Indie Game Review Roundup 2021

Well, this looks like it’ll be my final article of 2021.

This year, I made a conscious decision to concentrate more on the indie game scene. Something I’m planning on doing a even more of in the future too. I mean, it’s not even 2022 yet and I already have four indie games to review. I just prefer indie games to big-budget AAA titles. I did explain why right here. The short version is that I find indie games far more interesting as the devs are willing to take chances and can show a lot of originality or breathe new life into some brilliant retro game concepts. Whereas AAA games are slowly becoming tired and nothing but sequels to franchises that continually repeat the same old gameplay and mechanics over and over.

As we reach the end of 2021, I thought I’d just take a quick look back on some of the indie games I have played and reviewed this year and offer my personal favourites. So here it is, my indie game review roundup 2021. Kicking things off with not only my favourite indie game of 2021 but my favourite game of 2021 in its entirety, indie or otherwise. Just give the titles a click for my full reviews.

UnMetal

UNMETAL MAIN

A Metal Gear parody with some of the finest and funniest writing I have ever witnessed in any game. Chock-full of game and movie references, in-jokes, fourth-wall-breaking and just outright clever storytelling. The gameplay in UnMetal was old school, 8-bit fare but with a few modern twists and features one of my all-time favourite game characters with Jesse Fox. I really was super impressed with just how well this all came together. I only put a review request in on a whim as I had nothing going on at the time and I thought the trailer looked okay, my expectations were zero. Then when I played it, I was blown away by just how ‘effing amazing UnMetal is, to the point where I ended up writing one of my longest reviews ever (one that the dev of the game called a ‘love letter’). I eventually played through the game five times and I might even sneak in another cheeky playthrough before I publish this article too. In short, UnMetal is amazing, buy it!

HyperParasite

HYPERPARASITE TITLE

Okay, so I am cheating a little bit here. Technically, I first played this game in 2020 and not 2021. However, HyperParasite was the first game I reviewed this year… so I’m counting it as a 2021 review… cos it was. A top-down, twin-stick shooter that uses a brilliant roguelite gameplay mechanic and keeps you coming back for more. Even now, over a year after first playing HyperParasite, I’m still playing it. Every now and then, I just feel like having a quick game… which usually turns into several hours. I’ve still not finished it yet either. I have got to the last area and all, but I’m working on unlocking every single character… which is tough and does take quite a while to do. Still, I do adore this game and it is a big recommendation from me. 

R-Type Final 2

R-TYPE FINAL 2 MAIN

One of the greatest ever side-scrolling shoot ’em ups was reborn this year with R-Type Final 2. I have a big passion for the R-Type games, as you will see if you read my review of this one. The game kept what made those classic shooters so damn good… and bloody difficult, whilst throwing in plenty of unlocks and surprises. Alternate paths to take that lead to branching levels. Different endings, tons of cosmetics to discover. You could even design your own level layouts and even re-title the game itself. R-Type Final 2 had a lot crammed into it and the more you found, the more you wanted to find. All while never straying too far from the awesome gameplay that made these titles so playable in the first place. Old school shoot ’em up action, given a smashing modern update.

Horizon Chase Turbo: Senna Forever

HORIZON CHASE TURBO SENNA FOREVER MAIN

As a massive Ayrton Senna fan, I knew I had to give this one a go. The base game of Horizon Chase Turbo is great. Simple 16-bit arcade racing action done very well indeed. So when the devs announced they were doing a Senna add-on, I sent off my review request ASAFP. The main part of this add-on took you through (most of) Senna’s F1 career from his first drive with the Toleman team up to his third World Champion title win. Even though I am a die hard Senna fan, I find I can be very critical of when a game uses his name as they never really do it justice. Horizon Chase Turbo: Senna Forever absolutely nailed it though. A brilliant blending of arcade racing action and respecting the greatest F1 driver of all time. 

