No matter what, you’ve got to respect indie games. The developers do what they want, when they want, fronting their own cash and time to see a vision through. It’s an awesome feat of passion, and to that I say hat’s off. But then there’s the other side of the coin, the part where the game gets released to the fans and the verdict hits. This time the gauntlet falls to Ninja Exorcist: Episode One, the newest side-scroller action game from Nebula Game Studios available on the Xbox 360 Arcade for 80 Microsoft points.
After reading an extremely long, written intro the story unfolds as follows: you were once an Asura, basically a really cool bro with ultimate fighting skills. You also had the most beautiful wife in the world, so gorgeous even the gods wanted her. There’s one deity in particular who just won’t get it, a dragon who devises an elaborate plot that unfortunately ends with your death. He steals your wife, and afraid you might rise from the grave seeking revenge, he damns your soul to be crushed under six spiritual states, starting with the human. Cue the game.
You are reborn as Daigo, a ninja with puzzling dreams about a woman you feel you know being whisked away to some uncharted land. While navigating this nightmarish windfall of emotions, you must also escape your temple which has been randomly taken over by demons. Needless to say, you’re not having a really good week.
Think Castelvania only with ninjas. That’s the best way to describe the format. For what it is, the game’s visuals are superb. According to Nebula’s website, the background scenes were all hand-painted, and though there isn’t a huge variety, they’re awesome to look at it. The score is also elegant, and these two things coupled together make playing the game a little easier; they take the edge off the repetitiveness.
What began as extremely fun (harkening back to graphics and games gone by) slowly turned into tedium. Each level of Ninja Exorcist comes with the same enemies and the same objectives: get to the door and get to your friend Masa. Each progression only added more layers of platforms and the need to integrate the grappling hook feature (which I’ll get to in a minute.) This isn’t a bad thing per se, and for 80 Microsoft points, one can’t be too picky, but I did find myself starting to lose interest halfway through.
God help me, if you can figure out how to grapple and swing without falling to your death or somehow understand how to let go of a ledge, or even jump, you are a god amongst men. At first, I thought it was me. I’m a bad player. I just can’t do combination moves. Is that even the right trigger I’m pressing? But after dying so often that the death music became the official soundtrack, I asked my Tomb Raider aficionado brother to take a stab at it. If he can’t scale a wall, no one can. The last thing he said to me before he threw the controller down was, Either I’m an idiot or this is impossible. Long story short: the controls are heinous. Too many buttons are asked to do too much work, and things often go awry in a bad way. The stealth feature only works half of the time, and it felt like enemies could fire arrows like Gatling guns as you struggled to even line up one. The set-up was a serious let down.
The music was surprisingly lovely—lonely violins, sweeping crescendos during fights scenes—however, the voice overs were surprisingly bare. As mentioned, the intro to the game is long. We’re talking four-plus-panels-of-full-text long, and when you meet your buddy Masa, your conversation, too, is all text-based. I just assumed the game would be silent, but as I got further along in the level, the enemies talked. Granted, they are little catch phrases, but it’s voiced and was oddly disconcerting. So much attention to detail was given to other auditory aspects, I’m not sure why Masa or Daigo were not voiced as well, or in turn, why the enemies were.
My only real qualm, albeit a huge one, was the control issues. Jumping up to grab a ledge would have Daigo doing backwards somersaults into spike pits, and go ahead and forget about stealth mode, which seemed to be important. The story was solid enough; the hand-painted visuals and side-scroller layout gave the game a nice touch of nostalgia that was fun for awhile. The repetitive objectives and actions would have me putting the controller down though and walking away for a long while before coming back. The game costs 80 Microsoft points and for that price the attention to detail and artwork is unbelievably impressive, as is the level of effort put into the game. I just wish they would have made the controls more user friendly and given the story aspects and execution a little spit shine.