Game Review: Within The Blade

What do you get when you mix platforming, stealth and RPG elements with some hack ‘n slash action, stylised retro pixel art, topped off with plenty of blood and ninja-like violence? You get Within the Blade from developer Ametist Studio and publisher Ratalaika Games. Quick aside. This game was released on Steam in 2019 when it was called Pixel Shinobi: Nine demons of Mamoru. Now, given a title change and released on all the consoles.

“In 1560 A.D – Japan’s last Shogunate lost full control over the realm causing an eventual explosion into a massive civil war with other provinces of the once mighty empire. Anarchy reigned through the country as the different clans waged an all-out bloody war for supremacy. One clan “Steel Claw” in particular led by their Daimyo (Military Leader) Mamoru Imai, began seeking the knowledge of old forbidden practices and worshiping dark entities in order to try and place a curse upon his enemies. Mamoru was soon to be infected by the spirit of a vindictive and very malevolent Samurai warlord. Through this infection, “Steel Claw” began a campaign of total chaos and hatred spreading vile darkness through the lands, infecting other nations along with it. The demonically possessed Daimyo allies himself with nine other powerful demons and forges a massive army born from hatred and fueled by blood. No one army can withstand him. All hope is on the detachment of the shinobi clan “Black Lotus”, operations of sabotage only can weaken the power of Mamoru. The warlord must be assassinated or Japan will crumble into dust.”

Well that is the story dealt with, let’s take a look at the gameplay. You play as a ninja called Hideaki of the Black Lotus clan mentioned in the story. Starting out with some bare basic moves and skills. Run, jump, double jump, wall run and attack. The game kicks off with a bare basic tutorial with on-screen prompts to get you used to the controls. Though there is a far more in-depth and separate tutorial that is most definitely worth playing first. The opening level is always the same as you make your way to the village that houses your clan, which is also used as the main hub of the game. After that, each level (except boss battles) are randomly generated. At first, there’s not much to do around the village other than talk to your master (the place is empty with no one else around) and get to get the story going proper, as he sends you off on your first mission.

WITHIN THE BLADE VILLAGE

When you first pick up and play Within the Blade, you’ll most definitely get a very strong Ninja Gaiden NES vibe. It really is very typical side-scrolling, platform jumping, sword-swinging, ninja action. You’ll slide into the basics relatively easily and get a feel for the game within a few minutes. Everything feels very familiar and yet fresh at the same time. However, once you get a few missions completed, Within the Blade really starts to open up a lot. You return back to your village and what was once a very quiet and empty place is now full of life. People are walking around, there are various shops all selling many different wares, other ninjas of your clan are practising. The village is now alive. You still have to talk to your master for new missions, only now, he offers to train you in new skills.

This is where the rather large skill tree comes into play. See, killing enemies and completing levels earns you experience points. XP gains you levels, every time you level up, you earn a skill point you can spend on new skills. Seriously, the skill tree is pretty damn exhaustive too, with a wide selection of skills to build. The basics such as adding to your health bar are here, but you can also learn more impressive talents including your first, the assassination skill. It is unlocking this assassination skill when the game then introduces its stealth mechanic. Kill enemies without being seen and earn even more XP and we know what more XP leads to… More skills.

WITHIN THE BLOOD

As you make your way through the various missions, you’ll find chests and boxes to open. These are usually crammed with resources and ingredients because Within the Blade features a crafting system. A pretty huge one too, the game’s description boasts over two hundred recipes to craft. These recipes include basic healing items, ninja-like weapons, shuriken, throwing knives, swords, etc. Then there are numerous smoke bombs, flash grenades, mines and more. All of them have variations too, elemental effects and so on. Oh yeah, your sword can break too as it has its own durability meter with different swords having different stats. All of this crafting has to be done back at your house in the village. The vendors in the village all have wares you can purchase to help with your crafting, along with new recipes for new items to upgrade your gear.

As for the missions themselves, well they are all pretty damn great. Each mission is split into multiple areas. Each area will have its own completion requirements. Maybe you just need to kill so many enemies before reaching the end, others will have you recusing prisoners. I even had to blow up a castle using a mass storage of gunpowder. There really is a lot of variation for each area you visit, even then, there are optional sub-missions to try and complete for each and every area on each mission. Tasks such as kill every enemy, don’t get spotted, don’t lose any health, carry out so many assassinations and many, many more. Honestly, there really is a lot to keep you busy and on your toes as you make your way through the game. Even the enemies you will come across are wonderfully varied each with their own attacks that you need to adjust your tactics to defeat.

