Ninja Blade

Ninja Blade For XBOX.

The comparisons were inevitable. Releasing a ninja-based game after Ninja Gaiden 2 (and, to a much lesser extent, after Tenchu Z) on Xbox 360 is akin to releasing a first-person shooter in which the main character, "Master Chef," drives around in his "Warhog" blowing the "Government" to pieces. It might just seem a tad too familiar. That's not to say that Ninja Gaiden 2 was so all-encompassing that no other action game could or should scratch out its own niche on the console. But as that legendary philosopher Everlast once said, "If you come to battle, bring a shotgun." Ninja Blade brings no such shotgun.

The Ninja Blade premise is basically this: Infected "Carriers" of all shapes and sizes invade Tokyo, and you, as ninja-mazing protagonist, Ken, are tasked with taking them down using all manner of ninja weapons and techniques. Sounds good, right? An action game that hinges upon a simple but effective concept like this can be an interesting enough time-killer (see also: Gungrave, Shinobi). And considering that the team responsible for Ninja Blade's development are essentially the same folks that brought us the highly-regarded Otogi series on Xbox, you'd be forgiven for expecting an innovative, action-packed game experience. What Ninja Blade delivers, however, is altogether different.

To be fair, Ninja Blade does pack a lot of action into its linear set of tightly scripted missions. The caveat is that the action's focus splinters in disjointed directions. Some might say the game is filled with 'variety,' but really it's just a hodgepodge of varying game styles that sets you in a specific groove and then switches gears when you start to get comfortable. An excellent case in point is the very first stage, which serves not only as a tutorial, but also as a glimpse of what's to come. At first you're taught standard things like how to switch weapons on the fly, run up or along walls, and use "Ninja Vision," but things take a quick turn for the worse when you're shown how to perform 'Todomé' finishing moves. These finishers highlight the game's almost unprecedented focus on quick time events.

For the handful of worthwhile things that Ninja Blade has to offer -- namely a sharply realized game world, in which most of the high-flying battles take place against a palette of Tokyo skyscrapers -- clichéd game mechanics quickly overwhelm the game's pros. Despite the development team's pedigree, this is the most derivative game that Masanori Takeuchi's crew has ever delivered. The worst element by far is the preponderance of QTEs, which have -- since the original Shenmue -- made an unusually strong resurgence in modern gaming culture (read: Heavenly Sword, Resident Evil 5, etc.). Over 25 years ago, back in the days of Dragon's Lair, the original QTE game, it was a worthwhile innovation, but it was still a shallow mechanic that shared more in common with simple reflex games like "Simon," than actual "proper" video game controls. To be featured so prominently in Ninja Blade smacks of lazy game design. Have developers faltered to the point where simply pressing a pre-set sequence of buttons during a boss battle is considered better than a more elegant, strategic showdown? In Ninja Blade it's more perplexing than that.

You would think that, given the game's 'hardcore' nature, Ninja Blade would offer a fresh challenge to those who had long since conquered Ninja Gaiden 2. Instead, the QTEs make it nearly impossible to fail. The game throws the occasional curveball; you may be expecting to press A, X, or Y, but will suddenly be prompted to press left on the analog stick, for example. But in the event you fail to avoid a giant tentacle worm boss's crashing attack, Ninja Blade will simply rewind (in similar fashion to the most recent Prince of Persia) to the point just prior to your demise, offering you the chance to try again. The QTE sequence might change slightly (from X, X, X to A, A, A), but it's like being given a second chance on a test after you've already seen the answers. It feels like From Software designed Ninja Blade to be "My First Ninja Game," which is totally at odds with its actual target audience.

In its favor, the overuse of QTEs does lend Ninja Blade a cinematic feel, since you're basically pressing buttons to jump from dynamic cut-scene to dynamic cut-scene for what feels like 50% of the game. But if you were looking for a meatier play experience and not an interactive ninja-movie, consider yourself warned. Padding the QTE segments are an endless series of shell-shocked environments filled with shambling, zombie-like Carriers. With their limited A.I., they're little more than weapon fodder from whom you gain levels and accrue health and chi pieces, blood crystals, and Shinobi Moji, which can all be used to customize Ken and improve his attributes. The Carriers vary in type, requiring you to switch Ken's weapons on occasion and offering some semblance of strategy (your heavy, two-handed broadsword is much more adept at crushing the shield-bearing Carriers you face). The good times are short-lived, though, as the QTEs eventually rear their ugly heads again (or an out-of-place machine gun turret segment throws in an unwelcome interruption).

Despite the limited enjoyment found in figuring out how to kill the game's enemies, none of the tired, tentacle-porn clichés conjured here are of that much interest. The irony is that, even though it's an "action" game, Ninja Blade's tepid, barely interesting plot is actually more enjoyable than any of the combat tossed your way. The handful of unlockable costumes and weapons do little to encourage repeat visits into Ken's quick time world.

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