Song Of Horror

SONG OF HORROR

I played quite a few survival horror games this year, none of them really stood out to me… except for Song of Horror. A loving throwback to similar games of the nineties. Titles like Resident Evil and Silent Hill were definite influences here, as well as the overlooked Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem. Song of Horror had a few rough edges but nothing that ruined the game. It also featured a permadeath mechanic that really made you care about the characters. And about those characters, they were all different and not just character model swaps. Each character had their own personality and even acted and reacted differently to events in the game, this made paying as the various characters really interesting. It also featured some genuinely scary themes and ideas, something severely lacking in modern horror games.  

Lake

LAKE MAIN

This really was a very interesting little title. I mean, you deliver post in a sleepy small town in 1986… that’s it really. A little rough around the edges and I did find one or two (easy to fix) issues (there have been a few updates since). But overall, I really did enjoy my time with Lake. I guess the best way to describe Lake is as an interactive soap opera. You take the main character, Meredith Weiss, through various ups and downs as you talk to and get to know the town’s residents. As you deliver the mail, you’ll also take part in side-quests that reveal more about the people you meet. As I described the game in my review, Lake is a fantastically relaxing and tranquil game, a delightful change of pace if you ever feel like just unwinding and chilling out. I still stand by that too, a great chillout game.

Deadly Days

DEADLY DAYS MAIN

This was another one of those games that I knew nothing about but was damn happy I discovered it. A top-down roguelite that played a lot like the classic Cannon Fodder. You control several survivors during a zombie apocalypse following the introduction of a new burger on the market. Deadly Days was tough, hard as nails difficulty that was quite frustrating at first. After a while, it became really damn rewarding the more you played. There’s a surprising amount of depth here once you scratch the surface and Deadly Days throws a lot of gameplay your way. Hard yes but really damn enjoyable and a game I poured plenty of hours into.

Yonder: The Cloud Catcher Chronicles

YONDER MAIN

I think I may have had my gaming snob head on when I first played this. I remember playing the opening hour or so and already forming my review in my head where I wanted to rip into it. But a couple more hours later and Yonder’s charm and personality had entrapped me. There’s no violence here of any kind, you just run around the land helping folk. It is one of those gather resources and craft items kind of things set in a wonderfully striking and beautiful world. A bit too easy and hand-holdy at times, but the game really does have a lot of charm that kept me entertained and put a smile on my face.

Chorus

CHORUS MAIN

One of the most recent games I looked at this year as it was only released at the start of December. It’s also a bit of a wildcard as it’s not quite indie but it’s not exactly AAA either. Chorus comfortably sits in that in-between area, that AA zone of a smaller game studio knocking out a pretty impressive game that feels like a big-budget release. Chorus is a really great 3D shooter with some utterly fantastic space battles and dog fights. An upgrade system, very responsive controls, stunning visuals and more. There’s a lot to do here and you do get your money’s worth. It is just let down slightly by a ham-fisted story and one that continually breaks up the top-notch gameplay way too many times. A very pleasant surprise to end the year on though.

Anna’s Quest

ANNA'S QUEST MAIN

Sometimes you just need to take your foot off the accelerator and enjoy a slow-paced adventure game. Anna’s Quest is that and so much more. Think of this as a more grown-up take on a child’s fairy tale. With wonderfully hand-drawn art that looks like something from an animated movie. A story that has a dark and twisted edge and game simple mechanics that just work. I’ve played a few adventure games this year and Anna’s Quest is far and away the best of the lot. A very endearing and utterly charming title that kept me entertained from start to end.

Speed Limit

SPEED LIMIT LOGO

This one was in and out of my list a few times, I just couldn’t decide how much liked or loathed it. After a bit more thought and another playthrough recently, I decided to keep it in. Speed Limit is an incredibly short title and you can get to the end credits in just a few minutes. However, the shortness of the game is offset by a low price point, brilliant gameplay and the fact it has had a free update and new features since I reviewed it too, a review I now think that perhaps I was a bit too harsh with originally. Speed Limit is a multi-genre game that throws five different game styles at you… at a breakneck speed too. As I said in my review, this game is a haven for speedrunners and even though that style of game really doesn’t suit me at all, I’ve still to got to admire Speed Limit for what it does and how it does it. In its purest form, this game is a fantastic example of what makes indie gaming so damn great.

