Just how over-saturated is the spectacle of mutation in videogames? Consider this: within the opening hour of game time, Ninja Blade throws you from an aeroplane into central Tokyo, just in time to confront an army of shield-wielding monstrosities and a gargantuan fire-spitting worm. You’re tasked with dispatching these nuisances using a collection of the titular ninja blades; doing so results in showers of gore from every God-affronting orifice, and all the time you wonder when From Software is really going to step the action up.
It’s not that the process isn’t suitably garish and overblown – subtlety is not a criticism you can level at Ninja Blade with a straight face – but, as you’ll no doubt have noticed, the visuals and gameplay take some fairly obvious cues from other ninja-based titles. We’ve just seen it all before.
Yes, with the core of the game relying upon wanton button mashing diluted very sparingly with light decision making – as well as a plot which allows for the massacre of hordes of underpowered enemies – Ninja Blade is clearly banking on the favourable position of being mentioned in the same breath as Ninja Gaiden and God of War. THQ seems to have made this kind of “me too” piggybacking acceptable with their stellar, if dubiously motivated, tributes to Grand Theft Auto but some original concepts are necessary to avoid the ploy becoming a touch too obvious. In this case, that means a liberal sprinkling of quick time events (everybody’s favourite game mechanic) and the occasional monster escape sequence. The former has the good grace to be both seamlessly integrated and clearly signposted, flagged by a quick cut to protagonist Ken Ogawa’s perennially startled face so as to avoid catching you off guard.
In addition, failure isn’t treated too punitively, with a brief and undeniably stylish time reversal placing you back where the quick time sequence began. But let’s not praise the burglar for resisting the urge to take a dump on our bedding; it’s a lazy and entirely unnecessary addition, and its unassuming implementation lessens the blow but does not neutralise the problem. That being said, the visual splendour of the final boss finishing moves – called “Todome” in the game – is undeniable, featuring missile surfing and demolition ball swinging as standard. Even when the final product is less flashy and sublime, Todomising foes is a definite pleasure. Were the reaction-testing of the QTEs reserved exclusively for this purpose, they would be entirely forgiveable.
The monster escapes, on the other hand, seem to be arbitrarily thrown in with the sole intention of breaking flow (and perhaps the additional benefit of giving some pretty cool angles for box screenshots). They uniformly involve keeping a finger glued on the right trigger to run blindly towards screen, taking hurdles as they come – or rather, falling foul of hurdles as they come and, on the second run, remembering their position to react accordingly. These sections don’t reward skill at all, only an accurate memory, and the satisfaction of completing them comes exclusively from the knowledge that the end of the game is a percent or two closer.
A little harsh, perhaps. Ninja Blade isn’t completely incapable of surprising – a point proven by the impressive and unfortunately brief introduction of a mutated squid-like helicopter (don’t ask) which fires a barrage of missiles in your direction as you leap from wall to wall down a linear escape route. It feels artificial, and is without doubt a contrived excuse to implement wall jumping as an evasive move, but is nevertheless a memorable rarity which provides a tense prelude to the all-too-familiar disappointment of a rooftop battle scene. This is the same scene which punctuates the entirety of the game: it doesn’t always occur on a rooftop, but casting your eye over the drabness of another murky indoor level or tacky urban setting, it’s unlikely that you’ll take any notice as you intersperse the furious jabs at X with short bursts of Y and watch another generic bad guy meet his demise.
This is just one facet of the overall offering – an alien mix of three or four gameplay elements apparently implemented to at least keep the tedium fresh. In the end, though, these are all recycled cheaply at every stage, which completely undermines such an objective. The sword combat is nothing to write home about from the start, and the problem is compounded when forced to go through the motions of slicing up the same brutes time and time again. The on-rail shooter parts are a pushover, the platforming excursions soulless. Novel ideas like the Squidcopter are few and far between, a mere trickle of ingenuity when a veritable tidal wave was needed to make the game worthwhile. Considering the holistic Ninja Blade experience, they end up as simply a teasing glimpse of the fact that From Software understand what goes into making an experience “fun,” which only really serves to underline the knowledge that what you’re playing is categorically not.
Even new takes on genre staples are extremely poorly executed. Under numerous guises and titles Ninja Blade’s “Ninja Vision” has appeared in a multitude of games, but on few occasions has it been so hideously impotent. Several times the game gives you no option but to use it, although even when its purpose is spelled out in bold lettering it’s often difficult to see what you’re doing. Aesthetically it’s a non-starter, too, apparently simulating the outcome of blackcurrant juice spilled generously onto the screen. To what end Ninja Vision is included is a mystery, though perhaps straying too far from the rigmarole of stereotypical ninjitsu fare was seen as grounds for forced seppuku during Ninja Blade’s development.
Have no goal, as Peter La Fleur might say, and you’ll never be disappointed. From Software’s goals with Ninja Blade appear to have been slim to negligible, and with a considerable portion of fans of the infinitely preferable Ninja Gaiden ready to buy up anything with a similar remit, they’re unlikely to be nearly as disappointed as I am.