Just like in the fashion industry there are sort of recurring cycles in the LEGO world as well and so it’s not really that much of a surprise that we get similar sets within a series every few years or for that matter new series featuring similar subject matter. Not a bad thing, though, as long as it helps to rejuvenate the overall portfolio and keeps things fresh, be that taking a new approach to building techniques or for that matter re-evaluating an entire genre with a renewed perspective.
With Monster Fighters now being several years in the past, in fact before I even started to get into LEGO, a theme around, ghosts, monsters, zombies and the like isn’t that far fetched and Hidden Side so far seems to fill that gap nicely. At least the first wave got me quite excited for a number of reasons. Might naturally be a different story when the next line of sets is released next year and things may begin to feel a bit repetitive or redundant, but we have to see. It’s still early in the series life and as they say, it could “have legs”. Before I delve into the sets themselves, a few thoughts on the digital integration/ gaming stuff.
One of the key marketing points is of course the Augmented Reality integration, meaning you can interact in a virtual world that’s lined up with the real one. In this case once you’ve the assembled the models they act as gateways to this alternate dimension or Hidden Side. See what they did there? Cheap word play aside, this idea is not without merit, but… And yes, there are a number of big “buts” here.
First, I can freely admit that I’m a skeptic when it comes to things like Virtual Reality and by extension Augmented Reality. The irony is that I can see the value of some of that if it’s done right, but working in the media industry for more than 20 years I have seen all those bold promises that these companies made completely crumble more than once and despite what those same people keep saying we’re still not there yet. A lot of this stuff is still prohibitively expensive and the technical requirements are steep. In my view in fact the commercial aspect is perhaps the biggest hinderance here as it excludes a good chunk of users from the get-go simply because they can’t afford it.
How is this relevant to Hidden Side you may ask? Well, your mobile device may simply be not contemporary enough or powerful enough to run the app. With Apple and Google only having implemented relevant functions into iOS and Android respectively in recent versions, you are going to need a smartphone or tablet that isn’t too old and has been updated consequently to those later versions of the operating systems. The official list on the LEGO site isn’t that long and even then there may be a chance it still doesn’t work reliably even if you have a spankin’ new iPhone. That is to say you should definitely verify the specs and test the app before actually getting into any active play.
The other thing that I was afraid of was endless commercialization of the actual gameplay via micro-transactions and similar. Luckily so far there are no traces of it to be seen, but I choose to remain just those five percent skeptical on that matter. You never know what happens and how companies desperate for cash might find creative ways to exploit their customers, to put it cautiously.
Of course you may take my ponderings with a grain of salt as I may be basically talking out of my behind, as they say. Because I don’t have a compatible device at the moment, I can only judge the actual gameplay from watching videos from other people. My conclusion here is that it barely seems worth the time, at least not as an adult. The core activities seem to be centered around chasing the “Gloom” by activating certain items to collect points and battling ghosts, or if you are playing on the opposite side, as a spectre or possessed entity to avoid being scanned by an imaginary other ghost chaser with a mobile device.
The presentation and detail of the world seems well enough, but truth be told, this more or less feels like pretty much any other free to play game of a similar ilk with the high technical requirements and the over 1 GB gigabyte app package size (due to apparently containing a lot of complex 3D assets and textures) representing an extra challenge. If your phone is full with other apps, photos, videos and other games, getting the app even installed could be tricky. In any case, to me it appears like something that could keep kids up to a certain age busy for ten minutes, but even if you buy all sets and try out all play modes this will quickly lose its attraction.
The good thing, though, is that the sets themselves are not dependent on the AR gimmick and have been designed well enough to be worthwhile on their own merits, so let’s have a look.
The first set is J.B.’s Ghost Lab (70418), which is basically the smallest of the sets you can buy in this series currently.
Stylistically the set is built on the stereotypical “monster lab” as you so often see it in old movies in different forms, but always more or less featuring the same recognizable standard features. Most notable is of course the large electrical arch generator with its insulator construct, a trope from a time when electricity was still considered something mysterious and the lightning flashes and sparks would mystify, scare and impress people.
The set comes with a selection of three minifigures and and part of the appeal is that they feel fresh and modern. One of the reasons I never took much interest in minifigs clearly is that most of them just look stuffy and boring as if the world hasn’t changed in the last thirty years or so. There are some good ones in collectible series or e.g. Ninjago, but for the most part the average minifigure still feels like someone from the 1970s to me. Things have been improving with quite a few new accessories and hair pieces having come out, though, and Hidden Side seems to amp this up even further.
There are some recurring characters throughout that are basically included in every set, just with different outfits. One of them is Jack Davids, the guy in the red hoodie sweater. You also get the friendly ghost dog Spencer this way. Other figures are exclusive to each set like J.B. (the lady with the Lavender hair) and Douglas Elton (the green guy). In contrast to what you might have expected there are no dedicated ghostly figures like spectres and zombies. Rather the idea is that some of the protagonists can be possessed by evil spirits. To distinguish and transform them visually you therefore get a separate head and hair piece in different colors, sometimes also some suitable add-ons like ragged cloaks, weapons and so on. For now those are done in Yellowish Green and Transparent Neon Green, but I would expect other colors to be used in the future as well, be it just that overuse of those colors could get a bit tiresome eventually.
The first batch of this particular set seems to have a consistent printing error on Douglas‘s head also noted in other reviews. While it’s a dual face head, it only has printed eyebrows on one of them. As you can see in the photos, this looks kind of odd even with the hair piece on. Most of my minifigures rest peacefully in a dark box so it isn’t exactly a critical issue like it would be if I displayed them on a collector’s shelf, but since I wanted everything to be correct and felt a bit entitled to get a flawless product, I requested a replacement part from LEGO, after all. Lo and behold, they seem to be fully aware of the issue and have produced a new badge with complete prints already.
