From Software has a reputation for producing solid, enjoyable games that never quite manage to make it over the wall to becoming so-called AAA titles. Its new game, the Xbox 360-exclusive Ninja Blade, is developed by the same team as the cult classic Otogi, which came out on the original Xbox. While Otogi was heralded for its unique high-flying combat and destructible environments, it met with comparatively little success with consumers. But with the 360's installed base outstripping the original Xbox's, will Ninja Blade be able to make the impact that the earlier game failed to make?
The game centers around Super Ninja Ken Ogawa, who is at the center of a struggle to fight off a a plague of parasites called Alpha Worms that mutate people and animals into bigger, uglier, and more deadly people and animals. The story plays out in a straightforward fashion that suits its by-the-numbers nature. The game does make some interesting choices, such as dialogue that will occasionally switch between English and Japanese (with subtitles). While this is a great idea on the surface, representing the game's multinational focus (Ken's commanding officer is an American, after all), it's executed in a haphazard fashion, like when Japanese civilians and news reporters are speaking in English for no reason.
The action is some of the most over-the-top insane anime-inspired madness that has ever been rendered in 3D.
Being in a genre known for visual powerhouses doesn't do Ninja Blade any favors. From an artistic standpoint, it almost looks as if one of the items on the creative team's agenda was "More Matrix-y", as the world of Ninja Blade is permeated by men dressed in black with high-powered weaponry and a constant eerie blueish-green hue. This leads to a feeling of visual tedium even when your stage goes from the charred insides of a Tokyo skyscraper to a plane flying over the city to deep underground caverns. This lack of creativity is matched by underwhelming tech, as the game's character models, while serviceable and never quite buggy enough to inspire laughter, are wholly unremarkable. Other graphical corners cut, however, like representing packed Tokyo streets during cut scenes with floating headlights bereft of cars to project them, manage to leave an overall poor visual impression.
The one part of the game's graphical arsenal that does deliver is the action direction during its absolute multitude of highly manic quick time events. It's fair to say that 40% of the game consists of timed button presses, but oddly enough, the presence of what many would call an overrepresented mechanic in Ninja Blade doesn't chaff nearly as bad as it does other in titles. This is for two reasons, the first being that the action contained within them is some of the most over-the-top insane anime-inspired madness that has ever been rendered in 3D. It's a lot easier to pay attention to these little cinematic interludes when instead of pressing X to shift slightly to the left to avoid a knife attack from a street thug, you're pressing X to throw a wrecking ball into a hideous giant mutant spider's brain.
The other half of Ninja Blade's QTE success is that failing the button presses simply causes the action to rewind, meaning that you will typically lose at most maybe ten to twenty seconds for a failure instead of having to redo an entire scenario. This approach is a huge relief, considering how heavily the game relies on QTEs, even if it does robs you of the chance to see some amusingly grisly failures - like those present in the most recent Resident Evil games.
For the portion of the game that you control conventionally, Ninja Blade performs admirably well. You have three different weapons that you can upgrade for increased damage and new moves, and they all feel so distinct that having only three weapons never feels like a bad thing. The enemy types, while not the most varied, force you to mix up your fighting style often enough that mashing the same move with the same weapon is going to prove ineffective. It doesn't really provide the level of challenge fans of the genre might be accustomed to, nor the comparative variety of other titles, but what it does offer is executed well.
Ninja Blade doesn't do a whole lot to distinguish itself from the competition, and it makes a bad first impression with it's dull looks and unimaginative premise. It does, however, manage to be satisfying to those who stick around, and through the ridiculous action found in the game's quick time events, it does manage to scrape together a bit of personality in spite of it's bizarre dedication to being similar to other games and movies. Those looking for a bit of high octane action could do much worse, and as long as you go in with measured expectations Ninja Blade should manage to satisfy, even it doesn't spellbind.