Lawn Mowing Simulator

LAWN MOWER SIM TITLE

I’m going to finish this round up with the most surprising game of the year for me. I will repeat what I wrote in my review about my ulterior motives for wanting to review this. I just wanted to write a very sarcastic and snippy article about the pointlessness of these simulation games. Why do you want to drive  a train, etc when gaming offers such a wide spectrum of far more interesting vocations to partake in? I really wanted to rip into the whole simulation sub-genre and just be a complete dick about the whole thing. However, I actually fell in love with Lawn Mowing Simulator and what was going to be a bitchy review turned into one full of praise. The game is brilliant and the career mode is what really made it for me. I just loved mowing the lawns of the English countryside while building my own business.


I really have enjoyed the last twelve months of indie gaming, 2021 was a fantastic year for the smaller game developers and publishers. those titles up there are only a small snippet of some great games I have played and reviewed in 2021. I already have a few top indie games on my radar for 2022 such as…

RPGolf Legends from Articnet. A blending of classic 16-bit RPG gaming and golf, coming very soon in 2022. The first game is on Steam for an incredibly low price, so well worth checking out. I am hoping to get a review code for this one and get a review done early in the year.

Blind Fate: Edo no Yami from Troglobytes Games. The same dev team that made the awesome HyperParasite, my favourite game of 2020 (and some of 2021). A title where you play as a blind cyber-samurai… and that premise sounds pretty awesome. Just how you do depict playing a blind character in a game, a medium that is a very visual experience? I’m really interested to see how this pans out. A free to play prologue is on Steam.

Brewmaster: Beer Brewing Simulator from Auroch Digital. Start your own brewery and make loads of beer. Looks like this could be another sim game that really surprises. Plus beer and gaming is always a good mix. I do have a weakness for these business-sim games and making beer is as good a (digital) business to run as any other.  I was given a Beta code for this last month, I just never got around to playing it though.

Arcade Paradise from Nosebleed Interactive. A game I have had my eye on for many, many months now. Work in a rundown launderette and convert it into a top arcade. With over thirty playable and original arcade games too. Again, a business-sim that sounds right up my street as a gamer who grew up in the arcades of the eighties and nineties… plus, you get to clean the toilet.

Last but not least, Beyond the Long Night from Noisy Head Games. A twin-stick, roguelike title that I’ll be doing a special preview of early in the year when the game launches on Kickstarter soon. So stay tuned for more info on this one folks.

There are some cracking titles being released in the first couple of months alone and many more surprises to discover later, many of which I’m looking forward to covering in the New Year. Here’s to another top indie gaming year.

RASIE GLASS

How And Why I Became An Indie Gamer

I’ve been playing games, or video games as we used to call them… or game programs if you really want to go way, way back. Anyway, I’ve been playing games for as long as I can remember. From when we as a family had an Atari 2600 in the late seventies, right up to today with modern gaming. It was a hobby that turned into a passion that turned into a semi-career with me not only writing this blog but also gaming books. 

Over the years I have seen the best and worst of gaming. I have been right there and witnessed the evolution of gaming from those early days of Space Invaders to the likes of Red Dead Redemption II today. When I look back on just how far gaming has come over the last forty-odd years, I can’t help but be massively impressed. Single screen games turned into multi-flick-screen ones. Those gave way to full-on side and multi-scrolling games and eventually, 3D maps. Gameplay has evolved from shooting slowing descending aliens or running around mazes eating little dots to massive, gargantuan open-worlds that give us gamers huge amounts of freedom and Hollywood-like production values. In a great many ways, modern gaming has actually gotten too big.

