Tokyo is under siege… by worms. Seriously, worms and gargantuan bugs. Alpha-worms are parasites that burrow into people’s heads and turn them into zombie-like carriers. Ken, an invincible ninja from America, is somehow immune to the worms and he’s sent in as a one man army to save Tokyo before the worm infected denizens rule it. Ninja Blade’s story is absolutely ridiculous. Almost as ridiculous as the action scenes where Ken surfs on missiles. Taken as an over-the-top B-action movie Ninja Blade is pretty funny.
The way the characters speak during cutscenes is also odd. Ken speaks Japanese and English, but has different voice actors for each language. Also, he and his father, the leader of the Alpha Worm killing squad, switch between the two languages on the fly. There isn’t any real reason for this and having two voice actors for one character is disorienting. Good thing you don’t need to care about the dialogue! Here’s an example of a story cutscene: A worm mutated female begins to get her humanity back talks for a few minutes ending with a request for Ken to finish her off so she doesn’t have to suffer. Ken answers her plea with a casual “Okay” (as subtitled) and then stabs her. Like, OK whatever. I guess I’ll kill you. I don’t really care.
But, I didn’t get Ninja Blade for an engrossing story. I got it for ninja fighting action and the bulk of Ninja Blade is fighting. Ken has three types of weapons at his disposal: a balanced Oni-slayer katana, weak twin falcon blades with a long reach (they’re like the Blades of Chaos in God of War), and a heavy but slow Stonerender sword. Weapons can be switched on the fly by hitting arrows on the D-pad and From Software designed Ninja Blade with weapon switching in mind. There are four kinds of carriers you meet. Regular carriers, carriers with arm cannons, carriers with shields that can only be shattered with the Stonerender sword, and speedy carriers that jump around that fall victim to the reach of the twin falcon blades. It seems like the worms ate the carriers brains since they don’t really do much. Sometimes they lunge at you. If they have a gun arm they lock on and fire. That’s about it. You can finish carriers off by simply button mashing and with QTE insta-kills. There are combos and extra moves you can learn when you upgrade your weapons, but why bother. Level up the Stonerender blade twice and Ken gets a move where he spins in a circle while swinging the sword. This move starts from a guard position so you automatically block if you get hit while trying to activate the move and if you start the move the carriers stand there as you whirl like a top towards them.
Other enemies like bats pester Ken. The falcon blades are useful for cutting up them up and also double as grappling wires. The Stonerender sword has an environmental use too. It can shatter some walls. Levels have some simple jumping and wall running, but unlike Prince of Persia you can’t scale any wall. Ken can only run on walls colored blue when he turns on his X-ray Ninja Vision. Since Ken isn’t very nimble (sort of ironic since he is a ninja) the levels are designed like boxes. You move from one room to the next swinging swords and throwing elementally charged shuriken until you reach a boss.
An early boss battle has players weave through wind blasts fired by a spider. You crush the arachnid by cracking its exoskeleton with the Stonerender sword and then dice it up with the speedier katana. A later boss fight has Ken matched against a giant worm that spits flaming cars. In this fight Ken has to wait for the worm to lunge on the rooftop he’s standing on so he can slice it. And then there is a fight against a crab that shoots lightning you need to jump over. The boss fights are the most memorable part of Ninja Blade not because they’re challenging, but because each one ends with a Todome finishing move. When a boss is near death you need to run up to it and press “A” to activate Todome mode similar to God of War. You only have a limited time to initiate a Todome. Wait to long and the boss recovers health that you need to chip away at again.
Todome finishing moves are a long string of QTEs where you move the analog stick to dodge/leap and press assigned buttons to strike. Miss one and time reverses giving you a chance to get it right. Ninja Blade is very forgiving during Todomes since you have an unlimited number of retries. Actually, Ninja Blade is forgiving in general because you can restart if you die during a boss fight without a penalty and if you search levels you’ll find first aid sprays that restore your life bar. Seeing Ken dispatch bosses in scripted brutal ways is supposed to be exciting. The problem is when you’re focusing on pressing A to land you can’t really enjoy watching the cool finishing scenes. From Software might have had better luck if they just made the Todome events cutscenes. Even with the button presses you don’t really feel like you’re “playing” them because there is no consequence for making a mistake and you can’t affect the outcome.
From Software also squeezed some rail shooting into Ninja Blade’s nine levels. About half the stages begin with Ken in a helicopter or in an armored car manning a stationary turret. While the vehicle drives you have to protect it by shooting winged carriers and mammoth worms that explode out of the ground. In all cases the vehicle and poor pilot perish while Ken saves his skin with his ninja moves.
After beating Ninja Blade you can go back and search the levels for Shinobi Moji icons and extra outfits. Yes, you can play ninja dress up. From Software even include a custom color option so you can make Ken as colorful as rainbow. I played through Ninja Blade wearing a bright cartoon duck yellow outfit. Mindless fun for the first time, but I don’t see myself coming back for a second round dressed in the leopard skin Warrior’s Creed costume.
Food for thought:
1.) From Software did themselves a disservice with the ninja theme. Not only are there too many ninja games on the market now (From Software made one of them!) the title is so close to Ninja Gaiden everyone is going to compare the two games. In the planning phase they should have thought of an original setting like a shrunk down hero who has to fight giant bugs. They could still keep the bugs just explain them with an environmental theme where toxins from all the garbage led to insect mutation/evolution.
2.) The excessive amount of QTEs could work if From Software had branching paths. Like instead of reversing time when you make a mistake the Todome kill attacks would show Ken missing and he would have to recover with a less impressive finishing move.
3.) One level is mostly recycled with the reused bossed and copied areas. Microsoft’s localization team took note of this and showed a sense of humor by awarding players with a Déjà Vu achievement after completing it.