Despite its flaws, Ninja Blade is an absolute blast
With the growing mainstream popularity of video games, expectations of interactive grandeur are higher than ever. It seems developers all over the world are competing to see who can produce the biggest display of processing power and artistic vision. Are the days of fun, mindless action games coming to an end? “Not a chance!” proclaims the protagonist of the Xbox 360 exclusive Ninja Blade, as he smashes a wrecking ball into a giant spider. And that’s not a metaphor, that’s the first level of the game.
Ninja Blade is the latest offering from From Software (not a typo). From Software may not be a household name amongst gamers, but they do have experience with ninjas as the creators of the Tenchu series. It seems the developers have grown tired of that stealthy series and decided to take cues from (read: rip off) well established franchises such as Ninja Gaiden and God of War. Throw some Resident Evil style quick time events into the mix and that perfectly describes Ninja Blade. But that would make for a pretty boring review, so let’s continue on.
Ninja Blade takes place in the not too distant future. Parasites known as Alpha-worms have begun infecting the residents of Tokyo and it won’t be long before the disease becomes a worldwide epidemic. With such a dire situation at hand, the U.S and Japan band together for the best possible recourse: deploying a team of elite ninja soldiers to eliminate the threat. As Ken Ogawa, a ninja with special blood within him, you will hack and slash your way through the streets of Tokyo destroying giant parasite carriers. The story won’t have you hanging by the edge of your seat, but the narrative is strong enough to keep you going for the game’s 9 missions. Besides, once you take down one of the many impressive bosses in the game, the lack of an award winning story will hardly be an issue.
The boss fights are the standout feature of Ninja Blade. The developers seemed to have realized this since many boss fights take place in multiple phases that persist for the duration of each mission. For the most part, that pacing works wonderfully as you alternate between taking out humanoid grunts and fleeing from the giant monsters before eventually taking them down. The large scale fights also save the game from mediocrity as the traditional hack and slash gameplay is competent but uninspired and redundant (although fighting while free falling off a building is kind of cool). Also, the later missions take the concept a bit too far as you spend way too much time slicing up tentacle after tentacle or taking down three identical infected helicopters (Yeah, I don‘t know how metal becomes infected either). Eighty percent of the missions also begin with a rail shooter sequence that feels tacked on and unpolished every time you play it. But at least each mission concludes in grand fashion with superbly designed quick time events.
Whenever quick time events are mentioned, many gamers sigh over the idea of a developer shoehorning in button prompts during cut scenes to keep things engaging. While there are several games that fall into that category, the way they are implemented in Ninja Blade and the scenes that accompany them will make even the most jaded gamer laugh with glee. Aside from the aforementioned wrecking ball sequence, Ken will sky surf on torpedoes, slice through burning rubble, and ride a motorcycle across a bus before blowing it up with a well placed kunai knife. The button prompts that accompany these scenes are relatively simple, but they really add to the sensation that you’re directing all the action taking place instead of being a passive observer. Even if you miss one of the many button prompts that pop up, the game simply rewinds a few seconds and allows you to try again.
Graphically, Ninja Blade doesn’t stack up to heavy hitters like Gears of War, but the game succeeds with its distinctive art style. Monster designs in particular display an impressive level of scale, especially as you watch Ken slice off an absurd number of oddly placed limbs and eyeballs. The design of futuristic Tokyo is also well done, but get used to seeing it because the entire game takes place in this setting. The last two chapters even repeat earlier bosses and environments, which is a cardinal sin when it comes to game design. However, one aspect of graphic design made my inner action figure nerd squeal with glee, and that’s the ability to fully customize Ken’s attire. You unlock emblems and costume palettes throughout the game which can then be customized to your hearts content. If you think the game would be better with a fake power ranger, go right ahead and make one. All cut scenes use the in-game engine as well so you can enjoy your garishly designed ninja take down baddies in style.
The musical score, composed by Norihiko Hibino of Metal Gear fame, is the best feature of the game’s sound. Unfortunately, it might be hard for the average person to tell because the groans and growls of your infected foes can be overbearing in the overall mix. But it serves its place in the background well by complementing the action taking place, much like any musical score featured in a Hollywood blockbuster movie. The voice acting is also good overall, although the default setting which has some characters switching between English and Japanese at random is a bit odd.
The game can be finished in about 10 hours or less, but you can increase that amount by a few hours if you’re hunting for all the outfits or trying to get an A+ in every chapter. You can also upload your chapter scores to Xbox Live if you’re the competitive type.
Ninja Blade likely won’t win any game of the year awards and it’s certainly not looking to change the landscape of gaming. It simply harkens back to the old days of gaming when all you needed to know was “You’re a good guy killing monsters”. If you’ve moved past the old days and refuse to look back, Ninja Blade will probably do nothing for you. But if you’re just looking for good old fashioned fun that can be enjoyed again and again, Ninja Blade is definitely worth checking out.