ORIGINS MAP

I’m not a youngster anymore, I don’t have endless free time to play games like I used to. I can no longer sit in front of my TV, controller in hand, putting in fifty-plus hours into a game these days. I now have bigger and more important responsibilities that take precedence over gaming. My two kids for starters, this blog, my book writing and more. These massive games of today don’t hold my interest like they used to. As an example, as a fan of the Assassin’s Creed franchise, I bought both AC Origins and Odyssey as I got them in a great deal. I played Origins for around twenty hours or so, looked at the in-game map and realised just how big the map is and that I was not even halfway through the main story. Twenty hours and not even halfway through the game… twenty hours! 

I think it’s great if you have the time to invest in a game like that, but I don’t. These games are still getting bigger and bigger too. I didn’t even bother with AC Odyssey, even though I paid for it. As for the new game, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla… I can’t even think about it.

Just looking at the new Saints Row coming early next year. One of the first things the devs are boasting about is that the map is bigger than any of the previous SR games. Not the gameplay or storytelling, the size of the game’s map. Where does this end? Games are just getting bigger and bigger and bigger year after year. Not necessarily better, just  bigger. Why are AAA game developers so obsessed with making ‘the biggest game ever’ instead of the ‘best game ever’?

SAINTS ROW

See this, all this ‘bigger is better’ (it’s not) mentality is exactly why I have been getting more and more into indie games over the last few years. I have always loved the indie game scene, but the last few years have just proven to me that smaller, low budget games are far superior to bigger AAA titles. But before I get into modern-day indies, I need to look at just how I got into smaller games ‘back in the day’.

Truth be told, we didn’t have much choice but to play smaller games back then, all games were small relatively speaking. Being from England, I was there at the heart of the British gaming revolution of the early-mid eighties. While the infamous video game crash of 1983 was doing its thing in North America, here in the UK, we just didn’t care. We didn’t care because we already had our own gaming industry slowly bubbling away. Most of those games came from the bedroom programmers of the day. The indie devs before the term ‘indie gaming’ existed. These bedroom programmers were often one-man (or woman) teams, if one person could be considered a ‘team’ that is.

The likes of Matt Smith, Jonathan ‘Joffa’ Smith (no relation) and Jeff Minter. Real pioneers of the early UK gaming boom creating games, quite literally, alone in their bedrooms. This, this was the era of gaming where I grew up. Not the massive, worldwide gaming corporations and studios of today, but with the indie game developers of the early eighties. I have always been into indie/smaller games, they were my lifeblood as a gamer back then.

MANIC MINER

Obviously, as the industry grew, so did the teams. The bedroom programmer was a very rare breed by the time the late eighties kicked in as the gaming studio began to rise. One developer/coder became two or six or several dozen. Games got bigger, more expansive and hugely popular. To meet demands, developer teams had to grow and grow. Sega and Nintendo began to rule the roost and the modern gaming industry was born. The bedroom programmer was long dead as no one wanted smaller games, they wanted huge worlds to explore and play around in. Bigger and more open games like The Legend of Zelda paved the way for a bigger and more immersive gameplay experience. That’s not to say we Brits still couldn’t amaze, it was a couple of Brits (David Braben and Ian Bell) who created the mighty Elite and pretty much birthed the entire open-world genre.

Still, those simpler, smaller indie games were long gone as eighties ingenuity gave way to nineties excess and decadence. The simple 2D gaming eventually made way for 3D worlds. Games just kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger. Even though I very much enjoyed playing the likes of Grand Theft Auto III and so on… I still missed those early days of the bedroom programmer and smaller more creative titles. Still, those days were long gone by then and the industry was all about the ‘bigger is better’ mantra.

GTA III

It was when I got myself an Xbox 360 and Microsoft began the whole Xbox Live Arcade thing when the indie game began to rise once more. Okay yes, XBLA launched before the 360 on the original Xbox, but it was the service’s relaunch on the 360 when it really took off big time. Before the 360 days, XBLA was really a service where gamers could play old arcade games. On the 360 though, Microsoft began to push for smaller/indie developers to make games for the service. It was the summer of 2008 when XBLA Summer of Arcade launched and a little platform game called Braid caught my eye. Just watching the trailer for Braid, I was taken back to those early days of the bedroom programmer.

