Gotham City awaits you in LEGO Batman 2: DC Super Heroes, but Arkham City this is not. The family-friendly nature of the LEGO video game franchise is intact despite DC Comics’ comparatively dark mythos, but that doesn’t mean developer Traveller’s Tales is content to give us a simple rehash of the LEGO formula. Instead, LEGO Batman 2 is the team’s most ambitious effort to date, marrying the addictive block-busting and collecting of past titles with sandbox elements, a fully-voiced narrative, and a truly open-world Gotham that begs to be explored. This fusion of LEGO simplicity and modern complexity is not a perfect translation, and the issues one might expect from a freshman attempt at the genre are here in plain, ugly sight. And yet, as he is prone to do, Batman emerges victorious with a game that rubs off so much irresistible charm and collectible goodness that it’s hard to walk away.
The story of LEGO Batman 2 has fun with your favorite DC characters while treating the source material with respect. The Joker is busting super-villains out of Arkham Asylum and Lex Luthor is running for president. Mutual interests bring the pair together, but the duo is less dynamic than Batman and Robin, who must follow in the bad guys’ wake as things turn from bad to worse. The events are mostly told through cutscenes and the news-anchor narration of Vicki Vale, whose TV segments add perfectly appropriate humor and cynicism that take digs at both the ridiculousness of it all and Rocksteady’s more mature interpretations. In fact, there are plenty of smile-worthy moments to be had from all characters, thanks in no small part to great voice-acting and a clever script. The latter expertly walks a fine line between character development and simplicity, allowing the finer aspects of heroes and villains to shine through without getting muddled in events that the game’s younger demographic couldn’t follow.
Of course, fun factor will likely take precedence for youngsters, but gameplay is a satisfying affair for kids and grown-ups alike. The main missions are spread across Gotham City and become available in a linear fashion, but it’s never difficult to reach the next one thanks to great signposting. Once you’ve entered a level, a fixed camera takes over and the block-bashing begins. Alone or with a partner, you’ll break apart objects and enemies with your fists and engage in solid platforming that’s frequently tied with clever puzzles. The solutions are never frustrating and often come with the use of various suits that grant Batman and Robin new powers.
These costumes add plenty of flavor and variety to otherwise simple romps. Batman can turn invisible to sneak past cameras with the Sensor Suit, or move through damaging currents with the Electricity Suit. Meanwhile, the Hazard Suit gives Robin a tank for distributing fluids and protects him from chemical damage. These and others are often used in tandem to navigate each level, and you’ll find that each brings something different to melee combat as well. That’s not to say beating up cronies is a deep affair; rather, a single punch will bust up almost anyone, making the optional finishing moves rather useless. Dying is similarly low-risk; you’ll simply respawn in place with a couple-thousand less studs to your name.
Then again, studs are everything in LEGO Batman 2, so you’d be wise to keep your health up. As the game’s currency, studs are gathered by the hundreds of thousands as you play and are used to purchase new playable characters. Of course, buying these heroes and villains is only half the battle. You must first find them, and in a city like Gotham, that task can be daunting. Unfortunately, finding these and other collectibles (like Red and Gold Bricks) is made more difficult by the lack of a mini-map. Why Traveller’s Tales chose to forgo such a sandbox staple is beyond me. You’re instead relegated to pausing the game and pinging for goodies on the world map, but only after revealing segments of the map by activating Bat Terminals scattered throughout the city. You can also only set one marker at a time. Sound frustrating? It is.
Strange design choices like this make up most of my other concerns with the game. Moving around Gotham City, you’ll more than likely spot plenty of Gold Bricks that appear translucent or otherwise unattainable. The reason? The game generally wants you to complete some kind of character-dependent platforming challenge or puzzle to reach it, but unlike most open-world games, these segments aren’t hidden behind a mission marker. As a result, you’re forced to backtrack your way through the hoops to find where you’re meant to start from, which is usually somewhere near ground level. It’s another matter entirely that you can’t freely switch playable characters in Gotham City until you’ve beaten the 15 story missions. Why present me with so many compelling reasons to explore when my ability to do so is limited?
It doesn’t help that very little of the open-world mechanics I’ve mentioned are actually explained to you. For a game that puts so much emphasis on the staggering number of playable characters (50, plus 10 slots for custom fighters), you’d expect at least some instruction on how to acquire them and how to deal with the unintuitive junk that gets in the way of fun. Make no mistake; Gotham City is a fun place to be, as the costumes and abilities of the story missions are used just as effectively to spice up city streets and rooftops. I just wish LEGO Batman 2 made this content more accessible, perhaps by following the conventions of open-world mainstays like Grand Theft Auto and inFAMOUS.
Thankfully, this game does well in just about every other category. The color palette is vibrant and lighting effects dazzle as objects and action fills the screen. The score is similarly good, using classic Batman tunes to match the ebb and flow of gameplay. Someone also deserves a hug for including the iconic Superman theme. This heart-warming riff turns flying through the city as the Man of Steel into one of the game’s highlights. It’s also refreshing to play a game that’s nearly bug-free, with scarcely a glitch or technical hiccup to be found. That said I was disappointed to encounter a game-breaking oversight during the final boss battle. It’s the kind of moment where you find yourself stuck and think, ‘The developer must have made a mistake here.’ Except this time, they actually did. Not everyone will encounter this roadblock, but if you do, you’ll be forced to exit the level and do things differently next time.
Traveller’s Tales has shown its open-world colors, and I’m impressed by the result. LEGO Batman 2: DC Super Heroes is an engrossing game that appeals to kids and the kid in all of us, and it does so with surprising depth and undeniable charm. Questionable design choices keep the game from sandbox perfection, but there’s plenty of fun to be had in this superhero package that’s made for everyone, including hardcore collectible junkies. Arkham City it is not, but for a crowd seeking thematically lighter fare, it’s the next best thing.