WITHIN THE POWDER KEGS

Looks-wise and Within the Blade is a fantastic looking title. I really am a sucker for some nice pixel art graphics and this game is superb in that department. Great little details as you cut your way through your foes. Blood splats up against the walls in the background. Taller grass gently moves in the breeze and can be cut, the blades then gently waft to the ground. Bamboo can be cut down. Some barriers can be destroyed and the wood breaks and splitters on the ground. Lighting effects that can give your hidden position away. This really is a wonderful looking game with some very nice little details.

Now, there are a few issues I do want to bring up. Useable items aren’t labelled and you do gain a lot as the game progresses. This is pretty annoying while on missions when you might need to use a specific item during play. You have several items to select from, which are displayed at the bottom of the screen but as nothing is labelled, so you have no idea what anything actually does. Even back at the ninja village when you go into your inventory, no labels of what anything is, and there are (as the game claims) over two hundred craftable items.

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See all of those items (and I’ve not even got a quarter of them unlocked here, note the arrows to scroll the inventory at the side of the screen). I know the top line of items are shurikens and throwing knives, but there are so many variants, I have no idea what each one does. There are seven variants of shuriken alone there… And there are more too. That little brown bag at the start of the second line, what is it and what does it do? I don’t know and I’ve played this game for thirty plus hours. I know what you are thinking, you have to highlight the item and it tells you what it is and what it does… Nope. See that pic above, the white square thing is me highlighting and nowhere does it tell you anything about the item. It does on the swords, you highlight a sword and it’ll come up will all sorts of stats, from durability, damage it can do, armour penetration and more. Look at the number of various bombs I have there too, different colours mean different elemental effects, I get that. But what about the different shapes of each of the bombs within each colour? What do they mean and do, I honestly have no idea. I’ve finished this game and I do not know what most of the items do.

There is so much detail on the various swords in the game, but absolutely nothing for any of the other items. I don’t know which of the various mines and bombs to take on each mission, because they all look alike without telling you what they are or do. How about I just play a mission, see what’s what and, quit and retry only this time, I load myself up with what I need, now knowing what the level holds? Nope can’t do that because the levels are randomly generated remember. Picking and using items to take on a mission kind of becomes a lottery. Select it, use it and see what it does, then you have to try and commit all of that info to memory for all two hundred plus craftable items because the game doesn’t tell you what each item is or does.

It’s not like there’s a lack of room for descriptions either. If it’s doable on the swords, why not the other items? Even when you are on a mission, there’s a pretty big item select at the bottom of the screen that could easily also tell you what the item actually is. Smoke bomb written above the item, there you go, it’s that easy but the game doesn’t tell you anything. I tried to use a health potion, but ended up throwing a smoke bomb.

WITHIN THE BOSS FIGHT

Sticking on the subject of useable items and weapons. Your own items can hurt you and you can’t pick them back up. If for instance, you drop a mine and the enemy doesn’t walk on it, you can’t pick it up to use again. Then you forget that you can’t pick it up, step on it and take damage… From your own thrown item. I just think it would be great if you could pick up any unused items that you have thrown. You can’t aim to throw items either, each item has its own trajectory that you can’t influence.  So that is another thing about the two hundred plus items you need to commit to memory, how they are thrown. The number of times I have tried to throw a grenade at an enemy, for it to land nowhere near where I wanted it to go. Mines can only be thrown about two inches in front of you, but grenades can be thrown several feet. It makes no sense. Some grenades will bounce off the walls, some with explode on impact… But the game doesn’t tell you that and you have to use trial and error. The throwing items would work so much better if you could hold down the use button and bring up a reticle and path/arch of the throw. As it is now, it’s a bit of a crapshoot where your thrown item will go.

To controls of the ninja feel a bit loose at first, I eventually got used to it but the wall running was still far more fiddly than it needs to be and I just never got on with it, even by the end. Stealth mechanics could do with a bit of polish as it is just way too easy to be spotted, like less than a second. It’s not made 100% clear what helps to hide you and what doesn’t. Your ninja character does get darker to indicate they are hidden, but you still can be spotted regardless of how hidden you are. Even more if you are in complete shadow, you’re not entirely hidden.

One of the missions has you infiltrating a castle at night. It’s dark and are seemingly well hidden from enemies. There are parts of the castle with lit torches on the wall that will obviously give you away. Then there are parts where there are no torches and it is literally pitch black to the point where you can’t even see where your character is at all. Now, here’s the thing, if you the player can’t see the main character… How are you supposed to play the game? A little additional here too, I was playing this mission and hid in 100% complete shadow. yet I was spotted by two enemies that were also in the shadows. So here’s a question, what’s the point in hiding in the shadows if you can still be spotted, even when you the player can’t see where you are? And how is it fair that the enemies can still see you in the shadows, but you can’t see them?

