Ninja Assassin. Ninja. Assassin. I wonder which twit at Warner Bros. came up with that title. Ninjas are assassins; I can’t think of a more redundant title. But the assasinine problems don’t cease there. Does anyone recall the film Memoirs of a Geisha, the Hollywood debacle in which well-known Chinese actresses were cast in roles as Japanese geishas all speaking in English? Well, with Ninja Assassin they’re at it again, this time casting Korean megastar Rain in the role of the titular ninja assassin, one of many Japanese characters who will spend the film speaking in English. It’s an awful tendency of Hollywood to assume the worst of its audience, and to build a film for the least common denominator. Hollywood assumes most American viewers cannot discern the difference between Asian races, and also assumes we’re all too illiterate to read subtitles. And so they toss authenticity to the wind, instead casting Koreans and Chinese as Japanese, Chinese and Japanese as Koreans, and Koreans and Japanese as Chinese, and all of them speaking in English. It’s something I find only slightly less disturbing than old John Wayne pictures in which they would paint white people dark to play Indians. And much as I hate to tout a Tom Cruise film as a cinematic paradigm, The Last Samurai at least succeeded in casting Japanese actors as Japanese people speaking the Japanese tongue. And despite such radical adherence to authenticity, our heads did not explode, our brains did not liquify, the world did not come crashing to a tumultuous end. Hollywood? Hello?
Gads, but this isn’t a film review. Games! That’s why you’ve come. And so we
tackle stealth kill Ninja Assassin, the game based upon the (ridiculous looking) film.
Luckily, the game does not suffer the film’s obvious shortcomings; it has shortcomings all its own. Racial confusion is neither here nor there; the only time you will be forced to endure Rain’s pretty-boy visage is if you opt to watch the theatrical trailer for the film, which is included with the game and buried in the About menu. Having lived years in South Korea, where Rain’s image is literally everywhere you look, I appreciate the game’s not thrusting him at me like ninja knives into my eyes. Rather than attempting to beguile you with star power or racial ambiguity, the game relies upon its stylized presentation and gameplay mechanics to draw you in, and it nearly succeeds.
Ninja Assassin should have been the iPhone’s best ninja game to-date. Note the emphasis on the should have been.
In Ninja Assassin, death is dealt in taps and swipes. The game’s opening stage introduces these basic mechanics. Swiping your finger across the screen in any direction will cause your ninja to slash with his katana, slicing and dicing any foes in his path. Tapping an enemy puts a shuriken in his head. There are two types of cover in the game, aerial and ground, which can be entered by tapping in specific locations in each stage. Cover can be utilized to hide from your opponents and, in Act II, you can make stealth kills from aerial cover by tapping opponents beneath you. Your enemies will then be hoisted into the air and despatched in a miasma of blood. Just be sure to strike when no one is looking, or you will find yourself being used for target practice.
At this point, the game sounds very promising indeed. And playing through the first two acts only supports the notion. There’s a great deal of strategy involved: using cover to mask your movements, isolating opponents for stealth kills, and choosing when or if to assail your foes in the open. In Acts III and IV, however, the game comes down like a house of cards.
The stealth kills introduced in the second act never again appear in the game. The third act has some limited ground cover, but ground cover does not allow for stealth kills; Act IV offers no cover at all. Strategy gone, these penultimate acts are reduced to hack’n slash swiping and sadly comprise the lengthiest part of the game.
Presentation: The icon is pretty cheesey, but the rest of the game looks fantastic. The story is told in beautifully illustrated cutscenes, the levels are hand-drawn and gorgeously rendered, and characters are drawn in a sort of stylized cell-shading. Kills look great; gouts and clouds of blood ensure satisfying executions of opponents. The music is a blend of rock and traditional Japanese taiko drums, and adds a lot of drama to the bloodshed. This is a very good looking game. Even the menus and load screens exude polish and add to the character of the proceedings.
Inconsistency: As discussed above, Ninja Assassin begins with a great deal of promise, but fumbles from mid-game on. Had Acts III and IV maintained the level of strategic complexity introduced in the preceding acts, this could have been a great game. Unfortunately, the latter half (or more?) of the game is disemboweled of strategic game mechanics, and comes off feeling lackluster and incomplete as a result.
Character Animations: While the characters look fantastic standing still, the animations could certainly be smoother. There’s just not enough frames for character movement. Minor, but noticable.
Difficulty: The game is hard. Or maybe you’re just not a good enough ninja? Either way, variable difficulty settings for the story mode would be much appreciated.
Story: Though the story is beautifully presented via cutscenes, the story itself is pretty poor. It seems to attempt to recreate important moments from the film, but the four acts end up feeling disconnected and make little sense when taken on their own.
Short and Pricey: With only 12 short stages, the game just doesn’t justify its $4.99 price tag. If the final stages didn’t crap all over themselves, I could see it justifiably priced at $2.99; but they do crap all over themselves, so even that seems too much.
Ninja Assassin is full of unrealized potential; as a reviewer, I find this to be the most frustrating aspect of the game. There are glimmers of brilliance, but so fleeting they do little more than emphasize the game’s shortcomings. The game could have been this, but ended up being that instead. All the pieces are here for greatness, but the glue that holds those pieces together just isn’t the stuff.
After playing through Acts I and II, I had written the skeleton of a glowing review, which I then planned to update with further impressions as I made my way through the remainder of the game. Unfortunately, that review began to change dramatically in tone as I played through Acts III and IV. Rather than fleshing out the skeleton with additional impressions, I instead found myself cutting off its limbs. My initial enthusiasm for the game quickly diminished, giving way to disappointment and apathy.
Ninja Assassin has drawn some comparisons to Draw Slasher; the games share a ninja theme and a swipe-to-slash combat mechanic. Overall, I found that Draw Slasher quickly became repetitive and boring; I’ve tended to lose interest in playing the game long before reaching Game Over. Ninja Assassin’s first two acts are much better than Draw Slasher, while the final two acts roughly equate to the the entire Draw Slasher experience. Ninja Assassin offers a better presentation, better controls and more interesting game mechanics. But it also abandons its own mechanics half-way through the game, and falls flat on its face. Draw Slasher offers far less promise, but carries its weight better as a result; it’s also cheaper. In the end it’s your call; but neither game is a must-have.
As my final word, I feel that ninjas have been ill represented on the App Store. Ninja Assassin comes close to being the iPhone’s first great ninja game, but ultimately fails. It’s difficult to see a game come so close, only to drop the ball in the end. But that’s what happens, and I just cannot, in good conscious, recommend it. As I said, though, the pieces are all here; I would love for some developer to pick up the pieces and build them into a game that lives up to the kind of potential that Ninja Assassin hints at throughout.