Despite my general disdain for Triniti Interactive, a developer whose titles I mostly find to be derivative, suspicious or simply bad, even I am not immune to the tantalizing combination of ninjas and pixels. And surprisingly, with Pixel Ninja Triniti Interactive manages to rise above the slush of its past.
As Hanzo, the titular pixelated ninja, players must recover stolen heirlooms in twenty stages of stealth-based, retro-inspired action. There are five stages in each of four areas, including the market street, castle keep, darkened cave and magical forest. Standing between Hanzo and his prizes are guards — samurai, archers, dogs and others — who must either be evaded or overcome in order to proceed. Guards patrol stages in set paths, their area of awareness highlighted cyan. By staying outside of this area, Hanzo remains invisible to his opponents and may perform stealth kills by approaching enemies from their blind side. If discovered, however, guards will break their patrol route in relentless pursuit of Hanzo.
The game begins simply enough, but guard placements and patrol routes quickly begin to overlap, making it more difficult to dispatch an opponent without being seen in the act by his fellows and duly attacked.
Hanzo’s trusty blade is ever at his disposal, and he enters each stage with an assortment of limited use items: a bomb, five shuriken, two tranquilizing dog bones and a rice ball for restoring health.
Presentation: Hurray for pixels! Pixel Ninja’s pixel art is very nice indeed. Hanzo looks great, as do the stages’ various set pieces and environments. The retro look is great, and well suited to the game play. The sound design also compliments the title, the music suitably Japanese in nature and the sound effects suitably ninja. The menus too are well done.
Stealth Action: Stealth gaming is under represented on the iPhone, making titles such as Pixel Ninja — which tie stealth into game play in an integral and well-implemented way — a welcome addition to the app store. While the game’s stealth mechanics are fairly simply, they pretty well nail their intent.
Control Issues: While Pixel Ninja’s controls certainly are not terrible, they’re not great either. Movement feels a little floaty and imprecise, and Hanzo often gets hung up on objects in the environment. This often gets you seen, and can be very frustrating.
Combat: Combat is plagued by collision detection issues. Hanzo’s sword often will not connect with his opponent, though it appears to do so. As a result, enemies will pummel you while you swing aimlessly, failing to inflict damage, and eventually you die. I am totally okay with combat being difficult; in the case of Pixel Ninja, however, the combat is just broken. Death comes frequently and unfairly. The issue can be avoided entirely by making stealth kills — as any good ninja should do — but that’s no excuse for the combat mechanics being so unpolished on those occasions when you are forced to fight (usually because of the aforementioned control issues).
Enemy AI: The patrol routes are predefined, and each guard’s line of visibility very strict. As guards go, these guys are fairly inattentive and pretty poor at their jobs. Bodies don’t remain on the ground, but vanish from the field of play, so you needn’t worry about guards noticing your victims. And guards who see you will give chase without alerting others nearby, which is fairly senseless. It’s the sort of enemy AI that might have passed muster for games from 1984, but not so much in 2010.
Stage Previews: At the beginning of each stage, the camera pans around the environment revealing enemy placement and the location of the heirloom. Sadly, this eliminates the need for exploration and all sense of discovery. The game would be better played blind, leaving it to the player to locate the heirloom while carefully avoiding the guards. The game just gives you too much knowledge up front, which ultimately detracts from the experience.
Poor Game Center Implementation, No Retina Display: Pixel Ninja supports iOS4 multitasking and Game Center, but sadly lacks retina display support for the iPhone 4 and the Game Center support seems only to be roughed in. The achievements list exists, but is empty; the leaderboards exist, but do not record scores. These failures will hopefully be addressed in an update.
Obfuscated Achievements: Apart from the nonexistent Game Center achievements, each of the game’s twenty stages is shown to have three achievements of its own. Unfortunately, these achievements are represented by Japanese characters, and never otherwise explained. It’s never clear under which conditions these achievements are triggered, so it’s really anyone’s guess how to go about acing the game.
Pixel Ninja is far from perfect, and falls prey to many of the same pitfalls as Triniti Interactive’s many other lackluster titles. Frustrating controls, poorly implemented combat and simplistic AI seem to be the developer’s trademarks. Game Center support is broken, and in-game achievements are completely obscure. It’s all very frustrating.
On the other hand, Pixel Ninja does manage to set itself apart from the slush with excellent art direction, simple but solid stealth mechanics, and game play that remains fun, despite its frustrations. While clearly flawed, Pixel Ninja is nonetheless a good game and a welcome addition to the app store’s scant family of stealth action titles. I recommend Pixel Ninja, but sincerely hope the developer will strive to address the game’s many issues in updates. I also hope to eventually see a sequel with a lot more polish and which better realizes the potential already hinted at in this game.