As an adult, LEGO usually means a busy Sunday afternoon spent with a chunky manual, tons of tiny plastic bags, and liberal use of the brick separator tool, because you accidentally skipped ten steps and now the thing is stuck to the other thing and you tried to pry it off but your nails are too short and maybe you need to take a break to look at something that isn’t minuscule plastic for a bit.
As a child, though, LEGO is more like “I have a large tub of bits and I’m going to put them together to make a SPACESHIP ROBOT PRINCESS with a JETPACK”. Many of LEGO’s games lately have been about the former — master builders, official sets recreated in on-screen polygons, rapidly re-building something to make something else — but LEGO Builder’s Journey is very much about the latter.
At its core, LEGO Builder’s Journey is a puzzle game, told through simple vignettes with a single goal, which is usually “get to the other side”. Various obstacles — rivers, broken bridges, chasms and so on — will need to be overcome in order to journey onwards, and later on, these obstacles turn a little more abstract as you try to appease computers and work with a strange but lovable dog/mailbox hybrid.
You play the game as a kid, but not a minifig; you’re just a bunch of bricks stacked together to make a kid-like shape. You go on adventures with your parent, who is also a stack of bricks, and you build… mostly utter nonsense. This isn’t about precision, and it’s not about following instructions; it’s about imagination. You can turn a pile of shapes into a bridge or a sandcastle, and you can make a rickety walkway that winds its way over a swamp. LEGO is a means to an end, and that end is having fun.
LEGO Builder’s Journey was originally an Apple Arcade game, and like many other Apple Arcade games — including its clear inspiration, Monument Valley — it is loaded with story, despite its deceptively simple presentation. On Switch, it’s been almost doubled in length, with extra levels on top of what the original release had that expand the story a little further. You see, kids can have fun with LEGO all they like, but parents have to work to pay for that LEGO, and your parent is whisked away mid-build to do some extremely tedious factory work (which is also LEGO).
This tedium is there to make a point about creative freedom and childlike wonder versus the monotony of adulthood and the loss of imagination and fun, which it does pretty expertly without a single line of dialogue. The sound design and the animation come together to create convincing little dioramas of repetitive and dull work for the parent, and magic and wonder for the kid. But the problem is that the repetitive and dull stuff is… well… repetitive and dull. Because of the lack of dialogue, too, it’s pretty hard in the later levels to figure out what on earth you’re supposed to be doing.
Early puzzle levels are remarkably simple to figure out, as they usually entail your character needing to move forwards one step at a time, but later puzzles are pretty obtuse, especially in the new levels. It can even feel a little like padding at times, as the two characters keep juuuust missing each other, having to do a few more puzzles in order to meet up again.
What’s more, it’s sometimes a bit fiddly to put down bricks because of the game’s own limitations. Simplicity is key in these little vignettes, but simplicity can sometimes obscure things a little too much, especially if you’re using controllers. The touchscreen controls are much more accessible, but we found that we didn’t really… want to play the game on the touchscreen, you know? That’s not really how this reviewer tends to interact with the Switch. Your mileage may vary on that one, of course.
We never got stuck for too long, though, and the new levels certainly have interesting game design which elevates the puzzles beyond just “get to the other side”, but it occasionally feels like the game is overstaying its welcome. Extra content is a great thing, but the game has a very natural ending — its original ending — that is neatly stepped over so that the extra levels can follow on.
Still, the game is quite beautiful (although noticeably less pretty than the RTX PC version, which has lovely dynamic lighting and raytracing), and its new and interesting take on what it means to play (with LEGO, of course) is something we’d love to see more of, alongside its franchise-heavy adventure games. We can imagine it being a fantastic experience to play with a kid who’s beginning to learn how to experiment, because Builder’s Journey is all about rewarding trial and error.
The game will take you an evening or two to play through all the way to the (second) ending, making it a bitesize game that’s an experiment, a proof-of-concept, a first tentative step in a direction that’s new and exciting for LEGO games. It makes a couple of missteps in prioritising its aesthetic over its accessibility as a puzzle game, sure — but the fact remains that this is something we’d love to see more of.