Inside Pulse 12

Review: Ninjamurai (Sony PS3/PSP)

Ninjamurai
Publisher: Open Emotion Studios
Developer: Open Emotion Studios
Genre: Action
Release Date: 07/05/2011

I find myself in the rare position of reviewing offerings from the same developer back to back. Ninjamurai is the latest title from the creators of Mad Blocker Alpha: Revenge of the Fluzzles. If you follow the link and read my review for that game, you’ll see that I quite enjoyed myself with it. It wasn’t Game of the Year material or anything, but it was a unique puzzler that reminded me that some people out there still have something new to offer.

It may come as no surprise then, that when I took a gander at Ninjamurai, I was intrigued. It had all the looks of a truly interesting action game. On top of that, the game reminded me greatly of the Naruto: Ninja Council series. Heck, the main character built up chakra and used jutsus to get rid of enemies. I was intrigued. Finally, I saw a lot of old school appeal in the game, with shades of Revenge of the Shinobi and Ninja Gaiden. I immediately asked if we were getting this game and volunteered myself to handle the review.

So here we are. Ninjamurai is a first for me in that I never seek out Minis. I usually just let them come to me for review purposes or buy a random well regarded one when I have money on my PSN account. For this game, I went after it. Let’s see if I was mistaken to do so.

Story/Modes

You play as Takezou Nishimura, otherwise known as Ninjamurai. What is a Ninjamurai you ask? Well that would be a warrior born of the unnatural union of a ninja and a samurai. Not welcome in either world, our hero grew up in a monastery learning all kinds of ways to kill people. Combining the stealth of a ninja with the swordsmanship of a samurai, Takezou is a new breed. This is good, because the evil Black Armour Corporation needs to be stopped, and he’s the man for the job. (Side note: As an American, it pains me to put a “u” in “armor”, but the developers are Irish, and I’m afraid I have no choice.)

It ends up being a simple tale of revenge with very few characters. Beyond Takezou, you meet an old monk that sends him on his way, as well as a scout that offers (minimal) advice on your journey. The bad guys are pretty much nameless, but a couple of them get a line or two in before you take them down. I thought the tale was okay for what it was. After all, who’s expecting an epic out of a Mini? However, I felt the writing wasn’t up to par. In particular, Takezou often sounds like a disgruntled teenager rather than an expert assassin. It makes him seem less badass and more annoying. I also felt the relationship between him and the scout was poorly developed. Clearly, they wanted something there, but didn’t give it any time or effort. It’s like those stupid action films where the main characters start making out all of the sudden. It just seems weird.

Anyways, the game has a lot more going for it than just plot. The story mode is pretty straight forward. There are about twenty levels to go through, including a few boss fights. These change a bit in theme as you go on, and the boss fights vary in terms of how they’re played. With two difficulty settings that change up how the game is played, as well as five different costumes with unique abilities, the campaign alone is pretty sweet.

However, the developers saw fit to add in two more playable modes, which I greatly appreciate. Time Attack gives you access to every level and challenges you to see how fast you can make it through each one. It also includes a developer time to taunt you into improving your score. There’s also a survival mode. You’re given a random assortment of levels, some of which have been altered, and only one life to complete them. The goal here is to get as far as possible. The only issue I have with this mode is that there is no high score kept in the game, mitigating its usefulness.

The story may not be much, the package surrounding it is pretty good. I’ve seen full retail games offer less, especially comparable action titles. As such, Open Emotion Studios has earned my respect. They’re clearly a developer who cares about giving players plenty of content to play with.

Graphics

Just a couple of seconds into this game, and you can tell that the same team worked on MBA. The art is very similar in terms of use of color and backgrounds. Once again, I kind of dug it, but I’m not about to be calling it great by any means. The backgrounds were very minimal, character designs were very generic, and the only thing that really stood out was the third boss. He looked pretty damn cool. I will say that I enjoyed the strong use of color throughout. It made the game pop in certain places. For hand-drawn stuff, it’s not bad at all.

