Ninja Blade

[23 June 2009]

By Arun Subramanian

Although primarily known for its work on the Armored Core and Tenchu franchises, both of which largely play it safe, developer From Software’s most ambitious work has arguably been with the Otogi series.  Both entries were gorgeous and ethereal hack and slash affairs, and there was certainly hope among series fans that From would release either a direct or spiritual successor.  While Ninja Blade is a hack and slash game and some of the visuals are quite impressive, it is clearly not an attempt to follow in Otogi’s footsteps.  Rather, it essentially seems to be a tounge-in-cheek homage to 2004’s Ninja Gaiden, among others.  While it can be fun while it lasts, it is neither as challenging nor engaging as its inspirations.

Part of what made the rebirth of Ninja Gaiden so satisfying was it’s depth.  Although it’s likely that the game is remembered most for its exacting difficulty, what really set Ninja Gaiden apart was the way that it brought the strategic nature of fighting games to the world of action adventure.  Ninja Blade doesn’t strive for the same level of depth.  Its combat design is varied but simplistic.  There’s nothing necessarily wrong with this approach, as Ninja Blade seems more interested in providing opportunities for the player to confront mutated, animal-derived monstrosities in pattern based battles.  Rather, it highlights the core difference between the goals of Gaiden and Blade.  While both seem to be marketed to the same demographic, namely hardcore action gamers, those who demand difficulty, precision, and depth in their games are likely to be disappointed by Ninja Blade’s effort to provide the gaming equivalent of a mindless summer blockbuster, while not being exceptionally good at any one thing.

From Software certainly has experience with the archetypal aesthetics of a more traditional ninja game, as evidenced by its work with the Tenchu series.  Ninja Blade makes no effort to be cut from the same cloth, eschewing stealth in a traditional environment in favor of over-the-top action in a near future environment.  The costumes can be rather outlandish (a ninja that isn’t trying to hide presumably needs no reason to be constantly dressed in the traditional black garb), and the action can be exhilaratingly unrealistic at times.  While this may sound good on paper, there are clear execution missteps that prevent Ninja Blade from being as enjoyable as it could have been.

Ninja Blade is largely divided into three gaming types.  The first is traditional hack and slash combat.  As previously mentioned, the fighting mechanics aren’t quite as deep or satisfying as those made popular by its clear inspirations, Ninja Gaiden, God of War, and to some degree, Devil May Cry.  Admittedly, those titles are atypically deep and stylish for hack and slash mechanics, but Ninja Blade opens itself up to comparisons with respect to combat, given how much the presentation is clearly inspired by those titles.  There are on-rails shooting sections that, as is generally the case, serve as filler material for the rest of the game.  They can be fun, if unremarkable, but they fortunately do not constitute the meat of the experience. Really, it’s the third style, the quick time events, that comprise the game’s central gameplay problem.

Long ago introduced in arcade games like Dragon’s Lair and Space Ace, the mechanic of tapping a button or direction given a particular cue has started appearing again in modern titles.  In the arcade days, the mechanic was smart, because it significantly lowered the necessity of the games to react to player input.  When they did have to react, it was always in precisely the same way.  The trial-and-error formula at play here was necessarily offset by how relatively spectacular the games looked, as the lowered responsibility of the game designers to deal with player input allowed them to develop titles that essentially looked like interactive cartoons.  Yu Suzuki’s Shenmue was likely the first modern title to employ quick time events in an effort to make the game interactive throughout, as opposed to being necessarily broken up by completely noninteractive cutscenes.  The application there was certainly novel.  More recently, titles like God of War, Resident Evil 4 and 5, No More Heroes, and many others have used the quick time mechanic to spice up gameplay.  Ninja Blade, however, might be the first modern title that simply overdoes it.

Undoubtedly, games can be made nominally more interactive by the smart use of quick time events, forcing the player to maintain focus while experiencing game sections that have conventionally allowed them to relax.  But the pitfalls of overuse seem clear.  Certainly, a game like Dragon’s Lair with its complete reliance on the mechanic was both a glorified tech demo and an exercise in timing and memorization.  While it falls under the umbrella definition of “video game,” it’s difficult to say that it was particularly enjoyable in the long term.  The merits of cutscenes aside. Games that do have them traditionally employ them to further the plot of the game.  A game that requires the player to focus their attention on consequential, reflex-oriented tasks does so at the disservice of a title’s narrative. 

Ninja Blade’s story is fluffy enough that this in and of itself isn’t necessarily an issue.  But in large doses, the quick time mechanic is simply not very fun.  It would seem in this day and age that these events are better suited as a seasoning to the meal, as opposed to a whole separate course.  While Ninja Blade can be fun in short bursts (which are actually made difficult by a puzzlingly spare save system), it is an ultimately forgettable experience.  Perhaps further playtesting would have exposed these issues, but it’s also likely that they were conscious design choices that were consistent with From’s vision of the game.  Either way, given From’s history with long running franchises, it’s very likely we’ll see another Ninja Blade title.  But for it to be remembered favorably alongside its forbears, it would be beneficial for it to follow the conventions laid out by its inspirations a little more closely.

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