Ninjamurai owes much of its style and substance to arcade games and their console ports from the late 80s and early 90s. The most obvious comparison is Shinobi or even Strider but there is a little more to it than that. This is a PS Minis title that is, perhaps necessarily, light on exposition but quite impressively well stocked with gameplay.
The premise is simple enough. You’re a young ninja/samurai hybrid, sent from the monastery to combat a threat called the Black Armour militia. The plot is delivered via text speech pop ups in cut scenes and pre-level communication with your partner for the trip, Yukiko, who scouts ahead and generally makes you feel like you’ve got a bit of catching up to do. The storyline isn’t terribly advanced but then, why would it need to be?[drop]Each cut scene and level backdrop appears to have been painted in thick oils with a heavy brush. It’s an attractive style that works surprisingly well with the sparse animations and almost 16-bit style of the characters. The music is a kind of hybrid of excellent modern tunes made in an almost 16-bit style and the Sound Test option in the Extras menu allows you to enjoy the background music, and all other game sound effects, at your leisure.
The mechanics are more complex than I expected. Alongside the standard jump (and double-jump), close attack and ranged attack buttons you have the ability to change your stance and enter “Attack mode”. While in this mode you will deal out heavier attacks but lose the ability to double-jump, something which becomes more and more of a hindrance as you progress thanks to the extremely fast and slippery movement of the protagonist.
So frequent switching between the Attack and Jutsu (literally, skill) modes is required if you want to make it through the trickier levels. While in Jutsu mode you also have the ability to turn yourself invisible and sneak past or Jutsu kill enemies. This uses some of your chakra which refills a meter under your health bar as you progress and fight enemies. Only with a full chakra meter can you perform the stealthy Jutsu kills.
Dotted around each platform-heavy level are collectibles which give you another throwing knife or replenish your health. You may also encounter thirteen hidden packages which unlock goodies for your second or third playthrough. Completing story mode opens up a Survival mode and the Time Attack mode will also open further levels as you progress through the story.
At the completion of each level, you’re given stats to show how well you performed. Your grade (A, B, etc.) and rank are decided based upon the time you took, the enemies you killed and the collectibles you found.[drop2]The level design deserves some special attention. It’s built against the painterly backdrops using floating platforms sliding slopes and jutting walls with bottomless falls either side. This has a distinctly old fashioned feel to it but that’s not a criticism at all. The controls are such that you will likely run yourself through spikes and off ledges multiple times but that’s an important element to the gameplay. The fact that there is no handholding – no directional arrow or level map to warn you that this blind jump isn’t going to end well – is all part of the risk/reward mechanic of the game. You need to risk jumping into that gap between buildings or you may never find the hidden packages.
Ninjamurai is a much more complex game than it would be reasonable to expect from a mid-priced PS Minis game (£2.49 in the UK PS Store). The art style, level design and music are all very accomplished and although the animations and narrative are less well developed, that all adds to the charm of the game.
- A lot of game for your money.
- Looks great and sounds even better.
- Superb level design, if you can live with not being guided through every step.
- Encourages multiple playthroughs and Time Attack adds longevity.
- Sometimes frustrating checkpointing.
- Movement can be tricky to get used to.
Ninjamurai is not a brawler. The combat takes a back seat to the platforming but both elements will need to be mastered to get the most out of this packed little game. Progress through levels is difficult enough but getting your times down or completing the game on the most difficult setting is going to prove very tricky indeed.
The 16-bit sensibilities are the game’s defining characteristic. It’s those sensibilities which provide the biggest frustration: unforgiving checkpointing but also the many positives: sound, style and mechanics. In spite of its occasional frustrations, Ninjamurai is one of the most compelling PSP games released this year. The fact that it’s a Minis game, at that price point, just make it all the more enticing.