They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but don’t tell that to us gamers. We love to find copycats and string them up. Whether it is this year’s triple-A game taking ideas from last year’s, or some media darling that stole its innovations from an ancient and obscure release, we will find the progenitor game, and we will make disparaging remarks.
Of course, we seldom practice what we preach. Kill.Switch may have dabbled with cover long before Gears of War, but we know which is the better game. On the other hand, most gamers shunned From Software’s game Ninja Blade as soon as the early screenshots showed us what looked to be a shameless clone of Ninja Gaiden. Even when the reviews rolled in, the same sentiments were common, despite the fact that Ninja Blade has quite a different purpose. Unfortunately, said purpose has little use in today’s world of action games.
Like Ninja Gaiden’s Ryu Hayabusa, Ninja Blade’s Ken Ogawa is able to run along walls and use potent ninja magic (manifested here as elemental shuriken attacks), all while wearing a heavy and ornate headguard. But NG isn’t the only game that Ken takes his cues from. Ninja Blade’s combat focuses on the ability to quickly switch between multiple swords, much like Devil May Cry 3, and both the weapon upgrade system and the game’s love of Quick Time Events hearken back to God of War. In reality, there is a mishmash of different inspirations here, and yet Ninja Blade still doesn’t play like any of them.
What you really have is an old fashioned game based on high scoring and speedruns. By the end of the first level, you will have access to every swords, with the shuriken magic coming shortly thereafter. You always have the tools necessary to tackle any battle, and success is simply a matter of figuring out which ones to use. For example, the nastiest enemies are entirely nullified by your slow, strong sword, while your dual blades will make short work of faster foes. Combat with regular monsters exists not to provide a challenge, but to test how quickly you can run through them. Similarly, seemingly tricky platforming sections are made easy via Ken’s Ninja Vision, which slows down time and points out special areas of the environment, effectively spelling out where to go and removing hazards.
When you finally get to a boss battle, you will find a frustrating, mutli-staged fight that boils down to a war of attrition, as you slowly chip away at a boss’s health while figuring out which of his animations are safe and which will cause damage (it isn’t as clear as you might think). The key is to figure out which shuriken attack is most effective on them. Once you do this, bosses will go down with little trouble. Hell, even the QTE’s pose no threat, since you instantly retry them should you ever screw up.
The point of Ninja Blade is not to cause a constant stream of Game Over screens, but to time you. It even goes so far as to place various time constraints within certain levels to reinforce this idea. By constantly moving and eliminating threats as efficiently as possible, you can increase your end of level high score, which can then be posted to an online leaderboard. I understand the appeal of this approach, but speedrunning Ninja Blade isn’t as appealing as it should be, which is rather severe considering the game is designed around the concept. Figuring out a crucial or unintended exploit can be exciting and rewarding, but knowing that one exists for every situation removes any sense of strategy. All that is left are quick reflexes, and getting only half of the point means only half of the fun.
There is one other purpose of Ninja Blade, as expressed by the developers – create a game that emulates the most thrilling scenes of a Hollywood blockbuster. This is where the QTE’s come into play, allowing you to have some control over long, flashy sequences that cannot be easily mapped to the standard control scheme. At first, I didn’t mind these events, as they were logical in structure. Where God of War may tell you to hit X to cause Kratos to go wild on an enemy, Ninja Blade will ask you to hit the jump button to jump, or the joystick to dodge. Essentially, the game is saying “if you had full control over this situation, you would do these actions, so we will map them to their corresponding buttons.”
As the game goes on, this logic is thrown out the window; you start using certain buttons to initiate different actions, and the QTE’s become drawn out via unnecessary presses (one asks you to press one button to launch a motorcycle in the air, and another to land it, for no other reason than to look flashy). Some of these events are ridiculous enough to entertain, but their frequency dilutes their potency.
The reason Ninja Blade lets us down is not because it is Imitation Ninja Gaiden(tm), but because it takes ideas from other games in order to create something unique, and still ends up being pedestrian. It fails on two different levels, and I wonder if it would have been better off simply aping one of its inspirations entirely. Considering that this is a game from the same team behind the Demon’s Souls, Ninja Blade is an immense disappointment. If there ever is a sequel (and the B-movie story is cocky enough to hint at one), I can only hope From Software learns a lesson or two.