The laboratory itself isn’t much of a complex build and funny enough its construction reflects the movie origins it’s trying to mimic. For all intents and purposes, it’s just a flat wall with everything integrated like it would have been on those old film sets for quick turnarounds, i.e. being able to move things easily when preparing scenes. That would have been even more critical on TV productions shooting several episodes in a row or even live broadcasting them directly from a studio as wasn’t that uncommon in the early days of television due to the technical limitations. But I digress.
The center piece of the model naturally is the arch generator with the transformation/ ghost decontamination chamber underneath it. it doesn’t have any actual (fake) transformative features like a revolving door mechanism to quickly switch between two minifigures or something like that. It’s not essential, but would have at least given one actionable feature in an overall mostly static setting. Spreading out from this center are some gadgets left and right.
The right-hand-side features a selection of vials and other lab vessels all neatly arranged on and around a shelf. It also has a wall-mounted computer screen, but since I never use the stickers, apparently it loses its magic and the functionality doesn’t really come across. Speaking of which – since the stickers are stylistically quite different, it seems odd that they included the rather old 2 x 1 tile for the keyboard.
On the left-hand-side you see the typical color choosing gadget associated with the AR game. The logic here is to select a differently colored element based on what the app tells you and once it verifies this you will be able to clear another sub-set of “Gloom”. In this case it’s disguised as some sort of electrical transformator, but again, since I didn’t use the stickers the voltage gauges are missing and the idea is lost on uninitiated observers.
As you would expect, the back side continues the TV studio theme and doesn’t provide any additional details. In fact the hollowed out panels almost scream “fake paper wall”, so I guess you could call it only consequent and well done. My slight peeve with the non-existing turntable functionality is even re-affirmed with the small stair step at the back of the cylinder – as if someone could wait there to do a quick swap while the studio goes dark and lights flash. The things that could have been…
On a whole this small set is a good way to get your feet moist in Hidden Side, but you should not expect too much – neither with the build nor the interactive play features. Personally I feel it could have been grander, meaning that trivial things like having actual side wall would have rooted it more in reality as a genuine ghost lab rather than playing on the TV show/ movie clichées.
Not all is lost, though, as apparently this set is structurally simple enough to modify it relatively easily. With the average price now being around 14 Euro buying it twice or three times is an absolutely attainable goal and with some parts from your stock thrown in, you should be able to create something nice without breaking a sweat.
The second set of the day is the Newbury Juice Bar (40336). This isn’t a regular Hidden Side set, but rather a promotional “Gift with Purchase”. Here in Germany you could get it when buying stuff above 45 Euro in a LEGO store (or their online shop) and as I’m publishing this article, this two-week promotion in fact just ran out. You may still be able to obtain this set, as naturally not only promotions are different across the globe but also many who picked up the set will sell it second-hand. Anyway, for which set I actually scraped my last pennies together to get this little freebie is a topic for another time, but maybe you will find out soon-ish… 😉
While I generally don’t get too worked up over promotional items, the reason I’m including this set here is because it’s actually quite superb. It’s perhaps not worth the 13 Euro mentioned on the receipt for tax reasons (which immediately are subtracted again, of course), but I’d be totally game if this was one of those 10 Euro sets you can buy via regular channels. Knowing this blog and how critical I’m of those things you can imagine what this means and how impressed I am with this little model. I had this positive gut feeling right after Io saw the first photos and just had to have it.
Why is it so good? To begin with, it contains two full figures, one of them being recurring character Parker L. Jackson, the other Rocky the barkeeper, including his alternate head for once he gets possessed. The other thing that drew me in is the overall appearance. While certainly small, this feels like it could exist as some 1960s style retro-futuristic kiosk made from sheet metal parts or for that matter a converted caravan from that same era. It’s all bullet-y and round, if you get my meaning.
The colors, in particular the Bright Light Orange parts, stand out a bit too much perhaps, but otherwise this could easily fit into a city environment. Ideally of course they would have made it with more Sand Green then right of the bat, but let’s not that this is targeted at kids first and foremost. In contrast to J.B.’s Ghost Lab this is one of the sets where the buildings/ vehicles themselves get possessed, too, so the center section of roof can be opened to expose some grimacing face with staring green eyes and teeth.
Of course for me a good part conversation is always about what pieces are included and their potential for future uses. Say what you will, but getting a bunch of Dark Blue 2 x 3 window frames, Sand Green 1 x 6 bricks and even the quarter cylinders in that same color can never be a bad thing. None of those components are in short supply of course, but you’d have to be crazy pass up on getting them free. I can only re-iterate: This set is damn useful and nice.
If that wasn’t enough, I also thoroughly enjoyed assembling it. With around 120 pieces it equals a small Creator 3in1 set and unlike those 5-minute-jobs with poly bags keeps you busy for a bit longer. When I was finished I immediately regretted that there wasn’t more to do. That’s how much fun I had. There is a tiny little caveat, though: Similar to other such sets that have perhaps been designed a bit too much with cost-awareness in mind, stability is not necessarily the best in places because the evil budget supervisor made no allowance for some extra parts. As you would guess, this especially affects the quarter cylinders before attaching the roof and some protruding parts of the counter. not the end of the world, though.
Overall Hidden Side seems to be shaping up to be a hit series and so far I really like what I see. It remains to see whether LEGO can keep up this level of quality in upcoming sets. I have a few more of the first wave already lined up, so stay tuned for more reviews…