know that their adorably magical LEGO video game formula is firmly intact in LEGO Pirates of the Caribbean, the developer’s ninth game based on a franchise external to LEGO. After eight games, you might think they have nothing new to add to this mix, but you’d be wrong. Well, mostly.
LEGO Pirates of the Caribbean takes you through five levels each for all four movies in the series, including the newest film, On Stranger Tides. That’s a total of 20 levels, which come with loads of secrets and tons of replay value.
All of the familiar trappings are here: LEGO stud collection, Story Mode vs. Free Play, minikits and gold bricks, unique abilities spread across 70 characters in numerous character classes, those cheeky cutscenes that lovingly skewer the source material, and so on. Like past LEGO games, Pirates has its own home base hub, which functions as a playable menu where you can enter game levels, collect characters, and explore to unlock special features. In this case, the hub is Port Royale, a large environment that you can explore to progressively unlock more and more of.
The levels are a mixed bag; depending on how much you love the films, some parts of the game may not feel familiar, if only because you can’t recall everything that took place in the movies. Some of the levels are downright inspired, showing off tremendous creativity and bringing entirely new cards to the LEGO table. Others feel like discarded LEGO Star Wars ideas that have been recycled.
The seventy available characters possess a much broader variety of skill sets than ever before. Some are good with swords, others use whips, steel forging hammers, guns, or bombs. The human characters are all good at climbing ropes and digging with shovels, while the cursed Black Pearl crew and Davy Jones’ people can walk underwater indefinitely, since they don’t have to hold their breath. Women can double-jump. Some can throw axes or bombs, and you can aim by holding down the action button. Flying Dutchman crewmen can pass through special organic passageways, and only Blackbeard can open or destroy special red-and-black items.
Captain Jack has a singular ability that no other character can claim: his magic compass that in the films always points him toward the thing he desires most. In the game, the compass is used in every level to find eight hidden treasures that are crucial to completing that level or the entire game (many of these are accessible only in Free Play). Sometimes the treasures must be dug up out of the ground after Jack locates them, other times (oddly) they’re just sitting right out in the open, waiting to be approached.
While LEGO Pirates doesn’t reinvent the wheel, it does offer new innovations. Chief among them: the co-op split screen that’s been part of the last few LEGO games. Aficionados know this is a long overdue addition — it’s downright glorious not to be tied down to your partner’s position — but the implementation still needs work. Based on you and your partner’s positions in the level, the line going down the middle of your screen rotates, like an arm on a clock, enforcing a subliminal sense of where your partner is located in the level, relative to you. But having the split screen constantly spin creates a very disorienting sensation for players; it means each player is not locked onto one side of the screen. You’ll go back and forth repeatedly, and it leads to lots of confusion in the heat of battle.
Switching characters in Free Play mode has always been a bit of a chore, as you tap the controller’s shoulder buttons until you find the character you want. This system has been completely overhauled. In Story Mode, holding down the Y or triangle button brings up a radial menu displaying all the characters available to you. In Free Play, the circular menu gets replaced by the entire list of 70 characters, allowing you to easily pick from them all any time you want.
One of the most creative levels comes at the start of the Dead Man’s Chest chapter, where both players are trapped inside a round cage made of bone. Instead of being confining, this changes the entire side-scrolling mechanic. Rather than run through the level, you roll along in your cage (think: gerbil ball), crushing enemies that get in your way, jumping across chasms, and rolling through cylindrical tunnels pinball-style. It’s a welcome break from the same-old, and the sprawling design of this level gives you plenty of space to enjoy the feel of it.
On the downside, I don’t recall the cutscenes in earlier LEGO games being as long as the ones in LEGO Pirates. The plots of the second and third films in particular were so convoluted that whittling down their essences to something conveyable in LEGO form couldn’t have been an easy task. But most of the game’s cutscenes simply overstay their welcome.
On the plus side, there’s still something satisfying about smashing LEGO objects into studs. Even though this mechanic is included in every single LEGO game, it somehow never gets old. I think the developers realized this, because in Pirates, it takes more smashing or blasting than ever to break up a single object — which makes it that much more gratifying.
The visuals represent another vast improvement over prior games. I remember the earliest LEGO titles looked as though their entire world was made of LEGO bricks. Nowadays, LEGO minifigures and objects live in the real world, in realistic environments like beaches and jungles. LEGO Pirates‘ world is mostly sunny and brilliant, though there are a few levels that take place at night or in a storm; I found these levels too dark to easily navigate.
Past LEGO games conveyed a clear sense of what you have to do to reach the end of the level, but more than once I found myself confused in LEGO Pirates, not having a clue about what I was supposed to do next.
Minor gripes aside, LEGO Pirates is still a charming, fun, funny place to explore, entirely worthy of its predecessors’ legacy. The faithful will surely adore it, though I don’t think I’d suggest it as the very first LEGO title that newbies should try.