When one thinks back to the heyday of the side-scrolling ninja games, Shinobi and Ninja Gaiden instantly come to mind. Both games featured excellent platforming and cool moves — as well as a brutal difficulty level. Most of all, they've aged rather well, making them fit to be classic titles for their genre. As downloadable games have started to mature, we've seen a few titles try to replicate the same magic from those classic titles, and while that's been done well in the console space with the Dishwasher series, it hasn't been as fortunate in the portable space. That hasn't stopped the developers at Open Emotion Studios from trying their hand at it with the release of Ninjamurai as a PS3/PSP Mini. While some parts of Ninjamurai show promise, the overall lack of polish prevents it from being good.
You play the role of Takezou Nishimura, the child of a samurai and a ninja. With both disciplines shunning you because of your half-breed status, you take refuge in a monastery and train for years. One day, the Black Armor militia storms the monastery, killing your sensei in the process. With your partner Yukiko, you take it upon yourself to exact revenge on those who murdered the only family you knew.
For the most part, Ninjamurai is a very straightforward experience. You'll be jumping from platform to platform while avoiding bottomless pits and spikes. Acrobatic feats, such as high jumps and wall jumps, are part of your arsenal, as are the standard ninja weaponry, like the sword and throwing knives. Along the way, you'll face off against a variety of Black Armor enemies, from gun-toting soldiers to unmanned drones.
Putting the title name to good use, your character has access to both ninja and samurai abilities. With a simple button press, you can switch out your stance from ninja to samurai and back again, giving you access to different abilities. Ninja stance, for example, gives you the ability to double-jump, move faster, and turn invisible for a limited amount of time, but it makes your sword slashes quite slow. Samurai stance, on the other hand, takes away the double-jump and speed boost but makes you more adept at sword attacks by giving you a combo.
One thing that the game does right is provide a sense of challenge. The enemies aren't difficult to deal with, but the platforming can be tricky. With the environments being as large as they are, the game relies on a classic "trust," where you have to be wary about whether you can safely slide down the slope and jump at the right time or if the chasm isn't really a chasm but a path to progress forward. Save for one checkpoint per level, each mistake brings you back to the beginning of the stage, making you depend on rote memorization to get through each stage. There are a good number of stages to get through, but the development team hasn't made any of the stages go on for too long. It's a perfect on-the-go game that lets you play in short bursts but still make some meaningful progress toward the end.
From a gameplay perspective, Ninjamurai does a number of things wrong. The first is a lack of distinction between stances and abilities. No matter which stance you use, you can always perform the wall jump and use throwing knives. Your character still jumps high, and the speed boost isn't significant enough to produce much of a difference. With the differences being so minor, it might have been best to abandon the switch altogether.
Another flaw comes from the game's abruptness. There isn't any fanfare or lamenting when you die or lose all of your lives; there isn't anything special happening when you complete a level. Deaths instantly produce a semi-static game on-screen while level completion occurs in areas you wouldn't expect a level to end. It's sudden and jarring, making it feel like the developers didn't know how to end or transition things gracefully. Finally, the platforming elements are greatly hindered by floaty controls. Your character, even in samurai stance, moves too fast to make it feel like you can confidently jump from one platform to another without relying on a wall jump or blind luck to save you. Even then, it doesn't feel precise since your character takes too much time to cling to the wall instead of sliding down at a faster rate. It makes for a frustrating experience that only the most patient will be able to handle.
At first glance, the graphics look great. The backgrounds look like they were done in watercolor, producing a look that's uncommonly in recent 2-D games. It's not exactly arresting but the subtle look, punctuated with a few moving elements like flying birds, and the resulting images are impressive. The foreground doesn't come through with artistic subtlety, but it is serviceable, and the character model for your hero has a nice mix of contrasting colors to make up for the fact that you can't clearly make out all of his details. His running animations look smooth, but things quickly fall apart when he begins to do other things. Attacking has no smooth frames of animation; it looks very abrupt, and due to the speed of the attacks, it also feels sluggish. Wall jumps also look bad because of the lack of animation frames, and it's worse when you see your character digging into the walls from which he's supposed to be jumping. It's difficult to tell if an enemy dies because the hit and death animations look very similar. A dark splotch on the body indicates that the enemy has died, but it's small enough that it takes a while for players to recognize the distinction.
Standard platforming challenges, like crumbling floors, also lack real animation, with the pieces simply disappearing without any transition for the action. That lack of animation completely ruins the look, as it would have been dinged for such flaws way back when as well. While the game is playable on the PS3, the issues presented because of scaling make it a better-looking game on the PSP.
The sound, just like the graphics, also feels incomplete. The music is quite good, as it provides a mix between modern beats and traditional Japanese instruments. It has the same rhythm and spirit as most of the old, side-scrolling ninja games, so the score feels appropriate no matter which level you're playing. The tune plays continuously through the level after deaths, though, so it can be grating to hear it without pause until you complete the level or boss fight. It makes a better showing than the effects, though. Sword slashes sound soft while gunfire, explosions and melee attacks lack the audible punch that players have come to expect nowadays. It sounds too deeply rooted in a 16-bit style that, unlike the music, doesn't fit very well. Other effects simply don't exist, so having floors crumble or hitting an enemy produces no audible response. The same can be said for the voices, and while they're just limited to grunts and laughs, their muffled sounds are bad instead of nostalgic.
Ninjamurai feels like a title that needed more polish before being released. The core gameplay feels right, but its abruptness with everything, from level endings to deaths, makes it feel like something was missing in the development process. The floaty controls don't make it an easy game to get a grasp on. It looks great, but the animations feel stiff, and the good music isn't enough to cover the lack of sound effects. Overall, the game reflects its price instead of being better than it, making it a title that should be picked up by platforming fans and those hungry for a PSP game if they have some spare change lying around.
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