What do you get if you combined Ninjas, hardcore combat sensibilities, wall-running and Quick-Time-Events? It sounds pretty much like an amalgamation of every action game to have been released in the past ten years, and that's exactly what Ninja Blade is.
It doesn't try to be unique, and instead seems to almost celebrate just how derivative and unimaginative it is, with a reliance on tropes and crutches that is so heavy-handed, you'd almost think Ninja Blade was a parody of the games it shamelessly copies. However, there is no satire to be found in Ninja Blade. Just Quick-Time-Events. Lots and lots and lots of them.
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Ninja Blade (Xbox 360)
Developer: From Software
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Released: April 7, 2009
The time: A not-too-distant future. The place: Tokyo. The obligatory one-dimensional villain: Evil parasites that mutate their victims and turn them into violent killers. As elite G.U.I.D.E soldier and distinguished ninja Ken Ogawa, your job will be to tackle the "Alpha Worms" and rescue Tokyo from their clutches before G.U.I.D.E instigates a last resort policy and nukes the city. Unfortunately, your own father has been infected and is now fighting you. A moral conflict that isn't all that moral or conflicting ensues!
As you might expect from a hardcore Japanese action title, the storyline is barmy and barely makes any coherent sense, but is more than happy to take a backseat and let the showy combat and over-the-top cutscenes do all the talking. If you're looking for a complex storyline in Ninja Blade, you're an idiot.
Ninja Blade, as we already explained, is a typical action title that takes everything it has from more established games in the genre. Devil May Cry, God of War, Ninja Gaiden and Prince of Persia are all pillaged without apology, and in following the path most trodden, developer From Software has developed a fairly competent game. The action is shallow and generic, but it's relatively fun at times and the easy combo system, what there is of it, should keep most players satisfied. Those looking for a deeper combat system may come away disappointed, however.
If fighting isn't your thing, don't worry. Ninja Blade is split almost 50% between traditional combat and QTEs, so much so that it could be likened to Guitar Hero without the music. Each QTE is preceded by a quick close-up of Ken's eyes, allowing players to brace themselves. While this is a rather clever way of making sure the player is never ambushed by the QTEs, the eye-shot is so over-used and predictable that it becomes comedic. Every new boss, every change of scenery, absolutely everything needs a QTE attached, and it starts to feel like a running joke. The sheer number of QTEs in the game (it even starts with one) and their predictability constitute farce.
It's not like they're even necessary most of the time. I dare say it would have been possible, and much more fun, for players to make Ken hop onto a launched missile and steer it through the air themselves. That could have been done interactively, but instead we have to play a glorified game of Simon Says in order to do it and watch the game basically play itself. Ninja Blade is full of these moments that could have been breathtaking if From Software had bothered to make them part of the actual gameplay. Instead they are cutscenes that we can't even watch properly because we're too busy pushing buttons.
When the game isn't being a barely interactive cutscene, it certainly isn't terrible. Boss encounters are epic in scope and the simple use of Prince of Persia style acrobatics is welcome and works a lot better than the last PoP game did. However, a number of irritating issues hold the game back, such as a cumbersome feel to the combat animations, a reliance on using the D-pad to constantly switch swords, and the tendency of enemies to surround you and weigh in with cheap shots. While the bosses can be huge and intimidating, they can also be tedious and lengthy, and aren't above breaking their own patterns to beat you. One particular boss was able to place herself out of harm's way and she stayed there for the entire battle, hiding in an area I couldn't reach until she killed me. In the second boss attempt, she did not do this, leading me to believe the boss was never meant to stay there.
Speaking of things not doing what they're meant to, Ninja Blade also suffers from a number of bugs. While the game itself looks visually impressive, it's let down by a number of graphical glitches that occur later in the game, with messy, badly textured objects randomly appearing and disappearing, sometimes obscuring vital targets. The game also randomly freezes when selecting one's storage device, something that seems to be a common issue among players.
The game attempts to spice things up a bit with a number of special powers, Ninja Vision being chief among them. Ninja Vision slows down time and turns the screen red, with interactive objects being displayed in blue so players have a good idea of where to go next. Ken also has access to Ninjitsu abilities that are discovered throughout the game, giving him access to wind blasts, fireballs and electric shocks. These will be required for some incredibly simple environmental puzzles. Ken can also acquire "blood crystals" from downed enemies and use them to level up his three swords, as well as the powers.
If you get really, really bored, you can also unlock special costumes and play the the color of Ken's clothes to customize your own ninja. Dressing him up like a clown or giving him bright pink clothing is funny for a few seconds, but only truly dedicated fans will want to collect everything. So, not many people will be doing that.
All of the flaws could have been bearable and Ninja Blade may have been a moderately decent game. However, one mistake above all else has absolutely shat upon the game and turned it into a title that could never hope to be more than mediocre. Ninja Blade's save system is one of the most archaic and pathetic I have ever seen. There is no mid-mission save, and some of these missions can run up to an hour. While some might say this is a throwback to the days when we were kids and you couldn't save games, I say that I'm not a kid anymore. I have a job, a family and a social life to consider. I have things to do. I cannot re-arrange my life around one videogame, especially a game that doesn't deserve that much dedication.
Twice I had to quit out of the game and replay vast chunks again later on because I had more important commitments to meet. At other times I couldn't even start the game because I knew I had something coming up and didn't know if I'd be finished in time. No game should have the arrogance to demand so much devotion and pre-planning, let alone a game that isn't even all that good. By the time I got to the final boss, I just put the controller down and realized it wasn't worth it. This game is not worth it.
Overall, Ninja Blade provides a banal and vapid experience that only truly dedicated action junkies without any other plans could justify playing. At best it's an okay action title that feels phoned-in and relies far too heavily on QTEs to make up for the lack of gameplay. At worst it's a frustrating experience that could single-handedly be used by concerned parents to demonstrate what a waste of time games are. If they used just Ninja Blade as evidence, they'd be right. This game is a total waste of time.
Score: 5.0 -- Mediocre (5s are an exercise in apathy, neither Solid nor Liquid. Not exactly bad, but not very good either. Just a bit "meh," really.)
reviewed by Jim Sterling