Inside Pulse 12

Review: Ninja Blade (Microsoft Xbox 360)

Ninja Blade
Genre: Action
Developer: From Software
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Release Date: 04/07/09


Ah, From Software. As we’ve discussed several times in the past, they make all sorts of interesting and enjoyable niche games, like Echo Night, Chromehounds, and Armored Core For Answer that fans of quirky niche titles love to pieces. They’ve made a few ventures into more mainstream genres; the most notable of which would probably be the Otogi series for the Xbox. The games were a little more friendly than From’s normal products, even it they weren’t especially financially successful. After two games the franchise was essentially dropped, and From went back to Armored Core and other games featuring giant robots for the next few years. As a good portion of their games are the sort that will never see a US release, either due to copyright issues or the fact that the games are so niche-oriented that NO ONE would play them, From has decided to try their hand at another straight action game with Ninja Blade. All indications pointed to the game being one part Ninja Gaiden, one part God of War, and one part Active Time Event mania, with some Devil May Cry thrown in for good measure. The question remains: is this another From Software hit, or is it another Kuon? Let’s find out.

Ninja Blade sees you take on the role of Ken Ogawa, one of a team of ninjas that exists to protect the people of Earth from Alpha Worms: genetic worms that turn people into hideous monstrosities, usually in the most painful ways imaginable. An outbreak has popped up in the city of Tokyo, and your team is dispatched to curb this outbreak, which goes… poorly. Ken ends up being the only surviving member of his team, and with him being the only member left, it falls to him to wipe out the worm menace, lest the city of Tokyo be reduced to little more than ash and glass. The story is pretty typical, but the actual writing is quite solid overall and helps to make the experience more than another also-ran save the world scenario. Ken is quite believable as the ass-kicking hero of the piece, partly because he’s decently written, partly because his motivations are reasonable and believable, and mostly because he destroys everything in the most outlandish and awesome ways imaginable. I mean, he drives a motorcycle across a flying bus to kill a gigantic worm monster! How can you NOT love that? The characters supporting and antagonizing him in his quest are also generally solid across the board, but this is really the Ken Ogawa show. Frankly, he’s a strong enough protagonist to carry the game on his back, with or without good secondary characters.

Ninja Blade looks fantastic from top to bottom, as the character models and environments alike are very well rendered and produced. The character models are very high-quality, detailed and are well animated. The game is crammed full of all sorts of gigantic monsters to face down that are both impressive and hideous. The environments are quite expansive and pleasing to the eye, though some of the destructible environmental objects don’t fall apart quite as they should. The light sourcing and special effects are also very well done and are very flashy, which also compliments the presentation well. The frame rate drops a bit here and there on occasion though, usually when lots of enemies or large special effects are filling the screen. While this is infrequent and isn’t game-breaking, it’s still noticeable. The music is a mix of ethnic, orchestral and electronic beats, and as bizarre as that sounds, it’s quite well done and sets the tone of the various battles well. The sound effects are also well presented and sound as they should, i.e., monsters sound scary and swords sound painful – that sort of thing. The voice acting in the game is also quite well done, and in an interesting touch, the game offers you the option to listen to either an entirely Japanese track, an entirely English track, or a track that is a combination of both and changes as the storyline dictates. Neither is inherently better than any other, but it’s a small, cinematic touch that goes a long way towards making Ninja Blade as enjoyable as it is.

Ninja Blade will seem like something of a familiar experience to anyone who’s spent time with Ninja Gaiden or God of War, because it takes a lot of its gameplay cues from those titles. You’re given a weak and a strong attack with which you’re asked to wreck everything you see with either twin blades (which are fast but weak), a katana (which is average) or a heavy blade (which is strong but slow), depending on the situation and your personal preferences. Your heavy blade and twin blades are also used in certain locations to move forward, as the heavy blade can rip open broken walls and the twin blades can extend to allow you to zip across gaps like Spider-Man. You’re also given ninjitsu (ninja magic) to play around with, which can either be used as an untargeted or targeted attack, each of which features different effects and benefits. You’re also given the option to block incoming attacks as well as a dash that you can use either to zip into and out of battle or to cover long distances in short periods of time. This becomes very critical in later sections of the game.

