The movie Old Yeller has always spoken to me, at least on certain levels when reviewing games and other forms of media. We do our best to distance ourselves from emotional attachment or expectations of entertainment when it comes to objectively looking at certain products that have any sort of potential. Obviously, my recent review, West of Loathing, smacks of influence and predisposition to enjoy the game because I had history with the original, Kingdom of Loathing, but I could still see some of the shortcomings with the combat and universal appeal. Still, there are times when something you like, or really want to like, will suddenly turn around and bite you, leaving you scared and confused. When that happens, you must decide if you’ll let it run its course and hope for the best or take it out behind the shed and deal with it. Bearing that in mind, here’s Pixel Shinobi.
Pixel Shinobi is an ambitious little title. We haven’t had a good ninja game in quite some time, and a decent, side scrolling 2D action title is always welcome. You play the Shinobi, who receives tasks from the wise village elder to go forth and do a lot of ninja murder in order to protect the village and avenge wrongs committed against his fellow countrymen. There isn’t anything spectacular about the story setup, but there doesn’t have to be. Ninja Gaiden, one of the longest ninja game franchises, was literally “your dad was killed, make this right.” Tenchu, the definitive assassination game, boiled down to “kill these people because why not?” When you have the right vehicle to drive you, the destination is supremely unimportant.
The “pixel” in Pixel Shinobi is pretty apparent and well done at this state. Everything is done up in a style that feels right at home in modern interpretations of classic gaming, from the slightly blocky buildings in the village to the sharp edges of the bamboo trees in the forest. But this isn’t just a straight up “old school” job: Pixel Shinobi has taken care to make some great details pop within the game. The skill tree that Shinobi accesses, for example, is incredibly intricate and is kind of breathtaking when you first lay eyes on it. There’s a huge number of small items that enemies will drop throughout that all stand apart and almost show a variety of personalities from the otherwise faceless grunts that you slaughter on your path to justice. And, of course, there’s the blood.
If there’s one thing Pixel Shinobi does very well, it’s the level of violence that gets displayed and dealt throughout. Shinobi is thorough in his quests for….whatever Sensei tells him to do, and he is efficient with his blade. If you get the drop on the enemy, you slice his damn head off. Blood positively fountains when you cut into a man’s chest, and Shinobi himself will bleed heavily when he gets struck or accidentally falls into a spike trap that someone set and totally forgot about. It’s strong enough that, despite the pixel artwork, I decided to stop playing till my kids went to bed, because I do not want to deal with the questions and concerns about the amount of murder they witnessed in that short time. I need to be clear this is not a negative criticism: I LOVE how well this was done, and the fact that I felt kids shouldn’t see this proves that it struck all the right spots in my eyes. The sound effects of the blade whipping through the air and the “schluck” of burying into flesh just make it even better. There is serious craftsmanship happening with this game, and I have to give credit where credit is due.
The difficulty level of Pixel Shinobi is also surprisingly high, which caught me a bit off guard. When you look at the simplicity of the graphics and take your first few steps around, you get the impression that this might be on the easier side of things. Indeed, the first couple of bandits you encounter go down pretty easily, and you relax, thinking that you can easily brutalize your way though the game without needing to worry. But then the first hit comes, followed immediately by the second or third. The bad guys don’t play by classic goon rules, they don’t wait their turn to fight you one at a time. They all can hit you in quick succession, and you can transition from “alive” to “dead” pretty fast. Those spike pits I mentioned earlier are spread around with very little indication they’re there until you’re inside them and bleeding. There are checkpoints to resurrect from, but you continue with the health you had when you hit that checkpoint: no freebie heals because you suck at the game. Even the second mission you encounter has the very, very tricky task of “don’t get seen by the enemy.” You know what’s a lot easier in 3D than 2D? Hiding. There’s not a lot of cover and stealth on a horizontal plane, but you gotta do your best if you want that sweet, sweet experience to unlock more sick ninja moves. It’s not impossible, but it’s goddamn HARD.
With all these great and strong points, I feel bad having to drop the other shoe, but it’s important to address what made me feel betrayed by Pixel Shinobi and what ultimately leads to a less than satisfactory gaming moment. Firstly, I can’t tell if the dialogue is purposely bad or just poorly done, but the number of typos and grammatical errors are rampant throughout the exchanges between Shinobi and Sensei. I thought it was meant to capture the classic 1980s campy broken English, but it became more and more apparent that it was a huge localization problem. Ametist Studio currently offers the game in English and Russian, so perhaps English simply isn’t a primary language for them, and they need some assistance in getting better translations. But when you spell attack with one T, it becomes a pretty glaring error and can really throw you off the experience.
Secondly, the crafting system. Why does everything need to have a crafting system nowadays? I’m not saying that Pixel Shinobi does a bad job of implementing it, but it just doesn’t feel naturally a part of the story and gameplay as a whole. Shinobi is a freaking badass who uses the things he has and the dropped weapons he finds in order to become a whirlwind of brutality, why does he also need to keep his eye out for raw materials so he can hand make new stuff all the time? It feels like the developer looked at the style of game they were doing and said “Oh, right, I guess we should make players cobble their own shoes on top of everything else.” It’s probably not going to bother as many other players, but I personally despise crafting, especially in games that simply don’t need it.
Lastly, the full screen bug. For whatever reason, the second I put the game into full screen mode, it dropped to about ten frames a second or less. Pixel Shinobi became a choppy, molasses mess that I seriously couldn’t play. Yet, if I did a windowed view and did a 6X zoom to essentially fill my screen, it ran perfectly fine. This is probably an easy bug to fix, but it again reminds me of why I don’t like Early Access as a whole. You are paying a studio for a game that is guaranteed unfinished, may not ever finish and promises to have something wrong with it. According to the last update, Pixel Shinobi is in alpha 0.1.3.1. If this was a movie it wouldn’t even be a storyboard, it would just be a dude doing a script read at his kitchen table. I get being honest with players about where the game is, but it’s such a jarring thing to see and read and then think “they want me to buy this?”
Pixel Shinobi has so, so much potential, and I abhor needing to talk about a game like I talk about a student who is failing their classes. I love the controls, the bloodwork and how the game is shaping up. I’m indifferent to the crafting and recently added roguelite run, but I suppose they’re for someone. The broken English is really irksome, and the full screen bug is just a dealbreaker for me. The crazy part is I might just be the unlucky schmuck who’s rig is having these problems, because the Steam forum has no other players who have these issues. It seems Ametist Studio is a one person team, so good luck to them and their endeavors. I will gladly update my review and my score if the bug is addressed, but I did get Pixel Shinobi in its current state, and I have to review it as such. If you absolutely love brutal ninja games and want to support a project that’s just getting off the ground, by all means, Pixel Shinobi is a worthy idea. If you’re looking for a game that will take up more than three hours of your time before you’ve basically exhausted your enjoyment, or want a game that’s probably going to run well on your system, however, you’ll need to take your katana elsewhere.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary PC code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to email@example.com.
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