Review: “Within the Blade” (PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch)
Ninja games were all the rage when I was growing up, and I had no shortage of great ones. Tecmo’s Ninja Gaiden, SEGA’s Shinobi, Natsume’s The Ninja Warriors, and Konami’s TMNT brawlers were all in my regular gaming rotation as a kid. Of course, this is before the advent of 3D gaming, when titles like Acquire’sTenchu started to up the ante on stealth rather than fast-paced action.
Fast forward the clock to 2019, and developer Ametist released Within the Blade (which was originally titled Pixel Shinobi: Nine Demons of Mamoru) for PC. The game attempts to marry the fast-paced elements of classic ninja favorites with stealth and RPG mechanics of modern titles. Now, WTB is making its way to consoles via the Nintendo Switch, PlayStation and Xbox platforms. But is this throwback experience worth your modern dollars?*
“He will be a Shinobi”
At its heart, Within the Blade is a side-scrolling action platformer with a visual flare reminiscent of those classic ninja games from the 80s and 90s. The story follows a ninja named Hideaki, a capable warrior sworn to protect his village from the evil Steel Claw clan led by Wamoru Imari.
Hideaki himself is initially armed with only his fists, but you will quickly obtain several useful weapons and gadgets. He is also pretty damn fast, which caused him to feel a bit “slippy” at first, but I did eventually get used to it. However, it took me even longer to get used to Hideaki’s wall run ability, which requires some quick thinking to avoid accidentally jumping off in the wrong direction (and sometimes killing yourself).
In his mission to rid the land of the Steel Claw menace, Hideaki must traverse more than twenty treacherous stages including a forest, a plague-ridden town, enemy barracks, a volcano, and the Castle of the Bloody Moon (*Snick!*). While none of the areas are remarkably large, there are several hidden areas to discover, and you will likely have to backtrack a bit to find all of the keys, hostages, etc. necessary to advance. The stages are riddled with traps such as spikes, disappearing floors, spears, spinning blades, landmines, fire-breathing dragon statues, and more.
However, the primary challenge comes from Wamoru’s minions. These include Samurai, ninjas, archers, martial artists, barbarians, even zombie-like mutants. Fortunately for you, many of these enemies aren’t particularly bright, and they can be tricked into tripping the same booby-traps that threaten Hideaki. Most of the time, though, you’re going to have to contend with them yourself. Certainly a quick slice-and-dice with your katana will work in many cases, but it’s fairly easy to get overwhelmed if there are multiple enemies to contend with at the same time. It is therefore sometimes smarter to use stealth to sneak up to unsuspecting enemies and assassinate them, or to use your own deep pockets of long-range weapons and traps to clear them out. These include kunai, throwing stars, mines, fire bombs, and many, many (perhaps too many) more.
Your boss battles won’t go down as easily. Since the evil Wamoru is trying to use dark powers to conquer the Land of the Rising Sun, he has enlisted the aid of a number of demonic creatures to act as his lieutenants. These include a giant skeleton, a flying Tengu man, a massive plague demon, a spider woman, and eventually, Wamoru himself. While some of these fights were intially pretty tough, you’ll eventually adjust to their patterns and dispatch them with practice.
Between each stage, you will get a chance to return to your village to unlock new skills and buy or craft new weapons. I suggest you take this opportunity, too. Not only will this give you a chance to catch your breath before moving on, there are definitely some key skills to unlock if you can. You’ll also want to ensure that you have a workable set of weaponry that suits your gameplay style. The last thing you want is for your only blade to break just before you take on a boss fight.
Graphically, Within the Blade is presented with a minimalist, pixelated style, but the animations are slick and I rarely noticed any hiccups. The shadowed areas are pretty easy to make out thanks to a silhouetting graphics effect, which makes your stealth approaches that much more predictable. The boss battles have some nice effects, too. Some of them are rather large and have some interesting attacks, but their death animations are also very cool. Of course, I’d be remiss to not mention the best visual effect: the buckets of blood that sprays and spurts when you decapitate, assassinate, or split an enemy in half. It’s bright, it’s red, and it’s very, very satisfying.
On the audio side, WTB’s music shifts between Japanese-inspired rock or mood-setting music. It’s not a remarkable, but I preferred the higher-energy rock tracks over the more subdued background tunes. None of the characters are voiced, either, but this was in line with the retro aesthetic, so it didn’t bother me in the slightest.
I have to say though, Ametist made some strange decisions with WTB, some of which overcomplicate the experience a bit. The most obvious to me are the weapon inventory and crafting system. For a relatively shorter game, there are simply too many expendable weapon types that do virtually the same thing (bomb, knife, mine, health). You often don’t know what a weapon does until you use (waste) it, and managing your inventory is more of a chore than it needs to be.
This is compounded by that fact that most items are obtained via crafting, which is one too many RPG elements, in my opinion. I would have preferred fewer item types, and then the ability to buy more inventory with gold collected in the stages rather than having to craft steel, then craft legendary steel, then a hilt, then a sword. It’s not as if you can revisit previous stages to find more resources, anyway (which might have been nice, though it probably would have made the game too easy).
Otherwise, there are some odd interface choices, too. It’s difficult to tell who you can and can’t speak to in the village, you have to press up twice (why?) to enter a door, and the button layout for the inventory screen in Hideaki’s hut is downright bizarre. None of this was a deal breaker, but I should never have to look down at my controller as much as I did to complete simple tasks.
“Thank you for playing. And see you next.”
Upon first playing Within the Blade, I found it to be pretty tough. Not only did I need some time to get over the learning curve of the controls, but I typically suck at stealth games as it is. However, once I started to get into the rhythm of the game and unlocking some better abilities, I started to tear through the stages like a pro. My secret? The grappling hook, which allowed me to whip in and out of danger with ease, and the strong dashing attack, which was far more powerful than your other weapon-based attacks.
Depending on your skill level, it should take you roughly 3-5 hours to finish the game. Once you complete it, you unlock a “New Game Plus” mode, which lets you start from the beginning with all of your previously acquired skills, items, and upgrades. There are also a number of challenges for you to test your ninja-esque mettle. In addition, WTB boasts randomly generated environments, which should keep things fresh, too. However, after a couple of plays-through, I think this “randomness” boils down to enemy and item placement more than anything else. I once found a fire-breathing dragon statue that was right up against a wall, harmlessly firing shots into it. That was… amusing.
And you know what? Despite some odd choices and unnecessary clutter, Within the Blade is an amusing game. I rarely rush into New Game Plus modes as readily as I did with WTB, and I was still enjoying the replay experience several stages in. Do I hold it in as high regard as classic ninja games of yesteryear such as Shinobi III or Ninja Gaiden? No, and to be honest, I doubt many who are not already fans of those type of games will be patient enough to enjoy what Within the Blade has to offer. However, if you are keen on some retro-inspired ninja action, Within the Blade definitely scratches that itch. Just be sure to give it some time to get used to the controls, and definitely grab that grappling hook. Everything is better with grappling hooks.
*Disclosure: A digital review copy of Within the Blade for PS4 was provided to The Splintering for the purpose of this review.
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