Reviewed on Sony PSP
Harking back to the 8-bit glory days of the likes of Shadow Of The Ninja and Shinobi, Ninjamurai is a 2D platform adventure from Limerick based Open Emotion Studios. Even though classed as a mini, Ninjamurai offers a wealth of content for the gamer determined enough to experience it.
You play the role of Takezou, a ninja-samurai hybrid (thus Ninjamurai) who at the start of the game is busy existing peacefully in a monastery. After an attack by the Black Armour militia you leave armed with your blade and throwing knives that you pick up along your way. Combined with a somewhat over-powered "stealth" mode (essentially short term invincibility) and a deadly samurai attack your skill set is complete and you are ready to fight your way towards the Black Armour leader.
Ninjamurai feels as though it has a foot in two camps - platformer and action adventure. With the ability to switch at will between a Ninja and Samurai stance you have the option to run through levels at speed, double-jumping over entire levels, or to fight your enemies and slog your way through. The combat stance is the functionally weaker of the two and so you will usually find yourself sprinting and sneaking through levels, with most of the enemies just being additional obstacles in your speed run.
To their credit, Open Emotion Studios have made an effort to prolong the life of the game in a few ways - levels can be replayed as time trials, there's a survival mode and each completed level results in a ranking. There are hidden items to find and as you can treat the game either as a combat game or a platformer you can play levels in multiple ways. Add to that the fact that you can unlock costumes which modify your character's skills then there's certainly plenty of replayability. It's also well suited to playing on the go - excluding boss battles, levels rarely last more than a couple of minutes, so it's no big deal if you have a short play time or get interrupted and have to pick it back up later.
There are frustrations though. Be prepared to die - a lot. While the game initially teaches you to wall-slide, doing so frequently leads to instant death. If the idea of disappearing platforms makes you rage then this won't be the game for you, especially as platforms don't regenerate when you go off screen. Arguably these features are indicative of Ninjamurai’s old school charm, but ultimately they make the game less accessible to the general mini market.
The high production value of the art direction in Ninjamurai is readily apparent, with the watercolour elements standing out especially. The game itself is let down by the animation effects with only the lead character seeming to have much effort expended, and even then it’s difficult to assess whether you have managed to hit an enemy with your sword or flapped it harmlessly next to him.
While it seems churlish to criticise a game that only costs £2.50, it's important to remember that the PSP doesn't exist in a vacuum, and that iOS and Android have changed consumer expectations for a product at that price point. The work that Open Emotion Studios have poured into Ninjamurai is simply astounding for a mini, but unfortunately the levels themselves suffer from a lack of focus which is simply unforgivable in a platforming title. Indeed, when your playing area is restricted during an early chase style level the mechanics and the style of the game shine through, but it leaves you asking why the same values couldn’t be applied across the board. Combined with the combat related issues it's hard not to feel that this was a game that might have really shone. As it is, we look forward to what else Open Emotions can bring to the mini table in the hope that next time their product delivers on all fronts.