Review: Lego Batman 3: Beyond Gotham

Lego Batman 3: Beyond Gotham isn’t really a Batman game. Sure, the caped crusader makes appearances here and there (along with a multitude of flashy suits and powers), beating baddies to a not-so-blood pulp and groaning angrily in Troy Baker’s famously seductive baritone. And sure, plenty of Bats’ traditions have been plumped from the popular property’s wide assortment of Hollywood blockbusters and forgotten animations. At its core, though, Traveller’s Tales’ take on the almost painfully familiar Lego formula directs much of its attention elsewhere: DC’s expansive catalog of characters. And for the first time in Lego Batman history (DC Super Heroes’ closing hours excluded), there’s a solid narrative to support the massive weight of the series’ intersecting adventures and playful interpretations.

The story, which is a strong contender for a “silliest use of a bad-ass franchise” award, follows the Dynamic Duo for a single chapter before shattering all expectations. Beyond Gotham isn’t an idiom or tagline: it’s a factual statement. Once the curtain unfurls on Batman and Robin’s quintessential introduction, the dysfunctional pair join forces with the worlds most noble defenders: the Lantern Corps crew, the Justice League, and some unexpectedly helpful Villains like Lex Luthor and Joker (whose bag of trinkets and hilariously uncharacteristic sentimentality make for a real treat).

Although there’s nothing particularly engaging about the plot, which essentially revolves around evildoer Brainiac — genius scientist with mechanically implanted superhuman abilities — and his attempts at shrinking earth to the size of a decorative soap, the dialogue (and continual slapstick of characters like Flash and Robin) is fresh and, more often than not, clever and funny enough to warrant a chuckle or two. Seriously, character banter is priceless, ranging from hateful quips to genuine creepiness.

Yes, it’s a cut-and-paste tale of good joins evil to defeat an even bigger threat, but it’s saved by a cast of entertaining characters (over 150 of them to unlock, though most are ancillary) and some genuinely interesting storytelling. What isn’t interesting is the inclusion of celebrities. Big surprise: Conan O’Brien, TV host and once-off Simpsons writer, doesn’t bring half the laughs his show does. Playing as himself, and a very self aware version mind you, Conan provides guidance in the Batcave and Watchtower; the huge-ish hubs in which you load missions, collect collectibles and inspect trophies. Sadly, Conan’s quips are repetitive and uninteresting — shocking, considering the hilarity of his video game-centric series, ‘Clueless Gamer‘.

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Like Conan and his needless yammering, Kevin Smith’s inclusion is a migraine inducing nightmare. The Clerks director supplies…what’s less than nothing? Let’s go with no laughs whatsoever. And while the writing is acceptable, the delivery is sarcastic and uninspired. Conclusion: don’t take work you’re not committed to performing well. On the flip-side, Adam West — 60’s Batman star and current mayor of Quahog, Rhode Island — performs admirably, offering his classic shaky voice to the ‘Character in Peril’ acts we’ve come to expect from every Lego game.

Unexpectedly, the open-world is no more. New York, Lego Batman 2’s veritable playground of unlockables and collectibles has been replaced with multiple expansive hubs; and frankly, anyone who believes a sprawling map is the evolutionary step forward for the series is dead wrong. Proof? Lego Batman 3: Beyond Gotham. That’s not to say there’s no exploration. Hub worlds, like the Watchtower and Batcave, are fairly large, with all the same grabs you’d find in any of the series’ bigger holds. This time around, everything (short of the story) is more focused, and levels — the overflowing toy boxes of inventive designs and creative puzzles — shine like the Bat-Signal as a result.

Players will visit some of DC Universe’s most iconic locations, including the Fortress of Solitude and Hall of Justice. Stages are, for the most part, as fun as they are messy. Typical obstacle-based puzzles will frequently thwart your progress (and you’ll have to cycle through a rotation of characters, fiddling with suits and transformations before clearing a path), but it’s never incredibly challenging. The kid-friendliness shines especially bright when the game outright answers its own questions, and several moments of confusion hinder otherwise smooth operations.

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While most levels are garden-variety (with the garden being the series’ token sorta-linear but somewhat open-ended structure), some areas standout midst the predictable — albeit beautiful — norm: the shrunken cities; unique stages in which you tower over buildings and crush everything in your path. Yes, it’s as satisfying as it sounds. And yes, it does its part in breaking up the otherwise samey environments. There’s not a ton of variety, but the stirring sense of discovery doesn’t calm until you’ve found every item, unlocked every hero or stumbled upon every reference. That can’t be said about many games (or many entries in the Lego series, for that matter).

There’s simply so much to do in Lego Batman 3: Beyond Gotham that the bonus stages, which are nonetheless an entertaining inclusion, seem pretty pointless in the grand scheme of things. The stages take place on the seven Lantern Planets (which play host to an assortment of annoyingly addictive mini-games), and each spherical open-world allows players to explore the entirety of its surface, snatching up collectibles and killing countless minutes taking in the impressive views. It’s fun, but it pushes the game’s already impressive scope to an inordinate extent — something that shifts into negative grounds after 30-40 hours of exploration.

In the gameplay department, little has changed since, well, nearly every recent entry in the Lego franchise. You’ll run around, collect stuff, find a handful of outfits that range in usefulness and engage in weirdly clunky combat. While most of the powers debuted elsewhere, like the electric ‘door-opening’ suit or claw attachment, a few new tricks make exploration especially fun. Different outfits will drastically influence your playstyle too, and with so many to choose from you’re likely to spend just as much time selecting your team as you will uncovering secrets in free play mode.

Unfortunately, Lego Batman 3 is more of the same where it counts the least, and while it improves on some things it fails to deliver on others entirely. It’s not just another cog in the Lego machine, but it features many mechanics that have bee begging for a restructure since the second round of Lego Harry Potter (off-putting combat, sluggish transformations, poor pacing, repetitive gameplay), and though both Lego and DC fans will appreciate everything it offers, and it’s certainly a fun romp through several familiar (and new) worlds, there’s a lot left to be desired once the credits roll.

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Closing Comments:

Lego Batman 3: Beyond Gotham struggles to maintain balance with its cast of characters constantly pushing one another from the spotlight, and suffers from many of the series’ routine issues. On the other hand, it brings to the table an experience DC and Lego fans will not-soon forget: an action-packed adventure, plenty of charm and moments of bona fide hilarity. Its heroes and villains are always entertaining, and though the story is homespun and predictable, it’s told with fervor and a child-like adoration of the many personalities it juggles. No, Lego Batman 3: Beyond Gotham doesn’t completely break the mold, but it’s a galaxy-wide tour of DC’s beloved playgrounds, packed with an almost-overwhelming content load (and more replayability than even diehard fans could stomach). And in spite of its linearity and occasionally infuriating missteps, there’s something truly special about Traveller’s Tales’ third entry in the Batman series: it’s not really a Batman game at all.