When I first heard of LEGO Star Wars Battles, my preconception was closer to cynicism than cautious optimism. However, I’m always looking for more Star Wars and, while I haven’t played a game on my phone in a while, the SSD has plenty of space on it. So, I was curious to pick this game up and unpack it as art. But on the art-to-toy spectrum of videogames, it’s much closer to being an argument for games as expendable products than as things that artists put their hearts into, which is a shame, because a lot of artists clearly worked very hard on it. Still, creative decisions were made for aesthetics, mechanics, and the places where those components mix. Even without the easy-to-read messages that come with linear narratives, LEGO Star Wars Battles has an inadvertent thesis, for better or for worse: the simplest and most exploitative models of gaming are made more enticing by big brands and nostalgia.
The feather in the cap of LEGO Star Wars Battles is the adaptation of Star Wars characters, objects, and settings from four decades of canon. A narrative isn’t necessary for the gameplay loop to be fun, and C3P0 is unvoiced in the swift tutorial he provides when you boot up the game. What gives voice to the game is its music, clippings of John Williams’s various Star Wars scores which ebb and flow with the tide of battle, as well as lifting the player through the menus. The real-time strategy is based on dragging-and-dropping various characters onto a map in gameplay reminiscent of Supercell’s Clash Royale—they walk, run, stomp, or fly to the opposing base in hopes of lowering its life meter to empty before time runs out.
However, there are some notable mechanical innovations. Firstly, rather than start with three towers that have to be dispatched, each player starts with solely their base, and can erect towers in five spots on the field which can be lost or reclaimed depending on how far a player’s troops have advanced. This adds a frenetic nature and urgency to the combat, as well as a genuine momentum and weight to it. There is something very gratifying about successfully getting Luke Skywalker and a flock of porgs across the field to set up turrets in your opponent’s base so quickly that they cannot mount a successful assault. It very much gives the feeling of a Mortal Kombat flawless victory.
The player selects units or turrets off of their cards, out of their ‘hand,’ from a randomly-shuffled deck. Units and special moves by champions work off of a cool-down timer displayed in an ‘energy bar’ of LEGO light cells at the bottom of the screen that fill in time, and fill twice as quickly toward the end of every two-minute match. As special attacks go, Luke has an excellent forward-radial force push, while Vader has a surrounding force crush attack that might remind players of KotOR 2 or the end of Revenge of the Sith. Other ‘special’ units include Ewok glider-bombers and a rebel on a tauntaun. There are two victory conditions—either the player destroys their opponents base or, at the end of time, they have more towers (flame cannons attack only ground troops, while turbolasers can also fight aerial units). If players expend the two-minute timer with the same amount of towers intact, they go into sudden-death, which is as exciting as it sounds.
Each battlefield map represents a stretch of land on an iconic Star Wars planet—everyone starts with Jakku from The Force Awakens before unlocking the forest moon of Endor from Return of the Jedi and planets like Naboo and Tatooine. Before each battle, players are assigned by a loading screen coin flip to either the Light Side or the Dark Side. At the top of the screen, a general game tip displays, and at the bottom a missive or quote representing that side shows up. The Light Side is made up of Rebels, the Resistance, Clone Troopers (ironically enough), and the surprisingly-effective porgs. The Dark Side is made up of Battle Droids, the Empire, the First Order, Boba Fett and other bounty hunters, and—for some ill-defined-reason—the Tusken Raiders of Tattooine. Not enough that they began as savage “sand people,” or that they were retroactively named for their resistance to human expansionist colonization of Tattooine, they must suffer the further indignity of being the bad guys, despite their recent turn on The Mandalorian.
It is evident that painstaking work went into designing the miniatures, the cards, and the planets. It’s really pretty to look at; I just wish they would let me zoom-in. Even after a recent press preview, when I played LEGO Star Wars Battles, I was still very impressed by the detail of the characters, the cleanliness of the textures that avoids being off-putting because it’s LEGO, and the way that towers assemble on the battlefield like an automated fold-out box. It’s also very functional. The game plays smoothly. If you’re looking for a PvP tower-builder strategy-assault game, it will scratch that itch. On the luck-versus-strategy spectrum, it’s somewhere in between chess and poker, and aptly includes both miniature characters of varying movement and attacking abilities on the one hand, and dependency on the luck of the draw on the other. Like both games, you may sometimes bait your opponent.
