Ask anyone if they want to be a ninja and most people will answer with a yes instantly, without giving it a second thought. Ninjas have become a big part of pop culture, from being presented in various movies that depict them as the ultimate badass, to memes describing their uncanny ability for stealth. Ninjas are everywhere. They’re even in our games, from when Shinobi came out to the more recent Ninja Gaidens. There’s vast potential in a ninja game, from a top-notch combat system, given their skill with different martial arts, shuriken, swords etc, to a vast focus on stealth. Ninja Exorcist Episode 1 tries to pull of these systems, but sadly fails, providing a mediocre, oftentimes boring experience.
Ninja Exorcist comes from the minds at Nebula Game Studios. It’s a side scrolling action/adventure game that starts a ninja called Daigo, who comes back from the underworld for revenge on an evil demon lord who had previously killed him to gain access to his beautiful wife. The whole story is told through static screens with blocks of scrolling text and no voice acting. The problem with this is that it doesn’t engage the player on any level, and I’d be hard pressed to find anyone who remembers anything about this story after reading said text and playing the game for 20 minutes.
This wouldn’t be such a big problem if after reading such a boring tale, you could jump into the shoes of a ninja and beat the crap out of everything with your superior skills. When it comes to this, the game is hit or miss, sadly mostly miss. Available to you are various methods of dispatching your opposition: you can take them down with your trusty sword, fire of shuriken, or sneak up behind them and take them out stealthily. The game tries to keep this formula fresh by awarding you skill points for every level up you gain, skill points which you can use to upgrade Daigo in three different skill trees, which serve to expand your abilities. Sadly, this game makes two mistakes when it comes to combat: it’s not fluid enough and if you decide to go the stealth route, you’ll most likely fail.
First, the game combines all these different combat moves and skills but fails to do so fluidly, thanks in big part to the game’s animation system. Every movement you make with your character, be it moving, killing, running, looks like it’s missing 2-3 frames of animation in between each movement. Also, the way you traverse the environment feels rather floaty, especially when trying to go up wall by climbing them or jumping over them. The character looks stiff most of the time and reacts weirdly to simple inputs such as grabbing on to the edge of a wall and climbing it. Sometimes it reacts like it’s supposed to, sometimes it doesn’t, leading to many situations when you’ll be continuously jumping like a crazy person and your character will look like he’s floating all over the stage, not reacting to your commands.
The stealth itself doesn’t work as intended either. If an enemy has his back turned to you, you’re supposed to be able to crouch, and approach him slowly, so that once you’re behind him, you can deliver a one-hit kill. The problem is that 98% of the time, no matter how perfectly you time it, enemies are alerted to your presence just as your about to deliver the blow, making stealth useless. Stealth is a big part of being a ninja, and if your game doesn’t implement such a mechanic correctly, it might just as well be any other side-scrolling brawler. I found that the only way to get the stealth kill to work was to crouch and dash towards the enemy just as he turns his back. Otherwise, if you try to sneak up to him, they tend to magically know you’re there. Also, the game continuously throws multiples enemies at you, placed at different height levels in the stages. But these guys have the vision of a hawk, seeing as they can spot you from a really long distance, even if you’re not on the same level as them.
The game world follows the classic Metroidvania style, meaning it’s almost a maze-like world, begging to be explored. You’ll usually have a clear way you need to go, although sometimes it seems to forget to give you any indication of which way is the right way, but for the most part, the path is straight. You can come back later after you’ve gained new abilities to better traverse the environment and discover health power-ups and such. The game sports a high-def hand painted look for its backgrounds and sharp sprites for the characters, which is great, if it wasn’t marred by the boring level design and the sloppy animations.
Overall Nebula Game Studios had a great idea: a side-scrolling ninja game that focuses on both combat and stealth. Sadly, the execution of these systems leave a lot to be desired. And yes, this is an XBL Indie game that’s worth just $1, but there are plenty of $1 games out there with better execution. The foundation for a great game is there, but Episode 1 of Ninja Exorcist does little with the systems at hand. We can only hope the Nebula Studios learn from their mistakes and craft a vastly superior Episode 2.