There was a similar side-scrolling, stealthy ninja game from 2012 called Mark of the Ninja (remastered and re-released a couple of years ago too) and it pretty much perfected 2D stealth gameplay. That was nine years ago and the stealth mechanics were sublime. Here, the stealth seems very rough and often hit and miss whether you will be spotted or not, it seems to be more luck-based than skill-based. There are even times when (due to the random level generation) that the game puts you in a position where you have no choice but to break your stealthy hiding spot and take on enemies one on one, to then ruin your ranking at the end of the level. It just kind of spoils the whole stealth side of it when you can’t use stealth properly by force. Crawling makes the screen scroll down so you can’t see the action on the screen and you really need to crawl to remain stealthy 90% of the time. This makes no sense as the right stick is used to look up and down anyway. And no, when crawling, you can’t use the right stick to look up. You’re just kind of stuck with this view on not being able to see higher than your own head height. See the following pic of me crawling while trying to sneak up on an enemy you can’t see because the screen auto scrolls down when you crawl.

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There’s a bonus for finishing a level without being spotted, yet I’ve never managed to do it once through the entire game. I’m pretty good at stealth games too, I love taking my time, stalking my victim before striking. Yet I just can not play any mission in Within the Blade without being spotted, I don’t think it is even possible. The assassination button, which you use a hell of a lot, is often awkward to get to when you’re in a pinch and you can’t remap buttons either. I’d rather have the buttons for assassinate and use item be switched. Trust me, you’ll know what I mean if you play this and it is a very simple fix with the option to remap buttons. Overall, the stealth system in the game just feels a bit too janky and in need of some tightening up. Even with the skill upgrade for completely silent movement, enemies can still spot me in less than a second.

There are some really, really bad translations throughout the whole game. At first, I thought maybe it was done intentionally to get that 1970s kung-fu flick, bad dubbing feel. But the more I played, the more it became apparent that it’s most definitely not done of purpose. I mean, here’s a description taken verbatim from the game for one of the skills you can learn:

“Fright a moment before the lethal blow, ninja dissolves into the smoke”

That’s one of the skills, any idea what it does or is meant to do? Cos I seriously have no idea. Oh and no, I’ve not made any typos there, that is exactly what it says in the game. I’ve played the game and still have no idea what the hell that means. The game is full of bad typos and nonsensical dialogue/descriptions.

Finally, the AI really could do with some work. Generally speaking, it is pretty decent with enemies acting and reacting if/when they see you. But they are also as thick as shit when near the various traps that the game throws at you. Seriously, I have seen enemies just continually walk into wall spikes until they die. I have seen them stand right next to fire breathing statues and be burnt to death. I’ve even seen them walk into a pit of spikes at will. In the later part of the game, there are literal pools of fire and I have seen enemies just walk right into them and die. The AI really is questionable.

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Yup, this game definitely has lots of issues, ones that can be fixed fairly easily too. If the devs could update this and refine some of those problems, this really could be an amazing title. Looking at the Steam reviews, and Within the Blade gets some very high praise with a ‘very positive’ overall score. I can see why too as when it works, the game is ‘effing amazing. The basic gameplay really is top-notch and the blending of various genres works well. But no one seems to be mentioning the issues I have brought up here. Has the PC version had several patches to make it play better? I don’t know, I just know that this console version needs to be given a bit more attention.

Despite the many problems, I really had a lot of fun here and I’m even tempted to call this one of my favourite games of 2021, certainly my favourite indie game of the year so far. Which actually makes this a really frustrating and difficult review to do. Seriously, this review was written and good to go three days ago, but I wasn’t 100% happy with it as it came across as too negative when I really didn’t want it to. I have had to come back and edit this thing multiple times over the last three days… And I’m still not sure I’m truly happy with how this review has tuned out, to be honest.

The core game is great, really great. But the issues listed above really do let it down more than they should. I hope the devs get to read this as I’d like them to just do a bit more tinkering and tightening up. This could be a truly amazing game as what I love about it, I really do love immensely. But the issues the game has, I just can’t ignore.

WITHIN THE BLADE SCENE

Priced at £9.99, Within the Blade is well worth buying and yes, I most definitely recommend it, this really is one of the best games I have played this year. But just be warned that it is a little rough around the edges. I played it, finished it and immediately wanted to play again. There is a game+ mode, (brutally hard) challenge modes, different difficulty settings. Within the Blade really offers you a lot of game, a really bloody good game too. Add on the fact it uses randomly generated levels, which means that you can play again and again and have a different experience every time… And I will too, I’ve already started a second playthrough. I may even attempt a third try on the hardest ‘permadeath’ setting.

Honestly, Within the Blade is utterly brilliant, I adore this game. Even with its numerous issues, Within the Blade is fantastic and well worth buying. A decapitating, sneaky-killing, pixel art wonderful romp of a game, with a lot of depth and variety. Available now for all platforms and well worth the forking out the coin for it too.

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