Video Game Review - Ninja Blade

April 10, 2009

Bearing a shameless resemblance to Tecmo's Ninja Gaiden series, From Software's Ninja Blade mixes fast, sword-slashing action with giant boss fights and insane cinematic quick time events. Can it match the series it undoubtedly attempts to emulate, or does it whiff on the fatal strike?
Ken Ogawa is part of an elite ninja squad tasked with exterminating alpha worms plaguing the citizens of Tokyo and turning them into monstrous creatures. After an early mission, the team is betrayed by their infected leaders, and Ogawa tries to fight back with the legendary ninja blade. He lacks the ability to break its seal, and his own father turns the sword against him, leaving him for dead. Ken must soldier on to save Tokyo from the alpha worms and unlock the secrets of the ninja blade and his own special blood. It's generic monster movie fare with plenty of melodramatic moments, cheesy dialogue, and a fist-pumping American agent who guides Ken to the central hive. It can be entertaining, but not usually in the way the developers intended.

Ninja Blade takes you through nine missions across Tokyo rooftops, alpha worm tunnels, and even a zombie-hijacked plane. The pacing tends to favor big, showy centerpieces. There are three to four boss fights per level, and you'll spend a lot of time in rail shooting sequences and extended quick time events. The level design can feel somewhat repetitive as well, and mission seven is the biggest offender as it mashes together earlier stages so blatantly that the achievement for completing it is titled déjà vu. There are no mid-level save points, either. You'd better plan ahead as missions are usually more than an hour long.

Your arsenal is composed of three sword types and three ninjutsu spells. There's a standard katana, good for most situations; a pair of twin knives that can be unleashed in a flurry of attacks and reflects projectiles; and the heavy Stonerender which is used to break through enemy shields. Unfortunately, the ninja blade that replaces your main sword later in the game drains your health after a few moments, forcing you to rely more on your secondary weapons in the late going. Ken's elemental ninjutsu include a wind spell to blow out flames, a fire spell to burn away obstacles, and lightning to stun enemies.

Ninja Blade does have a few collectibles, but nothing you'd want to go out of your way for. Blood gems dropped by enemies can be used to upgrade weapons and ninjutsu. Tucked away in each level are emblems to decorate your forehead protector as well as some of the ugliest alternate costumes we've ever seen, including a clown outfit, pink flower prints, and bright hearts.


Running about nine to 10 hours in all, Ninja Blade is of average length for an action game, but its repetitive level design and laughable bonus costumes don't offer much incentive for replay.


Ninja Blade is pretty straightforward. You slice through groups of enemies to advance and traverse levels by wall-running, grappling across gaps, or breaking holes through weakened structures. If you do get stumped, you can tap into Ken's ninja vision to slow down time and highlight the way forward, and it also reveals crates and barrels stuffed with goodies. Most missions are simple kill-fests, but in a page out of Vampire Rain, one level tasks you with slicing up crates to keep a plane from losing altitude, despite the fact that its passengers are all hideous monsters that you'd prefer go down in flames.

Combat is similar to other action games like Devil May, or again, Ninja Gaiden, but without as much depth or difficulty. As long as you're using the right weapon, enemies don't put up much resistance, and there's little need to block or counter attack. Boss fights with giant spiders, crabs, and snails offer a bit more challenge, but even that is largely negated by abundant first aid sprays and adrenaline boosts for players to stockpile.

Quick time events are a big part of Ninja Blade, taking up about a quarter of the game. They're in nearly every cinema, they finish up all the major boss fights, and there are even mini-sequences to finish off minor enemies. Rather than reacting as fast as possible, though, you have to time your inputs to match a constricting circle. It can take some getting used to, and it's easy to fail an input by pressing the button too soon. But failure simply rewinds the sequence a few steps for you to retry.

Just like its theme, main character, and just about everything else, Ninja Blade's gameplay is completely derivative and taken from someone else's hard work.

Ninja Blade is full of over-the-top action sequences that try so hard to be cool that they can't be taken seriously. Ken performs such daring stunts as surfing on a missile to redirect it towards an enemy, riding a motorcycle up the side of a building, and stopping a crashing plane with his bare hands. The game rarely looks better than average, and there are clearly some cut corners with street traffic represented by simple red and white dots. Why there's so much traffic in an evacuated section of Tokyo is never explained.

Voice work jumps back and forth between Japanese and English, depending on present company, but Ken's two actors don't really sound like the same person. The game also has its fair share of unsightly glitches, including enemies that can't follow you into a hallway or who get stuck floating in the air. 

Ninja Blade's action can be fun for a while, but it doesn't really satisfy. The story and presentation can get ridiculous, and the repetition, easy combat, and lengthy quick time sequences all wear down its edge. Worst of all, it's a complete rip-off of the Ninja Gaiden series, and we wonder how there could be laws to protect such a blatant theft of creativity.


Source: Microsoft