It was such a massive change from the endless open-world games that were everywhere back then. Braid was small, simple but very unique too. On the surface, it was a simple puzzle-platformer but it threw in time manipulation and gameplay mechanics that nobody else was doing at the time. While the big studios were trying to one-up each other, trying to make ‘bigger’ games with even bigger teams, here was a small team (one man actually) making a highly original game that harked back to the good old days of gaming. I bought Braid, played it, loved it and I was suddenly into indie gaming once more, just like back in the early eighties. 

It was buying and playing Braid, thanks to Microsoft’s XBLA service, that really got me back into smaller games once more. I still enjoyed the bigger AAA games sure. But every now and then, I would dip into XBLA and download a cheeky little game. My game’s library began to fill up with smaller/indie games. ‘Splosion Man, Shadow Complex, Limbo, Trials HD, Fez and more. Smaller games with some very interesting and unique gameplay features began to take over my gaming. My love for Indie gaming was reborn. Microsoft discontinued their XBLA service, but the indie game scene had already exploded by then and instead of having indie games be in their own, separate service, they just became games.

FEZ

If you look at my reviews from this year, pretty much all of them have been indie games… I think all of them have, in fact. I do get AAA titles up for review now and then, but more often than not, I’m just not interested in them. I really don’t think I could ever review the latest Call of Duty title or the next GTA (not that there will ever be one) because they are all too ‘samey’ now. Yet, with indie games, you often find something rather unique about them, even if they are using some old school gameplay, they give it a new twist. The likes of the absolutely awesome HyperParasite (my favourite game of 2020 buy it!) is a very simple top-down, twin-stick shooter. At first, it all looks very ‘meh’, but it is the use of the brilliant rogue-lite gameplay mechanic that comes from 1980’s Rogue that really makes the game pop and stand out. 

HYPERPARASITE

I’m currently reviewing an indie game called Lake (coming soon) where you deliver post… and that’s about it. It’s devilishly simple and very twee… but it also feels very different and refreshing compared to other big AAA games on the market right now. I firmly believe that indie gaming is the future of gaming. Indie games have the freedom to push new and exciting ideas, they don’t have the pressure of publishers forcing ideas onto the developers. Indie games can be far more creative than the next Assassin’s Creed will ever be.

It is almost as if there is a big video gaming reset on the horizon, a video game crash on 1983 part II if you will. The ever-increasing cost of AAA games can not be sustained in the industry without pushing that cost onto the consumer. When a game is costing over $200 million to make and increasing… how much further can developers go, how much would you be willing to pay for a game that’s nothing more than a slight update from the previous title?

The big-name studios are becoming stagnant and oversaturating the market with the same old content over and over. Never really improving the game itself outside of the visuals, never experimenting with new and exciting gameplay features because they can’t risk messing it up when the budget is so high. So we get ‘safe’ games with the same old mechanics and gameplay. The bubble has to burst sometime, just as it did back in 1983. But the indie game scene is where the fresh and unique ideas are coming from.

Indie games are cheaper to make and cheaper to buy in comparison to AAA titles. Yes, there is an awful lot of crap out there in terms of indie games… but let’s not be coy here… there’s an awful lot of crap AAA titles too. Indie games can be played through in a few hours and be massively entertaining (some even offer months of inventive gameplay), instead of boring the player with fifty+ hour campaigns and endless grinding. You can buy and play several good quality indie games for the price of one AAA title these days. Even more so, indie devs are FAR more grateful for your support over AAA studios that only care about money.

Let me put it this way, I’d rather spend £10-£20 on a 7 hour indie game that I’ve really enjoyed, than £60 on a AAA game that bored me long before I saw the end credits. 

INDIE GAMES

Indie games are a serious business right now and for me, a far superior alternative to the bigger AAA games released today. I’ll continue to champion the indie game scene and review indie games on my blog because they actually deserve the support and give me so much entertainment. Keep them indie games coming guys and gals, cos I’m lapping them up.

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.

15-07-2021_14-45-54-znufshfv

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.