Developer: From Software
Release Date: April 7, 2009
Ninja Gaiden was one of the most exciting and interesting action games to come out in the last generation of consoles, mixing fighting game mechanics with Devil May Cry-like action and an excellence that few games can touch. While Ninja Gaiden II didn't manage to live up to the quality of the first game, it still combined fast-paced action and slick, stylish moves. It's not surprising that a few other games would attempt to match the action-ninja gameplay that Ninja Gaiden perfected. Ninja Blade is the latest attempt, this time from Armored Core and Otogi developer, From Software. In order to get a feel for this game, we sat down with a brief demo, which will be hitting Xbox Live next week.
The demo began us in the skies above Tokyo, in the year 2015. According to the brief story blurb, a mysterious race of beings called the Alpha Worms has been discovered on Earth, and they have the power to mutate living beings into Carriers, infected zombie-like humans. The Alpha Worms have shown up in Tokyo, and the only hope to stop them is a group of elite superninjas armed with mystical swords, and they're the city's only hope against the encroaching menace. There's no real explanation for why ninjas are required instead of say, soldiers with guns and bazookas, but asking too many questions about the plot is clearly not something that Ninja Blade encourages. Your main character is one of the ninjas, a seemingly young but experienced warrior by the name of Ken, and the demo begins by having him leap sans parachute from a plane into the infested city of Tokyo, putting you right in the middle of the monster-slaying action.
It's going to be pretty much impossible to play Ninja Blade without comparing it to Ninja Gaiden. Even if you ignore the fact that both games star basically identical black-clad ninjas, the gameplay is also exceptionally similar. As I jumped into the game, I was pretty surprised to find that a lot of my basic Ninja Gaiden skills translating over to Ninja Blade. The basic controls are quite similar, with the X button performing rapid attacks and the Y button used for strong attacks. Used in conjunction, they offer up a bunch of various combos, both in the air and on the ground. The A button is used to jump; the right trigger allows you to dash around, which can be used to dodge attacks or held down to move faster; and the left trigger blocks attacks. In the demo, we only had one ninjitsu, the cyclone shuriken; pressing the B button once causes the shuriken to whip around Ken quickly, knocking away any nearby enemies and blowing out fires. Holding the B button allows you to charge and aim the shuriken, so you can throw it at a target much like the bow and arrow in Ninja Gaiden.
Your ninja, Ken, has the special gimmick of carrying multiple swords at once in a special glowing sheath. In the demo, we had three distinct swords. The Oni-Slayer Blade is our default sword, and its medium speed and power mean that it's a solid average weapon, with no special strengths or weaknesses. The second weapon is the Stonerender Sword, which isn't fast but is incredibly powerful. It moves like a snail but hits like a truck, so anything in its path gets crushed. Its strong attacks are charge moves that clear out enemies around you, rather than something to mix into a combo. The Twin Falcon Knives are your fast weapon, and they have a huge range because you can detach the blade from the hilt, so they function much like Kratos' Blades of Athena. They're fast and great for combos, especially when you're surrounded by enemies, but they're not very good against anything durable. You can switch between any of the three weapons at will, so Ken can customize his combat capability to fit any situation.
The opening sequence in combat has you battling a group of Carriers. Once we tore them apart, a tremendous Scolex Worm burst through the side of the building and started chasing us outside. This sequence was basically a platformer, although a very easy one. Holding the right trigger allowed us to dash forward, and pressing it against a wall while dashing allowed us to wall-run over gaps. There are also a few hanging poles that you can grab on to and swing from, all of which is very reminiscent of Ninja Gaiden's platforming sequences, although the ones in Ninja Blade are far more forgiving. It isn't even possible to fall into the pits, and the only way to die is to linger long enough for the worm to catch up with you. Afterward, Ken leaps off the building, and you get to play a mini-game where you run down the side of the building. You can choose to dodge enemies or hit them for extra points, but for the purposes of the demo, the best tactic was to hold down the A button to move as quickly as possible and avoid all the foes.
Finally, we encountered the first major boss of the game, the Arachne, which is a tremendous spider that Ken calls a "Class Five Carrier," implying that it's a major foe. We begin on a long platforming sequence, with the spider sending bursts of energy at Ken. We had to jump and dodge to get within striking distance, but once we reached Arachne, the actual fight was pretty simple. Arachne shot fireballs and attempted to crush Ken with one of its tremendous legs, so we'd just whale on the leg until it fell apart. Take out enough legs, and Arachne's face falls into range, so you can do some major damage to it. After enough damage, it moves to another position, but the battle remains pretty much the same. Dodge the leg, hit the face, and repeat until it falls apart. The fight was fairly enjoyable but very short and easy, so there wasn't much involved with taking down the giant spider. Once we did, the game had us finish it off with a lengthy God of War-style interactive Quick Time Event.
Ninja Blade loves having you press buttons during Quick Time Events. The demo begins with a Quick Time Event, followed by a brief combat scene, another QTE, another brief scene where you run away from a boss, followed by, you guessed it, another QTE. Once you reach the boss, each segment of the boss fight is bookended by a QTE, and the demo ends with yet another QTE. It's honestly almost ridiculous, especially for such a short demo, that I spent more time doing QTEs than actually playing the game. The events had almost no punishment for failure, so if you screw one up, the screen turns gray and rewinds to before you failed the event, and you get to do it again. The only time that failing an event had a downside is during the boss fight, where messing up causes you to get knocked back so have to run back up to the boss again. I'm not one of those gamers who absolutely hates QTEs, and I can deal with them in reasonable amounts, such as in Resident Evil 4 or God of War, but Ninja Blade went above and beyond.
Ninja Blade has the potential to be a fairly fun Ninja Gaiden clone. The combat is fast and flows smoothly, although it is a bit difficult to judge the actual difficulty or gameplay from the extremely brief demo. The sword-switching mechanic hints at some potentially interesting concepts, although the demo was designed so that you could switch to the
Stonerender Sword and get by without any trouble. The most worrying thing is the sheer number of QTEs in the game. When you spend more time watching the demo than playing it, one can't help but be a bit concerned that From Software may have overdone it. Hopefully, the final game will be more fighting and less watching, but the demo really could have used more of the former and a lot less of the latter.
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