Ninja Blade Reader Review
Hands up if you like ninjas!
I thought as much. There is some strange joy in being a superhuman killing machine with reflexes as tight as Kelly Brook's bra straps slicing humans, mutants and an array of alien and demonic foes into slices thin enough to fit into a size zero dress. We want to play a badass superhero, and more than a few of them have been taking cues from a very modern obsession with ninjas - Batman for example is far more ninja now than he used to be. Spiderman has always been a bit ninja as well. And Superman seems to be going that way too of late. But always, ninjas seem to do the job best - be it sneaking around or just generally flipping out and being crazy-sick killing machines, there is nothing like a ninja in gaming. Nothing.
Which brings me to Ninja Blade, which I've been meaning to get around to playing for a while but something else always interferes. Still, perhaps it's a good thing I waited because as good as it is - it is also lacking.
Ninja Blade is the story of a one Ken Ogawa - a highly trained military Ninja with a dress sense that borders dangerously close to S&M, called in with his unit to tackle the threat of Alpha Worms in downtown Tokyo. It quickly transpires his entire unit is infected with these nasties that mutate humans into monstrous abominations, and that he is (conveniently) immune to infection. His father - the lead ninja - kills Ken. Sort of. The story that follows then is a bit of a jumble of threads that never seem to go anywhere.
But then, do they need to? Because be it chasing after a mutant lion and his snake-armed daughter on a tank, to skydiving down the side of a skyscraper and playing catch with a mutant ant, this is "Flipping Out". It's pure condensed showing off, with a nod to Ninja Gaiden and a friendly slap on the bum to Devil May Cry. At no point could I take anything seriously - or fail to be in awe of setpieces which made me smile, grim and gasp in sheer amazement. It's funny that a couple years on, they are still visually stunning. It's an amazing game, thrusting ninja-porn down your optic nerve and overdosing your brain with pure grade-A pleasure.
Which makes it all the more of a pity that Ninja Blade is also one of the shoddiest design jobs you can find. Everything smacks a little of cheapness - as amazing as the visuals are, there's a lot of turret-shooting sequences, then some linear paths, then a boss fight. Sprinkle liberally with awful collision detection, some really badly positioned setpieces that mean said collision detection becomes noticible and general bugs and errors (one which killed the last boss for me outright, without me doing anything - at the cost of some serious in-game framerare slowdown). And garnish with enough quick-time events to make Kratos from God of War cover his genitals in embarrassment.
Then you have bosses with cheap tactics, invisible mobs with no warning that can interrupt your jump and send you plummeting to death, general odd responses in the quick time events and the cheapest and most pathetic character customisation they could knock together on the back of a fag packet in a lunch break.
All of this is a shame. Not least the music and sound - so often I found dialogue was drowned out in the strange soundtrack - not that the soundtrack is bad, but I'd have liked to have HEARD what was being said. Not least because the voice-acting is absolutely amazing - it would be so easy to go completely mad on this front and encourage some really outlandish voiceovers, but it's a slick and professional job - the fact that the story never seems to conclude itself at times doesn't matter. They work what they have been given with aplomb and it's a massive credit to them for it.
And yet, as cheap as it is and as buggy as it is and as LOUD as it is, Ninja Blade pulls through on its promise of ninja-porn. It's the driving force and it is a crying shame so often that it frustrates, annoys and grates because so often, during the LONG quick-time event sequences, it's utterly addictive. Slicing through foes, leaping about, showing off driving a motorbike into a worms mouth or dashing up an elevator shaft, these moments capture that borderline-pornographic pleasure in being a ninja. Slipping into Ninja Vision and slicing through a half-dozen very ugly toothy mutants is sublime. When the game gives you the means and opportunity, it is gloriously silly and utterly compelling. And then it interrupts them with the rest of the game.
It makes Ninja Blade quite complicated. It doesn't really punish you for falling to its bugs, but it feels like a cheap apology in comparison. It doesn't challenge as much - but it is meant to be playable and digestible. It's slick and polished in so many areas, and yet rough and buggy and unfinished in others. It has some gloriously unique stuff, and yet borrows heavily from the mechanics of other hacky-slashy games as well. It's silly, and yet done totally straight - and brilliantly straight at times, lending it an almost authoritative and confident swagger. But it is done so straight that you just once wish they'd make a tentacle joke. There's dozens of opportunities to do so. What would have been the harm of one tentacle joke? Just one.
And the ending doesn't satisfy either. What exactly does happen there? It's like they just couldn't be arsed to finish it off.
For all this though, there are two questions. One - is it worth playing Ninja Blade? Answer - yes. If you can be patient, it is a good eight or so hours of entertainment for, ostensibly, not much money these days. Two - is it a classic? Sadly, no. Ninja Blade isn't as polished as Ninja Gaiden. It's not as shouty as God of War. It's not as stylish as Devil May Cry. It's a valiant effort mind you, but that the quality is all over the shop does it no favours when compared to its genre-mates who polish their helms to a gleaming shine.
But it is worth a punt. And it's worth at least one sequel I'd say, because there is clearly something in this - as hard as it is to put your finger on it, there is just something in Ninja Blade that is easy to like. It's not perfect by any means - but it has something.
Possibly worms. But that's treatable I suppose.