By Darren Franich
Updated May 10, 2011 at 04:51 PM EDT

LEGO Pirates of the Caribbean is, technically, a very well-designed game. It’s extremely colorful. It makes funny noises. The first time you swim too far into the LEGO ocean and get eaten by a LEGO shark, you will probably laugh for a measurable second. LEGO Pirates is the latest in the Danish toy manufacturer’s series of LEGO-fied franchises, and like its brethren — LEGO Star Wars, LEGO Indiana Jones, LEGO Batman, and LEGO Harry Potter — the game wisely decides to treat its material with all the gravitas of a summer camp sketch. So all your favorite scenes from the first Pirates movie (and all your least favorite scenes from the second and third movies) get replayed by curious little block-people who speak in a guttural caveman non-language. You can break pretty much everything into little LEGO pieces, and as near as I can estimate after playing the game for about five hours, there are something like 20 million unlockable characters. LEGO Pirates of the Caribbean is a lot like the other LEGO games: Cute, playful, relentlessly inoffensive.

To paraphrase Charles M. Schulz: Good ol’ LEGO videogames… how I hate them!

On a purely surface level, the LEGO games begin to fall apart at the half-hour mark. That’s when you start noticing that the game’s 3-D world is almost shockingly two-dimensional — it’s basically just the same old platform-jumping, except that the platforms are often impossible to hit thanks to the games’ impossible camera angles. That’s also when the games’ excruciatingly forced whimsy becomes intolerable, and when you realize that the combat system basically just comes down to jabbing, jabbing, forever jabbing. Also, for your reading pleasure, I have transcribed a typical conversation from LEGO Pirates of the Caribbean:

LEGO Orlando Bloom: “Hrrr? Wuuuhhh!”

LEGO Johnny Depp: “Mwweennuuhh! Hrrrgrrrklll?”

LEGO Keira Knightley: [very ladylike] “Weeeeee!”

And these conversations aren’t just short; they go on and on and on. It’s like listening to a society of squealing piglets debate the theory of evolution, except a million times stupider.

The problem with the LEGO videogames is that they’re all attitude and no substance, all talk and no walk. They have a reputation for being a kind of fun retro-treat — the exact opposite of most movie tie-in games, which cherry-pick the most popular elements of better videogames and then toss in some celebrity voices before rushing their product into stores just in time for the movie’s release. Nothing could be further from the truth. The LEGO games actually represent one of the most annoying trends in modern videogaming: They are punishingly non-difficult. You will look in vain for anything pertaining to an actual challenge.

Thus, we reach the only real inevitable counterargument in favor of the LEGO videogames: They’re just for kids, so they’re supposed to be easy! Which is hogwash, unless you’re some sort of child-hating elitist who thinks that all kids are stupid. Heck, the original Super Mario Brothers was “just for kids,” and that game was incredibly harder than any of the LEGO games. If anything, I would argue that LEGO videogames’ relentless orgy of breakable objects and collectible items has considerably less appeal for children than for adults. In the first few levels of LEGO Pirates, I could build dozens of different special LEGO items, and open secret doors, and collect secret artifacts. In Port Royal, if I built all five stupid little LEGO boats, then I got one tenth of a LEGO message in a bottle. So, if I perform a number of mind-numbing tasks, I get a tiny percentage of an award that will probably be pretty mind-numbing? What’s not to love, kids?

If you took a control group of four-year-old twins and gave one of them Portal and the other LEGO Pirates, I’m positive that the Portal twin would have less fun for the first half-hour, but then he’d actually be forced learn the gameplay, and he’d still be playing hours later. Meanwhile, the LEGO twin would still be hacking away at LEGO trees and collecting LEGO parts and building his five thousandth LEGO block. Or, more likely, he’d be asleep. I’m reminded of my colleague (and, I should note, avowed LEGO videogame fan) Jeff Jensen’s complaints about Kirby’s Epic Yarn: Games don’t have to be difficult, but they should have some stakes.

And that’s the biggest problem with the plastic, fun-all-the-time world of the LEGO games: you never feel remotely invested. You can search for collectible objects for hours, but there’s never any real sense of discovery. The LEGO brand stands for a number of admirable things: invention, malleability, the truly infinite number of variations you can create with a bunch of funny-looking blocks. The LEGO videogames are exactly the opposite: reductive, walled-in, and just plain boring. Kids deserve better.

Follow Darren on Twitter: @EWDarrenFranich

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