Does anyone else remember when games featured basically the same kind of action for the entirety of their playtime?
I'm exaggerating slightly, but my last few reviews have all involved rapidly-switching gameplay dynamics, or minigames that kick in at the drop of a hat, and I'm a little woozy. I-Ninja is the case in point.
The title character is this round-headed little guy with a really small body who looks like one of the "Peanuts" gang grew up to become a shadow assassin, and the first thing he does is cut off his sensei's head.
Yep. Clean off. This is already getting a little weird.
Granted, it wasn't his fault. He accidentally touched one of the powerful and magical Rage Stones, which drove him into a chopinating frenzy. I-Ninja is now alone and without corporeal guidance in the battle against the mechanical Ranx ninjas, and further, swears to collect the rest of the Rage Stones to keep them out of evil hands. He is assisted in this by the glowing blue spirit of his mentor, which introduces each new mission to him and occasionally drops some really malformed wisdom in the form of misquoted folk sayings.
The story, one must admit, is not terribly important here. It's funny, yes, but not terribly important.
I-Ninja is, at least nominally, a 3D platformer with plenty of action. I-Ninja can run up and across walls, throw shuriken, snipe at distant targets with explosive darts, grind rails like Jet Set Radio Future, swing from overhead hooks with his chain, glide from great heights by whirling his sword like a helicopter, and occasionally bust out into some full-blown blast processing action using handy tracks or sloped passages. When danger rears its head, usually in the form of some biomechanical ninjas beamed in by some kind of technomagical disco ball, he can take them on with a variety of sword strikes, including one nifty overhead chop which can cut them cleanly and bloodlessly in half. When you dispatch enough enemy ninjas, your sword will get helpfully upgraded to the next level of power; likewise, you can collect medals to earn extra lives.
That only scratches the surface, though. I-Ninja takes place across sixty-four sprawling levels, which are in turn scattered across a series of central hubs. Each of those levels represents a new challenge, usually set up kind of like a minigame. They aren't all unique, and several depend upon the same central hook, but they all typically have some unique facet to them; even if you're doing the same thing, you aren't doing it in the same way.
So far, I've had to defend a lonely beach against the Karo navy using a large gun turret, culminating in a hell-for-leather shootout with a giant airship; run across an obstacle course on top of a barrel full of gunpowder, running on it like I'm log-rolling; dispatched an enemy ninja in a full-contact mid-air duel straight out of an anime cliche; rolled the detached eye of a giant robot across a series of narrow, if not actually moving, ledges, sort of like the old NES game Marble Madness; raced a lit fuse towards its explosive charge, through a level filled with enemy ninjas and obstacles; gone bowling while atop another of those eyes; and, once that giant robot has its eyes and heart back, using it in a force-feedback boxing match against an equally-equipped enemy ninja in another giant robot. I could go on, but there's no need; you may get the idea. The word "eclectic" applies.
After all of that, simply fighting off ninjas is almost a relief, because it doesn't have any built-in extra objectives. A few levels spent clinging helplessly to a wildly careening marble, or going all Tyson on an enemy mecha, makes a dose of straightforward, kill-'em-all ninja action seem like a vacation.
That's not a strike against I-Ninja, though, obviously. While the controls are a little loose, especially wall-running, it is a game of endless and copious variety. If it weren't for the central themes that surround most of the minigames, and the control scheme that most of them have in common, I-Ninja would feel less like a platformer, and more like something like WarioWare; a conglomeration of minigames put together into one package.
Not all of those minigames are created equal, naturally. For instance, the level that involves the gunpowder charge is, above all else, just really, really annoying; it starts tricky, raises the ante very quickly, and eventually starts killing you just to see you die. (It's also the only one of the "rolling" levels that, when you screw it up, starts you all the way back at the beginning of the stage. That's just dirty pool.) In the same vein, the boxing game suffers from somewhat flawed execution, where it's really just not that much fun. All you're doing is pressing buttons on command, as opposed to actually having some kind of strategy behind the attack.
Those're, happily, exceptions. For the most part, I-Ninja is a joy to play; carving up enemy ninjas is damned entertaining, and it shifts between gameplay styles more smoothly than might really be expected. You honestly never know what to expect from the game, aside from that it'll probably be weird, and it'll probably be challenging.
The graphics emphasize this weirdness, tending towards bizarre-looking machines mixed with weird-looking characters. Pair that with voice actors that were apparently chosen entirely for their ability to portray idiosyncrasy (I laugh at I-Ninja's weird lines--my favorite right now is "Stay here and try not to die again!" delivered in a perfect bratty-kid sarcastic tone--but I wonder if Argonaut is going to get attacked by ninjas in the middle of the night), and you may get the idea I'm going for here: I-Ninja looks kind of weird. But good weird.
If the game's look has any major flaws, it's that the super-deformed look of most of the ninjas does tend to obscure the finer details, and that the game's truly massive environments do occasionally backfire on the player. Really distant enemy ninjas equipped with missiles are deadly here, as the missiles themselves make almost no sound. Suddenly, something will explode, and you won't know quite why.
The advantage to playing I-Ninja, above and beyond the other platformers that're suddenly swarming the market, is its truly vast and occasionally scattershot approach. It's not easy, it's pretty funny, and you'll only rarely do the same thing twice. It's there to test a wide variety of skills, or to simply entertain those with short attention spans, and it succeeds at both. I-Ninja is by no means perfect, and there are a few action-platformers I'd recommend before I recommended it, but it's still a very solid effort.