This game, according to the developers, was originally conceived as a flash game. It shows. The animation in this game is paltry to say the least. That cool looking boss I mentioned stays still in the background, and occasionally slams his fist. There are various platforms that disappear when you step on them. That’s right. They disappear, not fall. It makes the game look really outdated. They also don’t wobble or shake. They just vanish. For one section, there’s nothing to distinguish these areas from normal ones, which is really bad.

The game honestly reminds me something that you’d see on the Game Boy. There just isn’t a lot going on here. If the art wasn’t as interesting as it is, I’d call the graphics some of the worst I’ve seen on the PSP. As is, I can give them a break.

Audio

Somebody was having an absolute blast when they were creating music for this game. Maybe it was someone who had finally mastered the synthesizer or something, but there is a ton of music for a game so small. A lot of it is very similar. You’ll hear a lot of bass heavy beats with a distinctive Japanese flair. There were several tunes that I enjoyed quite well, and most of it fit the game like a glove. The only one that didn’t was an oddly placed death metal tune for the end credits. I’m guessing one of the developers is in a band. Anyways, it isn’t classic material, but it is far above the norm for this kind of game.

The same, however, can not be said for the rest of the package. You haven’t heard sound effects this tinny since the days when Tiger Electronics were all the rage. Seriously, they just sound bad and severely outdated. One of the bonuses in the game is a sound test feature that allows you to listen to any song or effect. I couldn’t find a single effect I didn’t dislike.

This leaves us with a very uneven production. The music is enjoyable stuff, but the sound effects are from the stone age. The best option is to turn the effects way down or even off. Pump up the music, and things can get a lot more enjoyable. That doesn’t exactly translate into a high score.

Gameplay

The more I play this game, the more I end up liking it. I’m not sure if this is because the game doesn’t make the best first impression or it just took me a while to figure out how best to play it.

The game is an action platformer that pays homage to the old ninja classics. It’s all about getting from point A to point B while jumping from platform to platform and killing any enemy foolish enough to get in your way. A few boss fights permeate the action, as well as a fairly nice chase scene. The levels lend themselves well to speed runs, but you can play them at your own pace if you desire.

Let’s start with the platforming. You use the d-pad to move and the X button to jump. Oddly, there is no option to use the analog nub/stick. I imagine was either an accident or done on purpose to preserve the old school feel. The controls are pretty darn tight, with Takezou responding to how long your hold the buttons down to determine jumping power, distance, and angle. This makes for some of the most precise jumps I’ve played on a portable system since New Super Mario Bros. Tack in a double jump mechanic that can be timed for max distance or as a last second life saver, and this is some darn high quality stuff. I wouldn’t expect this from developer whose last game was a puzzler.

The combat isn’t nearly as refined. You actually have two different attack modes. These are “stealth” and “attack”. In stealth mode, you get one slow strike with your sword, whereas you get a three hit combo in attack mode. The three hit combo is actually kind of useless. Enemies have grace periods, meaning the second strike never does damage. Also, a single button press launches all three hits, even in situations where it is unnecessary or unwelcome. If attack mode does more damage, why bother ever being in stealth mode? Well, for starters, you can’t double jump in attack mode. Also, the jumping attack for stealth mode is much more useful, if less damaging. As you’ve probably guessed, you can also be stealthy in stealth mode. Let’s get to that.

Under your health bar is your chakra bar. This bar replenishes itself when you damage enemies, and gets lowered in several ways. By entering stealth mode, you become impervious to enemy attacks. This drains chakra as you use it. Also, attacking will bring you out of stealth mode. Whilst in attack mode, the chakra bar has two uses. Every normal attack takes chakra, meaning you can’t spam more powerful attacks endlessly. Also, if you have a full chakra bar, you can activate a special attack which clears all enemies off of the screen. As cool as this is, I used it all of three times throughout my time with the game.

There are two different pick-ups you can get while playing the game. The first is a health pick-up, which restores some of your health. The second is a kunai. You can store several of these throwing knives, and use them as an effective ranged attack. These are invaluable in situations where you need to clear out a tough to reach enemy or do some damage from a place of safety. I often lament the poor usage of these essential ninja tools in Naruto games. Here, I think they are done right.

