Since the first cavemen were asked to press A X, Y and RT in quick succession to strike flint on flint and make fire, debate has raged as to the validity of QTEs. Some find them acceptable, mild engagement in otherwise non-interactive cutscenes. Others claim them to be from Hell itself, after a mistimed button press rejuvenates a boss for the fifth time. One thing’s for sure, QTEs made a significant mark on gaming around the time of Shenmue and have been here to stay since then. Ninja Blade doesn’t just bask in its love for QTEs, it builds half of itself around them. And it’s a very compelling argument for the ‘QTEs can be awesome’ camp.
Talk to anyone who played the demo and chances are the event that stuck in their mind was kicking a giant wrecking ball into a spider’s face. Would this have been as satisfying if they were just watching a non-interactive cutscene? Probably not. Ninja Blade is littered with these moments. From the aforementioned wrecking ball, to demolishing a pagoda with a man’s body, by way of surfing on a rocket. These moments come thick and fast, at least in the first five or six levels, and the QTE nature of these bombastic, exaggerated action scenes only make them more jaw-droppingly exciting. If you ever find yourself arguing with someone who claims QTEs are nothing more than an annoyance, hurl Ninja Blade in their general direction (preferably whilst leaping through the air and yelling TODOME!) and the debate will be won. The fact that the QTEs are exceptionally forgiving is a pleasant footnote to an already strong case.
When not asking you to tap buttons Dragon’s Lair style, Ninja Blade is a fairly standard Ninjitsu hack and slash affair. You have the usual variety of weapons (heavy, regular, fast), a few elemental special moves and typical ninja abilities like wall-running, wall-jumping, wall-smashing and wall-… er, Ninja Vision, which lets you see various paths and weak spots. Enemies come thick and fast, and each mission generally comprises of sections where you fight zombies, followed by a gigantic boss, more zombies, another boss, rinse and repeat. Boss fights are the core focus here, with the platforming and brawling sections seeming like mere distractions between the next gigantic, grossly mutated freak. During the course of the adventure, protagonist Ken faces up against the likes of giant enemy crabs (really), snake people, armoured spiders, huge worms and even a helicopter made of snails. For the most part these boss fights are entertaining, although a few are too laborious to be fun, taking far too long on an initial playthrough. The amount of bosses crammed into the game is exciting at first, but soon leads to one of the game’s biggest flaws.
Earlier, we mentioned ‘the first five or six levels’ as being exciting. The final third of the game is one massive let-down. The ridiculous, campy plot (sinister parasites take over Tokyo, breed monsters) starts to take itself a bit too seriously, and the developers seemed to run out of ideas. Level seven, for instance, sees you revisiting segments of past levels for seemingly no reason. Throughout the course of this final third, new material is thin on the ground and you’ll find yourself fighting previous bosses for most of the endgame. A few of them are welcome returns, but some of the more annoying fights really grate. Plus it’s just lazy game design to reuse old areas and fights without justification, something all too many games are guilty of these days.
Another – and perhaps the most major – flaw is the length of the missions. On a first playthrough, missions last between thirty minutes and an hour. This wouldn’t normally be a problem, save for the fact that in Ninja Blade you can’t save mid-mission. That’s right, if you need to switch off at any point (and remember that many of these missions are lengthy and boss-heavy) it’s back to the start. Considering the game has ample checkpoints, it’s an unforgivable oversight and one that had our editor weeping into his shurikens on multiple occasions. Considering Ninja Blade is a game that would be the most fun in short bursts, the mission length and lack of saves ends up making the game highly tedious at points. Had the missions been divided into a few shorter chapters, this could easily have been rectified.
One of the most fun (or pointless, depending on your perspective) aspects of the game is the ability to change Ken’s costume and colours. We took on the final mission of the game dressed in a pink and white cherry blossom outfit, which never failed to amuse. It’s a minor distraction though, and fighting in a bright green leopard print won’t ever make up for some of the game’s shortcomings. With Ninja Blade, From Software commits the cardinal sin of the action game developer; it allows the action to become boring. Even the most explosive, eye-popping moments don’t make up for the fact that, for a considerable amount of the game, Ninja Blade feels like a bit of a chore.
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