Ninjas have been a mainstay of games and films for about as long as I can remember. In fact, I fondly remember watching American Ninja as an impressionable young man, wanting to be a ninja so bad it hurt. Yet I also remember playing games like Shinobi on the Sega Megadrive back in the day. What this rambling introduction is leading up to is that another entry into the “Ninja-em-up” genre is with us – Within the Blade. It comes from Ratalaika Games but the big question is whether or not it is worthy enough to hold a candle to the classics of the genre. Or should it have stayed in Shinobi school?
The presentation of Within the Blade is very much in keeping with the classics of the genre, what with it playing out as a side scrolling, retro-styled action platformer. So far, so nostalgic. The animation of the main characters and enemies looks pretty good as well, although the sprites are pretty small, so you may well have to move closer to the screen to get a proper view. Animation of the main character is nice, looking silky smooth as he slips through the levels, and with a pleasing amount of secondary weapons to use, the basis is there for a combat system to savour. Who wouldn’t be delighted to get their hands on proper ninja shuriken?
And then, in terms of the audio and things are suitably retro as well – it does the heart good to hear the sound of escaping blood sounding like a high pressure hose again!
As you may have guessed from my previous sentence, the violence and gore in Within the Blade is also in keeping with the finest video nasties of the 1980s. Sneaking up behind someone to stealth kill them results in an impressive spray of claret gushing forth, and the full roster of dismemberments that you would and could ever want is also present and correct.
The game’s retro style and pixel art graphics really suit the gameplay, and soon you’ll be sneaking and stabbing your way through feudal Japan as you attempt to follow whatever the story is that is trying to be told. Any attempt at narrative is soon buried under a pile of severed limbs though, so honestly it’s best just to focus on staying alive and making sure your foes don’t.
Now, games like this, as I may have said before, live and die on the combat and, in this case, the platforming action on offer also. And, sadly, Within the Blade has issues with both. The combat is okay, at best, and the much vaunted stealth kills are harder to achieve than mastery of the ten scrolls of the Shaolin (or something, I realised I was painting myself into a corner as I typed this).
You see, the enemies that have been transplanted in here have all clearly been to Specsavers, as they can spot you from about a million miles away, and trying to stealth kill an aware enemy just isn’t doable. Hide in a bush for long enough and they will become pacified, but doing this doesn’t exactly make the action-seeking ninja inside happy, disrupting any flow the game has managed to generate.
The wall jumping is even worse, and works perfectly whenever there is a Z in the month. Forget fighting, getting your ninja to jump where you need him to should be the final boss in Within the Blade, as it really doesn’t work.
This is a real shame, as Within the Blade has a lot of promise. Sneaking through levels, dispatching enemies silently and then fighting big bosses sounds like ninja game heaven. At least on paper. It’s when that idea is translated into an actual game that the issues seem to have crept in and spoiled the party.
The game looks great, and moves nicely, but the bugs in the movement kill any real urgency, and again, whilst stealth kills are great ideas, the execution is somewhat on the shonky side. Adding these ingredients together only produces a stew of sadness, and it makes it tricky to recommend Within the Blade to anyone but the most ardent ninjaphiles. For the rest of us, it’s just not got enough going for it.
Stealth them up with Within the Blade, now available on Xbox Series X|S and Xbox One consoles