The reason I don’t find the combat to be worthy of the platforming is that it is too simple. Also, the limitations of your sword strikes can be costly. The slow basic attack is unreliable against fast moving enemies, while the strong attack wastes precious chakra and shoe horns you into an animation. It just feels like they could have done some more.

Another chink in the game’s armor (See! No “u”!) is that the enemies are largely pretty bad. They’re stuck in basic attack animations and simply move back and forth mindlessly. Sure, they sometimes throw so much at you that they become tough, but there just isn’t much to them. A couple of oddities, such as laser-shooting blocks and weird purple things that follow you add some spice, and that keeps it from getting truly awful.

The level design can also be suspect. Enemies often appear as if from nowhere, and they’ve already got a shot off. Often you’ll be hit the split second you see them. This plays a bit into what I was talking about in regards to how to play the game. If you use the stealth mode heavily, most of these cheap attacks are pretty easy to overcome. If you don’t, these get extremely annoying. The worst point of the game comes in the shape of an enemy right next to a check point. If you have the audacity to respawn here, you’ll be hit the second you spawn. Worse, there is a typical “mission start” logo in your way, preventing you from seeing either Takezou or the enemy. This was a pretty bad idea.

So, what we have here is a great platformer with some mediocre combat attached to it. Thanks to the fast pace and special moves, the game manages to overcome most of its weaknesses and turn in a really solid performance. It could use a few tweaks, but this will definitely give players some joy.

Replayability

The first time through this game is probably going to take a few hours. It isn’t a long game, but the difficulty ensures quite a few deaths until you manage to reach the end. Subsequent play-throughs become much more manageable. Levels can take mere minutes to complete. For most action games, there isn’t much of a reason to play the game more than once, but Ninjamurai makes it worth your while.

The big reason for this is that there are four additional costumes you can unlock. More than just cosmetic changes, these switch up the abilities of Takezou in meaningful ways. For instance, the first new costume reduces the chakra cost of attack mode and allows you to throw kunai in both directions. This emphasizes combat and gives you more options for killing enemies. The second costume is all about stealth. It not only greatly increases the time you can be in stealth mode, but allows for kunai throws while staying hidden. I love this one, and it is my costume of choice.

The extra modes, including hardcore difficulty, are sure to add some time to your game as well. For diehard players, the hardcore difficulty is a must. Pick-ups and check points are removed. You have a limited supply of kunai and no way to regain health. Obviously, this brings the challenge to a whole new level.

For casual play, time attack and survival are sure ways to go. Both offer some fun for those willing to explore, and both are purely optional. The game may not keep track of survival records, but that shouldn’t deter players from seeing how far they can go. Add all of this content up, and this ends up being a game that can offer plenty of play time, especially for the low cost of a Mini.

Balance

If you’re not one of those people who likes to be challenged, then this isn’t the game for you. You will die. You will die a lot.

Enemies are more than ready to throw projectiles at you faster than you can react to them, and there are plenty of spikes and pits just daring you to get too cocky with your platforming. We’re not in Ninja Gaiden territory here, but there are still plenty of ways to die. I myself have totaled dozens of deaths at the hand of this game.

That being said, the game is rarely what I’d call cheap. The only instances I’d claim that come from areas like the one I mentioned earlier. (Enemies at spawn points that hit you as soon as the mission starts.) The game also punishes those who try to move too quickly through the game without proper precautions.

What this all adds up to is a game that has plenty of challenge for those looking for it. It’s also the kind of game where the more you play it, the more natural it all feels. I can breeze through levels now that originally caused me all sorts of frustration. That’s just how it should be.

Originality

Well from the beginning, I’ve been comparing this game to things like Ninja Gaiden, Shinobi, and Naruto. That should give you a pretty good sign that it isn’t exactly the most original thing out there. There have been countless action platformers out there that do similar things, and more than a few of them involve ninjas.

That being said, this game certainly offers more modes than those game tend to, which is going to keep it from getting no score whatsoever for originality.

Addictiveness

I’ve got to say, this game is far more addicting that I thought it would be. I attribute this to the game’s sense of speed and tight controls. When you’re zipping along levels and laying waste to every enemy in your path, the game can simply be too much fun to stop.

