Saturday, December 19, 2009

Xbox 360 look: Ninja Blade

One of my favorite titles from the Xbox days was Otogi 2. This action game by From Software featured large worlds that were almost fully destructible and had all manner of mythological Japanese demons to send flying into walls or through buildings. Obviously I was excited about Ninja Blade. Okay yeah the trailer wasn't too hot and the demo really wasn't that great either but when have those things been indicative of the final product? So I got the full game and gave it a go.

Like Otogi, Ninja Blade is a 3D action game that takes place over 9 very long stages(we're talking 15 to 45 minutes a piece). The hero is a rather dorky looking dude by the name of Ken Ogawa. The problem with Ken is he has serious Daddy issues. Over the course of the game his father betrays him and leaves him for dead. Yeah I know it sucks but Ken won't stop whining and complaining about it until he saves the day from a parasitic menace.

Assisting him in this endeavor is Michael Wilson. If you haven't heard of him that's probably because you didn't play Metal Wolf Chaos(a JPN-only Xbox game..yes I'm being "that guy" again). Michael is a future U.S. president and will one day control a giant mech to take back his country from a backstabbing vice-president. Why this guy isn't the playable main character of Ninja Blade makes little sense to me.

Regardless Ken is still a Ninja and has access to a number of different moves and blades. He's got the running, the jumping, the wall-running, the wall-jumping, basically all of the standard stuff. In terms of weapons he has a regular sword, a heavy sword for breaking things, and light swords attached to wires for grabbing onto faraway objects. Further rounding Ken out is Ninja magic. By using the elements to his advantage he can solve minor puzzles and find weakpoints on the bosses.

Weapons aren't much good without bad guys and Ninja Blade certainly has enough to go around. Oddly enough a lot of the foes are of the slow and lumbering variety, which is hardly befitting for the fast Ninja action we've grown to expect thanks to titles like Shinobi and Ninja Gaiden. There are some flying creatures and even encounters with enemy ninjas but for the most part it's boring freaks that like to leap on the player.

The bosses are at least slightly more interesting. They're huge and quite impressive. Most of the time they're also not content with waiting until the end of the stage to get killed. This aspect is handled very well and feels dynamic. Which is good because otherwise the level designs are terribly predictable.

I'm sure you know how it works right? You fight some bad guys of varying types, then probably do a bit of platforming, then go back to fighting. It's the same thing us action game fans have been doing time began. It certainly doesn't help that certain areas are repeated in other stages and the attempts at breaking up the monotony simply aren't thought out very well.

For example the chief method of introducing variety in Ninja Blade is through QTEs. While Ken is a loser he's highly skilled and amazingly creative in his handling of nasty creatures. Furthermore he's pulling off stunts several thousands of feet into the air. Of course doing all of this is handled with a bunch of button presses. I think this generation is overrated just as much as the next guy but surely I would have imagined that we'd be getting past that whole "mildly-interactive cutscene" nonsense.

What it comes down to is that when the player reaches the boss they'll hack away at it for several minutes while dodging its attacks. Then after the boss's health meter is drained they'll be stunned and then the player can finish them off with some finish that's several times more exciting than the actual fight or even the rest of the stage. There are a few creative stages like one that takes place on a moving airplane and another that has multiple paths. More of the stages should have had multiple paths as it would have helped the replay value a lot more than replaying stages to get a higher score(whic is fine too but these stages are pretty freaking long).

The only other bit of variety to Ninja Blade involves missions where the player shoots things with a gun mounted to a helicopter. I liked these sections when they were actual arcade games like Operation Wolf or Space Gun. At least those games made up for their weak concept with some amount of depth(plus you got to hold a sweet gun). In Ninja Blade you simply shoot things and maybe use your ninja vision to slow things down enough for particular moments. The Ninja vision can actually be used elsewhere in the game but I didn't bring it up before because most of the time it's a pain. It's a pain to use and it's also a pain for the eyes and possibly head as it drenches the screen in a bunch of special effects that make me feel like I'm going blind. Sure everything slows down and that's useful but it's at the expense of my vision and possibly my lunch.

The biggest problem with this game is that in the end it's little more than a clone. By now you've probably figured that this game is a God of War clone. Now it's been awhile since I've played God of War 2 but the resemblances are obvious. There's the unlikeable main character, swords attached to wires(instead of chains), bosses that can only be killed via QTEs, and oh yeah all equipment is upgraded by collecting red stuff. Yes I know that last one was cloned from Devil May Cry but that's another story.

But that's really alright. Clones can be good and if a clone is better than the originator then that's just wonderful. Ninja Blade is unfortunately not nearly as good as anything it cloned. It's terribly shallow, kind of buggy, has nothing in the way of interesting puzzles and the moments of actual brilliance tend to be squandered due to the ineffective handling of mechanics and level design.

In the end though Ninja Blade really isn't a bad game. I have trouble thinking of a single game I'd not want to play instead of Ninja Blade but still it accomplishes the basic goals. It is a playable game, it won't make you cry or hate yourself or even consider taking up reading. However it will leave you unfulfilled, empty, and probably depressed about the 10 or so hours that could have been spent playing something else. At least take the time to watch all of the cutscenes as they are pretty cool.

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