There may be no shortage of platformers out there, and there certainly are more than a few featuring ninja protagonists. No matter how many you’ve played, Within The Blade has a few tricks up its sleeve that will compel you to try another!
Originally known as Pixel Shinobi: Nine Demons of Mamoru, the name presumably had to change due to its similarity to Sega’s Shinobi franchise. This game might seem like your run-of-the-mill ninja game but has a lot more to offer than meets the eye. Read on to find out what sets this title apart from the rest.
Story – Sometimes Less Is More
You are Hideaki, one of the Black Lotus Clan’s most prolific and respected warriors. The protagonist is something of a one man army taking on the evil Steel Claw Clan who is driving a civil war and killing innocent civilians. I didn’t find the story particularly deep or engaging. It’s very much secondary to the excellent gameplay and visuals, which we will get to a little later.
There are a variety of characters you will meet, but they do not get extensive development and are mostly used as plot devices to move the game forward particularly when it comes to Hideaki’s allies in the Black Lotus Clan.
I found the opposing Steel Claw Clan and their allies a little more colorful, particularly some of the bosses. The brief dialogue with them tends to be entertaining for the most part, in much the same way as a B-grade karate movie that is mostly an excuse to do neat stunts.
The dialogue suffers from some less than optimal translation, at least in the English version that I played. This, for some people, might add to the charm as something of a throwback to poorly translated Japanese titles from the 80’s and 90’s, so your mileage may vary here.
Gameplay – Blade-y Good
Primarily a stealth platformer, WTB also brings in some RPG and crafting elements that will be either hit or miss. I’d like to address all these elements separately, and then look at the bigger picture they paint together afterwards.
The stealth platforming base is arguably this title’s greatest strength. Ninjas have since times immemorial been revered for their sneaky ways and have been featured in many a videogame by virtue of this. As a ninja, you have a wide variety of skills and weapons at your disposal that will help you take on each new level.
As a platformer, WTB hits all the right notes with fast, responsive action as you run, jump, scale walls, avoid traps, pitfalls and enemies. This title gives you options aplenty when it comes to getting through the levels and if you like getting creative, you should find the gameplay rewarding.
From the iconic ninja sword and shurikens to myriad bombs, traps and other tools of the ninja trade, there is a lot of variety in terms of strategy as you take on each new level. This is possibly one of the most interesting elements of the gameplay, allowing you to experiment with different styles of play.
In between levels, you are able to return to the village so you can spend your money and craft items. I found this downtime between levels useful, giving me time to strategize and build up my arsenal but I can imagine that some players may prefer to simply jump back into the action. You can do just that, if you prefer, by selecting “continue” at the score tally screen.
Once you reach the score tally screen that I just mentioned, you will receive bonuses for completing challenges, kills and speed. Be careful, though – you can easily lose out on any bonus points by retrying or being spotted. Being seen by enemies carries a heavy penalty, so it’s in your best interest to embrace your inner ninja and try be as stealthy as possible.
RPG elements such as crafting and skill trees may be hit or miss. Fortunately, if crafting isn’t your vibe the system is relatively simple. Alternatively, you can simply collect items scattered around levels or by killing enemies.
In terms of level design, the stages are randomly generated which keeps things interesting. Starting out, they are straightforward but as you progress they become more complex and challenging. Some levels even have a Metroidvania-esque feel to them with their breadth and verticality.
The RNG can work for or against you. You might find yourself spawning in view of an enemy, or if you’re lucky near a conveniently located chest filled with loot. If it’s the former, and you are given the challenge not to be spotted, it will be impossible to achieve.
The difficulty curve is noticeable. This isn’t to say that the game is particularly forgiving from the start, it wastes no time in showing you that you have to be quick on your feet lest you fall into a hidden spiked pit. You will find yourself steadily facing deadlier traps and enemies as you progress, so while you might blast through the first few levels you may find yourself losing the bulk of your health bar in seconds at later stages.
This steady increase in difficulty may also serve to encourage players to lean more towards stealthier tactics. Creative players might find ways to use the environment against tougher enemies by luring them into traps and pitfalls, which is particularly ninjalike if I do say so myself.
On the subject of crafting, at time of writing some of the menus are buggy when buying items or storing them, so managing your inventory isn’t all that easy. This should be patched in due course, and was only a minor annoyance in that I couldn’t hoard items like I usually would.
Overall, the gameplay elements add up to provide you, the player, with a rich and unique experience that you won’t find anywhere else.
Bosses And Beyond
You can make or break a game with boss fights; Dark Souls is an enduring example of this. I am pleased to report that Within The Blade has some good boss fights of it’s own – each of them felt unique and challenging in their own way. Most importantly, they were fun. This isn’t to say that they aren’t challenging!
After crossing swords with each new boss, new areas and enemies await. Some might challenge you to free some prisoners or find a particular item, keeping things fresh and mixing them up as you go along. I appreciate it when a game endeavors to shake things up from time to time while keeping its core intact.
Graphics and Audio – Gratuitous Goodness
Pixel art has had something of a renaissance over the past several years. We have seen many a beautiful creation using the medium, which has become an art form unto it’s own. Within The Blade may not stand out from the pack but is overall a well-presented title with a lot of great visuals and smooth animation.
The well executed animation works hand-in-hand with the responsive and satisfying gameplay to give the player a great experience. Speaking of execution, there is no shortage of pixel-y gore and while there is plenty of it.
When it comes to sound design, the developer did not skimp at all – I found the sound effects delightful in particular. The sound of Hideaki’s sword cutting through the air (and enemies) and his kiais don’t sound cheesy like you might think. The backdrop of rock-guitar laced themes is pleasant to listen to.
Within The Blade was reviewed on Nintendo Switch with a key provided by PR Hound.