Even when deaths were piling up at the beginning, I was finding it hard to put the game down. Heck, when I accidentally deleted my save (not as idiotic as it may seem, trust me), I was at the end of the game. By many people’s standards, I had the right to be mad, or even just review the game at that point. Instead, I plowed my way back through and had a blast with it. The more I played the game, the more I liked it.

Add in the alternate costumes with their mechanic tweaking properties, and this is a game that can take up hours and hours of your life without you realizing it. At one point I decided to goof around with the game on my PS3, just to show it off a bit. I ended up getting halfway through the game. More to the point, this is turning out to be a game that I go to when I’m bored. Games that do that are clearly ones that have their hooks in me.

Appeal Factor

Minis are cheap, so they always have that going for them. In addition, the complete lack of new retail titles coming out for the PSP makes these Minis seem more attractive. Though they may have been a joke at first, Minis are quickly becoming something all PSP owners rely on for new games.

On the other hand, Ninjamurai isn’t exactly the kind of game people normally go for. If you’ve noticed, most of the big new platformers tend to be Nintendo titles, with other games not really standing out. There is a market, but I’d call it niche at best. The people who will want this game are those who want challenging games where precise jumping is at the core.

For those looking for a new, cheap title to play around with, I’d highly recommend this, as I find it to be of overall high quality. If you like platformers and don’t mind dying a lot, this game will definitely prove entertaining.

Miscellaneous

I’ve been pretty darn positive about this game. However, until now, I haven’t really mentioned some of the horrible glitches/mistakes in the game. I figure this is the best place to get them out of the way. For starters, there are a couple of issues I have with the end boss fight. If you run backwards from the starting point, the game will freeze every time. In fact, I had to restart the PSP. Also, the boss has a health bar that is inconsistent with the rest of the game. The previous boss had a double life bar. You could see a second bar underneath the one you were depleting. The end boss, however, has a magically refilling bar that tricks you into thinking you’ve won more than once. These mistakes definitely took away from the game’s climatic moment.

There are other glitches as well. If you die while an enemy projectile is on screen, that projectile will appear with you when you respawn, potentially hitting you. That kind of thing is unacceptable. Also, the game keeps track of how many enemies you’ve killed, your time, and other things to give you an overall ranking at the end of each level. If you die and respawn at check point, the total enemies killed will rest to zero. This makes it impossible to get a good ranking if you have to respawn. I also noticed a visual glitch when I played on the PS3. During one section, a large purple square replaced proper architecture. Thankfully, this wasn’t a spot where it could harm you, but it was troubling nonetheless. Mistakes like these add up and detract from the game.

On the positive side, the game adds some nice extras for those interested. It keeps a list of all of your stats, including enemies killed, deaths, etc. There is also an achievement system that is sure to push some people to do everything there is to do in the game. These are things that aren’t necessary for a Mini title, but they show the developer cared about what they were making.

The Scores
Story/Modes: Good
Graphics: Mediocre
Audio: Poor
Gameplay: Good
Replayability: Great
Balance: Very Good
Originality: Bad
Addictiveness: Good
Appeal Factor: Above Average
Miscellaneous: Poor
Final Score: Above Average Game!

Short Attention Span Summary

Ninjamurai is a very solid game thanks to solid gameplay and tons of content. However, several mistakes keep it from being as great as it could have been. The sound effects are laughable, there are a few ill timed glitches, and the non-art side of the graphics could have used some work. However, the game is still worth playing for anyone who likes action platformers. The sense of speed the game offers on top of the hearty challenge makes is something that the right people are going to love.

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  • Phil

    Decided to give this game a go; have not gotten very far into it yet; as minis are concerned it is decent, if a little underwhelming initially if comparing it with a quality similar 16-bit title. The combat is rather clumsy and unrefined, but as you stated the actual movement and platforming is pretty fun. A solid deal though for only two dollars; I wish that they would make full-blown 2D vertical and horizontal shmups though the minis’ outlet and sell them for two to four bucks a piece.

  • Glad you like it. For two bucks, this game is a steal. If every Mini were released at that price, I’m sure the format would see a lot more success than it has.