It was only a matter of time. After conquering the worlds of Harry Potter, Indiana Jones, Star Wars and Batman, the LEGO franchise has moved to Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. Encompassing all four of the movies (including the one that hasn't been released at the time of this review), LEGO Pirates takes the tried and true formula that has worked for past LEGO games and applies it to a new property. That's both a good and bad thing.
The charm and children-friendly nature of the LEGO franchise fits well with Pirates of the Caribbean. Though some violence and complex ideas are toned down or eliminated completely, the colorful world and its characters are right at home. For those of us who are fans of Disney's franchise, it's great to see developer Traveller's Tales put a spin on familiar storylines.
Continuing a long-standing tradition, LEGO Pirates features no dialogue and no subtitles. Characters silently act out emotions and plot points. However, some cutscenes (when not directly featuring in-game graphics) will use stylish storyboard-esque animation to quickly keep players up-to-date on what's happening. For the most part, it works well. In its early moments, the Pirates franchise is very clear – Jack Sparrow is a pirate, Will Turner is a heroic blacksmith. But in the later films, as most of us know, things get a little convoluted. It's here that Traveller's Tales occasionally struggles. It's not difficult to see why. Even when the movies themselves were trying to painstakingly spell out their labyrinthine plots, it was a challenge to keep up. Remove dialogue or shift to storyboards, and it proves nigh impossible.
Less complicated, and very familiar, is the gameplay of LEGO Pirates. Break stuff, build stuff and find stuff. That's what LEGO games have been for years, and that proves to be the same here. Up to two players can take control of a variety of characters, smash everything in sight to discover hidden objects and rebuild devices to gain access to new areas. Some characters are required to achieve specific tasks – Jack Sparrow uses his compass to find critical objects that are hidden, Will Turner can throw his axe to hit targets and so on.
Not every character is all that useful though. Outside of a key half dozen or so, most of these folks are just clones of the essentials or completely superfluous. That's not necessarily a bad thing, as collecting the dozens upon dozens of playable characters is addicting. Some of the more important additions to your roster will also allow you to visit previously-unreachable areas, giving you access to more loot and more collectibles. Slightly problematic is your allies' AI. On occasion I found the computer was far more eager to accomplish something than I was. As a result, my so-called friends would push me off platforms as they attempted to reach a goal I had no immediate plan to achieve. You'll also find that some crowded sequences involving many allies, NPCs and enemies can quickly grow frustrating as you attempt to keep track of who you're fighting and who's helping you.
Though simple, LEGO Pirates' gameplay works exceptionally well. This is due in large part to Traveller's Tales' ability to diversify level design. Though you're still doing similar tasks in each level, none of them feel too similar. The developers were fairly deliberate in not always focusing on the films' major battles, instead opting to sometimes focus on some of the more eccentric elements, like Davy Jones' locker or the assembly of the Pirate Lords. Some levels feature no fighting at all. In some cases, the game experience is far more entertaining than the film one. I can't tell you how hilarious it was to ride a goat in Davy Jones' locker. It was completely nonsensical and not at all in the original movie, but I didn't care. Sometimes the whimsical nature of the LEGO brand results in moments of sheer genius.
That's not to say everything is perfect. LEGO Pirates suffers from some truly bizarre issues, most notably a complete lack of online play, weak controls and some truly frustrating puzzle design. Regarding online play, it's simply unforgivable that Traveller's Tales refuses to add online co-op in this day and age. While it's true that the drop-in/drop-out split-screen mode is fun, the fact is that you'll no doubt want to play with friends that don't live down the street. Moreover, there are plenty of times when the screen's divided nature prevents you from seeing objectives, enemies or key objects. The LEGO franchise needs to get with the times.
Control issues have always seemed to plague these games. Jumping is a particular nuisance, and you'll likely be retracing your steps or dying and losing money fairly regularly when the game requires you do some mild platforming. The typical camera angle for the game, combined with less than precise leaping mechanics, means you'll frequently misjudge distances and timing. The game is forgiving when it comes to life and health, so it's not the worst thing in the world, but it'll be tiresome by the time you've put several hours into the game.
The final issue is likely the one that will aggravate you immediately. LEGO Pirates is not a complicated game. It trains you to work with a few key visual clues, and from there, you work to figure out what Object A has to do with Object B and where you need to go. Arrows, icons and shiny indicators are routinely present so you always know what you need to do and when. At least they're there most of the time. Every so often, Traveller's Tales likes to not provide these types of signals. You're left hanging in the wind, effectively. Mind you, these are situations that are clearly not meant to be difficult. You're supposed to climb a rope or use a specific character for something. But the developers, being so close to the game, don't realize that what is so obvious to them isn't so clear to the player. These are clear oversights in design, and they're incredibly frustrating. I wasted a considerable amount of cumulative time trying to figure out things that should not have proven so challenging.
It's easy to overlook the graphics of LEGO Pirates in light of more notable aspects. That said, visually the game is very strong, featuring the typical plastic styling for characters and key objects, with a more realistic approach to the larger environment. Water, ocean and reflection effects are particularly well done, though some effects (water splashing) are shockingly lackluster. Animation, however, is another high point, as most characters are very distinct in their mannerisms.