As you might expect, you’ll also spend a fair amount of time outside of battle running up and around things, and Ninja Blade doesn’t disappoint in that regard.Ken can run up and along walls with the best of them to reach new areas, though in an interesting change, instead of only being able to run short distances, Ken can run along a wall until he reaches the end without stopping. This changes up the dynamic of the puzzles associated with such acrobatics, as Ken will instead be expected to jump from one wall to the next to cover ground, not because his momentum fails him, but rather because he simply ran out of ground to cover. This ultimately doesn’t change the gameplay up much, but it’s still different enough to be interesting.

As you hack your way through the infected hordes, Ken acquires “demon blood”, which can be used to upgrade the effectiveness of your weapons and magic, as you might expect if you’ve played anything in the genre in the past decade. As you upgrade these items, they deal additional damage, increase in range, add more combos to their combo chains, and other fun things. You can also acquire first aid sprays to heal yourself and adrenaline boosters to give yourself a quick damage boost, as well as items that increase the length of your health and ninjitsu bars to make you hardier in battle. Ken also has access to Ninja Vision, which essentially makes the screen go into Predator-vision mode and slows down the outside world without slowing him down much, meaning you can essentially run rings around your enemies… at the cost of taking more damage should you get hit. Ninja Vision also allows you to see destroyable objects and areas in the environment you can interact with, like walls you can run on and pathways that can be accessed with your weapons. This is good if you need a hint as to where to go next. There are also a few sections that break away from the standard “hack everything to pieces” gameplay in favor of some “shoot everything to pieces” gameplay. This means that you’ll spend your time in a mounted turret, shooting everything you see with either your chaingun or your rocket launcher, depending on the demand at the moment. Again, nothing here is particularly new or different if you’re a fan of the genre, but everything is generally executed well, and the game is easy to play and work around even if you aren’t a big fan of these sorts of games normally.

Ninja Blade‘s biggest selling points revolve not so much around the gameplay, but around how it is presented. The game is focused on delivering an experience that is less “new and original” and more “cinematic and awesome”, and it succeeds quite well for the most part. Most of your standard combat sees you fighting against the lowly minions of evil, but the game is all too happy to send gigantic monstrosities your way. It’s not uncommon to see two or three gigantic abominations PER STAGE. Aside from the whole “making Ken look like a giant killer” aspect of this design, it’s frankly pretty awesome wrecking gigantic monstrosities, and Ninja Blade seems to understand this, as it allows you to do this a whole lot. The game also relies on active time events, but before you disgustedly close the window and swear off the game, I think I should mention that unlike most games that are overly reliant on the gimmick, Ninja Blade seems to understand that pressing a button to avoid death is not exactly “fun” in most respects, and thus avoids this concept entirely. Instead, should you mess up a button press during the ATE, the game notifies you of this, rewinds back a bit (usually no more than two or three events prior), and asks you to try again before starting the scene over. As you might expect, this means no long loading times, no hassle of having to fight through massive amounts of enemy forces to get back to the event, just “You missed. Try again.” and off you go. It isn’t a perfect solution, mind you, but it’s one of the best yet, all things considered.

The game is roughly around six to eight hours long, and you can go back at any time and replay stages you’ve completed if you want to improve your score, earn more demon blood to upgrade your weapons or whatever. The game also has a good amount of unlockables buried inside of it and multiple difficulties for both the core gameplay and the ATE’s to play around with as needed. You can also upload your stage scores to Xbox Live to compare your scores against the best the Leaderboards have to offer, if you are so inclined. The game also offers all sorts of silly options that From seems to enjoy tacking into their games, including the ability to apply emblems and costume patterns to Ken. While you could always just set up a cool color pattern and run through the game looking like a badass, why not dress up in the lovely clown print instead and run around ending enemies in the most embarrassing way imaginable? This is especially effective during the cinematic ATE’s, largely because it’s hilarious seeing your character, decked out in a jaunty multi-colored heart ensemble, blow up a giant antlion or whatever.

Now, as we’ve mentioned more than a few times by now, Ninja Blade is just the tiniest bit derivative of, well, everything in the genre. While that does not by any means make the game any less fun and entertaining, you’ve probably played this game to some extent before. Derivative can be fine, if done properly, but while Ninja Blade derives the necessary elements of other, similar games, it doesn’t quite derive the ways to make them successful consistently. First, in most similar games, pacing is a major element of keeping things interesting, and a good game will keep itself interesting by consistently giving the player new toys and tactics to play around with until they’re a wrecking ball of awesome at the end. Ninja Blade doesn’t quite manage this. It gives you nearly all of your toys in the first stage of the game, leaving you with almost nothing to earn and unlock as you progress forward. Giving the player all of the tools they need to succeed isn’t the worst thing in the world either, especially if you can upgrade your gear to do fun new things or if you have so much gear that there’s always something fun to play with. Ninja Blade however, only gives you a total of three weapons and three ninjitsu spells (plus one unlockable one) to play with, which gets old pretty quick.

