Ninja Assassin Review: Seppuku apparently not just for samurai

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.


Ninja Assassin is developed by Warner Bros. and lists for $4.99; reviewed on an iPhone 3G.



13 thoughts on “Ninja Assassin Review: Seppuku apparently not just for samurai

  1. This editor is a bit over the top, and his comments about racial ambiguity is almost racist in itself. Especially when talking about Ninja Assassin which is a holiday blockbuster looking to satisfy the appetite of gory action hungry males – not win awards for historical accuracy. Rain was obviously used to help give the film credibility in Asian Pacific region – not to mention he’s actually very talented (which has a lot to do with casting).

    I ended up buying the game even after reading this review and think it’s really well executed for a film title. I would recommend this to any one who likes ninja games. I would have to agree on price point and difficulty, but giving this app one star on the app store (where I found this review) is a bit ridiculous from someone who claims to be a professional editor. I typically don’t post responses about app review, but this writer got a rise out of me given his racial comments about film casting (I’m Korean-American).

  2. I fail to see any racism in my review, or in the expectation that Koreans should not be masquerading as Japanese. Given Korea’s long history of conflict with the Japanese, and considering what Japan has done to Korea, I should think no Korean would want to be mistaken for Japanese. In fact, the very idea would have offended most of my friends in South Korea, where I lived for five entire years. I love Korea, its people and its culture.

    But I don’t love Rain, and if you do, then maybe I could have offended your sensibilities for pop stars. I equate him to Justin Timberlake, and care for him not a bit. But to each his own. I merely intended to suggest that he should not have been cast as a Japanese man, based solely on the fact that he is not Japanese.

    As for the game, I agree that it is very well executed during Acts I and II. After that, it falls apart. Have you finished the game yet?

  3. I fail to see any racism in this review as well, but after trying it I believe that it’s at least worth the “Worth a Look” rating. I actually quite enjoyed the whole game, and Acts III and IV weren’t too bad in my opinion either. The only thing I was dissatisfied with is that the 12 stages are a bit short. Matt, hopefully you can give the game a second chance and play around with it a bit more – I really enjoyed it, and the shuriken duel and survival modes were a nice bonus too.

  4. Thank you, Jeff. 🙂

    I would agree to a “Worth A Look” rating at a lower price point, but can’t justify recommending this game to others at its current price. A $4.99 game this short really needs to nail the presentation and gameplay, and Ninja Assassin just doesn’t. This is a game I think really would have benefited from additional development time and dollars; I think they rushed it to release to coincide with the film.

  5. Anytime, Matt. 🙂 Though if you had been racist I would have been pretty pissed, being of Asian descent.

    I guess it’s just me, but I didn’t feel the game was all the hard. Guess it’s all just a matter of opinion. I liked the animations too, and though the frames were cut down it actually led to a more cinematic slow-mo experience whenever you killed someone.

    By the way, have you check out the film yet? I watched the movie yesterday when it came out on the first showtime available, and I have to say that it’s quite an impressive movie, and is one of the best action movies I’ve ever seen, if not the best. It’s not for the squeamish though – there’s definitely quite a lot of blood. Not as much as any of the Kill Bill movies, but still some pretty gory scenes.

  6. I’m probably the most Asian white guy you’d ever meet, a side-effect of living for so long in South Korea. If I were racist against Asians, I’d be pretty pissed at myself. In fact, I keep thinking about moving back; it felt more like home than this place. Anyway …

    I haven’t seen the film yet, but will try to check it out soon. First on my film-going list, though, is Men Who Stare At Goats.

  7. NO! Don’t watch Men Who Stare At Goats. Worst movie. Ever. Well, maybe not the worst, but it was pretty bad…

    Interesting, I’ve never been to South Korea before, but I guess I should put that onto my travel list.

  8. Saw Men Who Stare at Goats. Not fantastic, bt I enjoyed it. George Clooney is great in wacky roles. Still haven’t seen Ninja Assassin, but recently realized it was directed by the Wakoski bros. of whom I am not a fan. I’m not surprised; they cast Rain in Speedracer as well, so I guess they like using him. May or may not get around to seeing it.

    Maybe worth mentioning, but I’ve actually met Rain. I sat in on a photo shoot for one of Nikon’s advertising campaigns with him.

  9. Wait, what were you doing at one of Nikon’s advertising campaigns? The movie was certainly in my opinion better than Men Who Stare at Goats, but I’m not saying that Men Who Stare at Goats was horrid. Just… interesting.

  10. I work in professional photography. A friend in Korea works for the advertising company that handles Nikon’s Korean marketing, and thought I might enjoy being in studio during one of the company’s advertising shoots. And so I spent the afternoon sitting in. Also took the Korean girl I was dating at the time, which went over very well, as I’m sure you can imagine. Rain has been known to throw tantrums, but was behaving himself this particular day. He said hi to us; the girl was happy. We didn’t get to take any photos, as we weren’t technically supposed to be there. So yeah, that’s that story.

  11. Haha, sounds cool. I wish I could have met him, but I didn’t. Guess I’ll have to work in professional photography too! :p

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