Boring, dumb, stupid, boring, and not very fun
The conventions of a standard puzzle game have had me confused lately. What makes a puzzle game rewarding? Should games like Puzzle Bobble and Tetris belong to the same genre as games like Braid or Portal? Should a puzzle game reward creative thinking, quick thinking, or both? Ubisoft’s recent 3DS release, Cubic Ninja, has stirred up more of these questions, and has put me a little bit closer to establishing my definition of a puzzle game.
Cubic Ninja puts you in the shoes of CC a (surprise) cube shaped ninja, on a mission to rescue his missing friends, as well as the princess of his kingdom. Defeating boss monsters at the end of one of the game’s 5 stages unlocks a new playable character, each of which boasts a different weight, friction, and elasticity. Along with a new character, players are given a few paragraphs of flavor text, which help to push along CC’s quest to rescue his lost princess.
Ubisoft has, throughout most of the game’s prerelease marketing, highlighted Cubic Ninja’s separation from traditional button based control. Players guide CC through 100 levels using the 3DS’ motion sensing capabilities, which allow for left-right movement, as well as movement between multiple planes. Should motion control not be quite your jam, the 3DS’ circle pad can also be used to control the game. Standard gameplay consists of navigating CC through levels reminiscent of industrial test chambers, avoiding enemies and other similar hazards along the way. Collecting ninjitsu scrolls scattered throughout levels unlock new ninja powers, such as a shield or ninja stars, which can be activated at any time. Rounding out gameplay modes are time trial and survival modes, as well as a level editor.
I feel to properly critique Cubic Ninja, it’s necessary to dedicate an entire paragraph, a full sixth of this review mind you, to the game’s controls. There simply is no satisfying or efficient way to control Cubic Ninja. The game prides itself on its motion controls, but they’ve designed a game that demands more of these controls than is fair. I often found myself putting my 3DS out of a viewable range simply to move my character where he needed to be. Making matters worse are the game’s physics, which require about 2-3 seconds to coax any of the game’s 7 characters into moving. In a game where a boss can kill you in a single second, it’s unacceptable that characters move as slow as they do. And after you finally get your character moving, the game begins to demand a level of finesse impossible to achieve through tilt controls alone. Most puzzles, (a word unbefitting this game’s challenges) involve hitting a button and moving towards a newly opened door before it closes, which in any other game would be square one. Cubic Ninja makes even the most basic tasks frustrating and difficult. The game’s secondary control option, the system’s circle pad, is equally flawed. Even without the hassle of motion controls, characters move with greater inertia than a bus full of competitive eaters. It’s far too easy to, after desperate moments of getting your character to move at all, careen straight into a land mine or enemy. It’s the very definition of frustration. It also presents players with a Sophie’s choice in terms of control. Either you can fumble and slide your way through the game with unresponsive and unsatisfying motion controls, or take away any semblance of challenge and play with the slide pad, relegating you to a boring, lifeless action puzzle game.
But even if Cubic Ninja controlled well, it wouldn’t be a game worth playing. I found myself consistently flabbergasted by both puzzle design and bad design decisions. A level in the game’s third stage involves waiting five seconds for a series of criss-crossing flame jets to shut off, followed by two seconds of moving to the exit and completing the level. By that point, I had grown accustomed to Cubic Ninja’s generic, and lazy level design, saturated with simple, brain-dead challenges, but was still lucid enough to feel genuine disappointment. By the time I reached the game’s final level, that clarity had all but left, and all I could feel was an overwhelming, overpowering sense of boredom. It doesn’t help that Cubic Ninja is a game almost completely devoid of charm. The little bit of text you receive after completing a level tries it’s best, complete with sly references to other games or tired video game tropes, but it’s smothered by the game’s lack of an interesting art style or sound design. By the end of my time with Cubic Ninja, I couldn’t tell if developer AQ Interactive had tried to make a puzzle game or an action game, but it really didn’t matter. As a puzzle game Cubic Ninja is uninspired and bland. As an action game Cubic Ninja is boring and lifeless.
What’s most frustrating about Cubic Ninja is how well the game could have been suited to an iOS platform as opposed to the 3DS. It’s significantly easier to wrench around an iPhone without obscuring the screen, and the game does nothing technically that the iPhone couldn’t handle. As it stands though, Cubic Ninja is a 4-hour game, with a $40 price tag that I had almost no fun with.