It also doesn’t help that not everything is as useful as everything else. The heavy blade is fantastic for taking on most every encounter, and the twin blades are great for small groups, but the katana is, frankly, worthless in comparison, as it’s neither fast enough to safely destroy small groups nor powerful enough to break through enemy blocks or shielding, making it a weapon of last resort. Ditto the electricity ninjitsu. It’s is functional enough on its own, but isn’t really worth using when compared to the wind and fire ninjitsu in terms of damage dealt or special effects. It isn’t that they’re inherently BAD so much as that they fail to make a compelling argument to use them instead of the other, more useful weapons/ninjitsu. In a game with so few of said items, that’s just even more limiting than it has to be. There’s also some noticable repetition in later stages of the game, as the last few stages force you to fight the same boss monsters you’ve fought in prior levels in lieu of any new or interesting alternatives. As well, while the second to last boss is interesting and different, the LAST boss is, in essence, the boss you fought the prior stage, who was himself more than a little similar to the boss you fought only a couple stages prior to that. In other words: the game shows off the promise of lots of variety, but it shows you its whole hand too early and runs out of original tricks a little over halfway through, which is a shame.

Beyond the issue of lacking variety, it should also be noted that the game is ATE Hell. Now, as noted previously, the game is smart enough to realize that ending your session for failing a button press is silly and not conducive to having fun, and for that, it earns bonus points. That said, there are something around a hundred different ATE’s in the game, and even in a game where the ATE system is done well, that is simply TOO MANY ATE’s for the player to be expected to tolerate. Sticking one or two ATE’s in per level is probably tolerable, to a point. When it feels like I’ve stopped playing Ninja Blade and started playing Dragon’s Lair, that’s not a good thing. It also bears noting that if you’re not the sort of person who cares about achievements and leaderboard scores, Ninja Blade won’t give you much reason to play through it again, as the unlockable special weapons aren’t much different from their normal counterparts. Aside from playing through the game on a harder difficulty and unlocking said special weapons/ninjitsu, there’s nothing to the game that you won’t see the first time through.

Ninja Blade is really a game that is a blast to play through, but it lacks that certain something that takes it from being enjoyable to being special. The story is interesting enough to keep the game going, Ken is an awesome and over-the-top protagonist, and the video and audio presentation is mostly spot-on across the board. The game is fun to play, and the focus on cinematic action is welcome to a point, as there aren’t a lot of games that really do what Ninja Blade does with ATE’s as successfully as it manages to. Unfortunately, the game loses steam the further you get into it. Between the repetitive enemies and stages, a lack of weapon and ninjitsu variety, and a dramatic over-reliance on said ATE events, even if you like the game enough to complete it, there’s not enough to the game to recommend going back to it afterward. If you absolutely love action games and you’re looking to smear some gigantic monsters, Ninja Blade will definitely fill that void in an enjoyable way, but you might want to rent it before you buy it just to see if it’s something you need to own.

The Scores:
Story: GOOD
Graphics: GOOD
Sound: GREAT
Control/Gameplay: GOOD
Replayability: MEDIOCRE
Balance: ABOVE AVERAGE
Originality: BAD
Addictiveness: ABOVE AVERAGE
Appeal: GOOD
Miscellaneous: GOOD
Final Score:ENJOYABLE GAME.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Ninja Blade can best be described as focusing on style over substance, as its slick presentation, cinematic style and fast-paced gameplay are mad awesome, but the actual game itself doesn’t have enough to offer to back that up. The story is generally solid and presented strongly enough to keep you interested to the end. The visual and aural presentation is strong and fitting, the gameplay is functional and easy to pick up, and Ken is a giant-smiting badass of the highest caliber who simultaneously ridiculous and awesome. A few hours in, though, the flaws become more obvious, as there is a limited weapon and ninjitsu variety, the game recycles environments and enemies, and the whole experience relies entirely TOO much on active time events to advance the levels. In the end, Ninja Blade is very flashy and fun, and if that’s all you’re really looking for, you’ll have a blast with the game, but if you’re looking for something a little meatier, you’ll come away disappointed.