Within the Blade Review

For aficionados of 16-bit ninjas, Within the Blade may look a little familiar. That’s because the title was originally a steam early access title called Pixel Shinobi: Nine demons of Mamoru, released in 2017. Now with a name change, it has arrived on Xbox.

The game is set in 1560 in Japan during a civil war. A powerful Daimyo/lord seeks the magic of demons to take full control of the country. Enter the main character, a young ninja living in a peaceful village, who takes to the trees to fight the group behind it called ‘Steel Claw’.

The game is a 2D side scrolling game at its heart. Each level is procedurally generated and everything from enemy placement to loot drops are random. Stealth plays a key component with the player being incentivised to complete levels without being spotted or take damage.

The player is given a clutter of weapons – swords, bombs, throwing stars/knives – and gear. There is also a light RPG system that allows the player to customise their playthrough by focusing on traversal skills, fighting styles (unarmed, sword, or a sickle and ball combination called a Kusarigama) or more traditional hit point and elemental resistance boosts. Finally, there is a crafting system that allows the player to build weapons and items to help them.

The game starts out in a forest setting, with a series of levels that are quite linear. Soon, it shifts to a castle environment that plays more like Metroid with a multi-storey building that has keys required to unlock areas to meet objectives. The game does a good job of slowly introducing new enemies that require new tactics and, changes up the levels accordingly.

When the game is flowing it reminds me of a low-res Mark of the Ninja or Dishonored, with the stealth being strongly encouraged but if things don’t work it is possible to recover and/or resort to open violence. I found myself picking through several levels slowly, using traps and assassination kills to remove enemies, while others I used my air dash and grappling hook to blitz across the roof tops and circumvent elaborate traps. The game, mechanically, does not punish the player for these approaches.

There are some fantastic bosses to play against too, many of which don’t lock the player into fighting just one way. There is a standout fight against a Ronin that plays out like an extended samurai duel, and I would happily play a standalone version of just this fight.

However, this release has a lot of issues that heavily impact the overall experience.

First is the translation into English. I giggled when the game spelled ‘seize’ as ‘ceise’ in the opening intro. The problem comes when the tutorial text is misleading to the point where I thought the controls were broken. The dash is explained as needing a double tap left or right, the actual controls are LB and RB (this is hopefully going to be addressed in a patch around launch – ed).

Second is the way that Within the Blade sends mixed messages about what it actually wants the player to do and negatively reinforces these factors. The results screen rewards XP/gold for quickly finishing a level, not being caught, not taking damage, and not dying. Where it conflicts is that being spotted or taking damage will actually cause the player to receive values in the negative. This means that a person that plays through the game quickly will potentially be penalised. Likewise, a player that chooses to fight is not going to make as much money even playing perfectly. I would have less of a problem with this if the levels were rigid and it made it possible to learn them, but the game is irregular, and it means that a level cannot be memorised without retrying over and over on the same run. It is still possible to finish the game, but it doesn’t feel rewarding when the results screen comes up and punishes for not doing it the way the developers envisioned.

This leads into the third problem, the melee combat (that has a large part of the skill tree dedicated to it) never feels quite as responsive as it needs to be. Assassinations are effective but this is not the case with combat. It is too easy to whiff a combo as the point of contact seems to be a pixel or two in front of the ninja and hits don’t register if the enemy occupies the same space as them. Something that is frequently the case due to the way the AI responds to a threat. This issue is compounded if the thumbstick is used as it feels too loose in a number of the commands. The D-pad does improve things, but I never shook off the nagging perception that too many deaths were the game’s fault and not mine.

Some of these things can be solved, the latter points are design choices.

With these drawbacks Within the Blade stands as a game I liked, instead of a game I adored. The twists and turns of the levels and enemies can be fantastic, but other times it is just deeply frustrating.

Conclusion

Within the Blade is a great proposition as a budget title. Tons of levels, and good variety throughout leads to a large amount of replayability. Some design decisions and nasty bugs mean that it is a close shave away from ‘excellent’, and instead just ‘good’.

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This game was tested and reviewed on Xbox. All of the opinions and insights here are subject to that version. Game provided by publisher.
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Good
  • Has a broad set of tools to approach any situation
  • The procedurally generated levels mean reasons to return
  • Being a Ninja rules
Bad
  • Combat is frustrating
  • The game punishes the player for not using stealth
  • The English language translation needs work
6.8
Okay
Gameplay - 7
Graphics - 7
Audio - 5
Longevity - 8
Written by
AJ Small is a games industry veteran, starting in QA back in 2004. He currently walks the earth in search of the tastiest/seediest drinking holes as part of his attempt to tell every single person on the planet that Speedball 2 and The Chaos Engine are the greatest games ever made. He can be found on twitter (@badgercommander), where he welcomes screenshots of Dreamcast games and talk about Mindjack, just don’t mention that one time he was in Canada.

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