I haven’t had problems with lag, and the tutorial instructions from C3P0 are easy to understand in English or Spanish (I haven’t tried other languages). The jokes on the cards are pretty good too, both witty and accessible for children. (On the card for the clone trooper tank, they joke that it’s not to be confused with the cloning tanks that the clone troopers come out of. I didn’t cackle, but I smirked.)
One problem with LEGO Star Wars Battles is that it’s a phone game that flirts with all the exploitative and addictive mechanics common in “freemium games.” Those free-to-play, pay-to-win models often rely on enticing players to speed-up countdown timers to unlock characters or items by forking over real-life money. These include games like Supercell’s Boom Beach, Clash of Clans, and the aforementioned Clash Royale, or King’s Candy Crush, which use their simple, repetitive, addictive game designs to extract money from the handful of “whale” players that will invest thousands of real life dollars for the endorphin rush of seeing little sprites explode.
And in case I’m coming off as someone looking down my nose from on high at these games, I want to volunteer that I’ve enjoyed some of them very much. I’ve played a lot of Clash of Clans in my time, a decent amount of Candy Crush, and even more time playing Two Dots (developed by indie developer Playdots, Inc. and published by Tencent). All of these things can be fun, but they’re designed with slot machine mechanics and they encourage you to part with real money.
LEGO Star Wars Battles has all of these gameplay measures built in that look like they exist to take money from you, but it’s on Apple Arcade, so there aren’t any microtransactions. Apple’s already got you on the hook for a monthly subscription. So you’ve basically got a fun, pointless game. You play it to play it, to compete in the challenges and to climb the leaderboard. It’s very ‘arcade’ in that fashion. The core loop of play in battles to unlock figures that make you more effective in battles is very easy to repeat.
Figuring out a successful strategy is engaging, all of the currencies and unlockables are rewarding (you get so many rewards that you get rewards for getting rewards), and it’s incredibly easy to get sucked in for a few dozen minutes, maybe even a couple of hours. There’s a leaderboard to track, a ‘seasons path’ with new free content coming, and limited-time events to earn more in-game currency to buy and upgrade in-game units.
What I am still puzzling over is its purpose; not just whether it has an intended artistic thesis but what hole LEGO Star Wars Battles is filling in the market. TT Odyssey exists as a studio to make mobile games. Is there a segment of the population that has yet to play the LEGO Star Wars console games, or watch the LEGO Star Wars Christmas Special that will do that after playing this game? Will it prove so little work relative to the profit in partnership with the Apple Arcade that TT Odyssey will make mobile PvP versions of the other LEGO crossover series? Will TT Odyssey, in contradiction of what they said at the preview event, eventually port the game to Android and take advantage of microtransactions there?
The problem with games with licensed IP is that they’re generally cynical cash grabs. Yet the actual successes of that type of videogame have been many, especially within the LEGO realm. There hasn’t been a bad LEGO Star Wars game, and the transition from the action-adventure genre to the PvP arena battler is a success in the sense that it’s effective, by incorporating the look and sounds that makes LEGO Star Wars a winning combination.
It is acceptable that the creative vision of LEGO Star Wars Battles lies solely in the development of something very pretty to look at, with the familiar cultural signifiers of Star Wars, because art is worth making for its own sake, and lots of artists and artisans worked to make something visually interesting. A player can just look at the game and think, “Huh, that’s pretty cool looking, what they did there.”
Furthermore, I never played Clash Royale before LEGO Star Wars Battles, and now—having played both—I do believe this is the superior model. That is interesting for contradictory reasons. On the one hand, it does have genuine mechanical innovations that make it more fun to play. On the other hand, those innovations are largely, if not exclusively, applicable because the game is based on reminding the player how much they enjoy the things LEGO Star Wars Battles is based on; all of its pleasure comes from invoking better things—namely, LEGOs, Star Wars, and the console LEGO Star Wars games.
Star Wars has an APEX Legends/Overwatch-type game coming to Nintendo Switch and mobile. Star Wars had a major plot beat for the last feature film take place in Fortnite. Star Wars has been increasingly inescapable as a marketing brand, and the market is saturated with Star Wars. Disney could be more selective with such a marquee brand, especially with Star Wars Visions showing that interesting things can still be done in its name, but evidently there is more money to be made in diluting it. And sometimes that means reskinning a simple, repetitive game type with bells and whistles that scream “STAR WARS!” In the end, you might want more, from the game, from the brand, from yourself.
Kevin Fox, Jr. is a writer, historian, nonprofit worker, and Paste intern. He loves videogames, pop culture, sports, and human rights, and can be found on Twitter @kevinfoxjr.