Ninja Exorcist

A game by Nebula Game Studios for Xbox 360, originally released in 2012.
Ninja Exorcist: Episode 1 is a stealth action game with RPG elements starring a ninja named Daigo who must uncover his forgotten past and kill a load of bad guys and monsters while doing it. The game offers a number of interesting design concepts, but struggles a bit in seeing them executed to support the greater ninja experience.

Our ninja hero begins his quest with a sword and a number of combo attacks that are initiated by tapping the ATTACK button. Combos can extend to a maximum of 4 hits, but the player is free to interrupt them at any time. In addition to straightforward attacks, the player may also press diagonally up or down to execute high and low attacks and string them together into combos as well. The player is able to mix high, medium, and low attacks in any combination he wishes and use them in the air as well. The ninja can also knock enemies backward with his attacks, sending them into other enemies or tumbling off of ledges where they will resume fighting on a lower platform, or die painfully in a bed of spikes.

A secondary attack comes in the form of shuriken which may be tossed at enemies from a distance and manually aimed 360 degrees. Later, the player will discover flaming arrows, which operate similarly, but deal more damage. Both projectile types are available as pickups in finite quantities, and you are limited in the number you can carry. The player may switch between projectile types using the D-PAD. Additional slots are available for projectiles that will presumably become available once Ninja Exorcist: Episode 2 is released.

On the defensive side of things, the ninja cannot block, but he can dash. By pressing the LEFT TRIGGER, the ninja will dash horizontally to the left or right. But more than just dashing, the ninja disappears and reappears, allowing him do dash through enemies or projectiles, but not through solid objects. This move can also be performed in the air for an air dash, or while ducking for a knee slide.

The ninja is able to execute a 1.5x variable height jump, as well as wall grab, wall slide, and wall jump. It is possible to jump up a vertical surface, but this is slow and cumbersome work. You jump very far away from walls before returning, and a vertical climb requires multiple maximum-height jumps. However, there are certainly situations where using this technique can get you out of a tough situation (like climbing back up from a spike pit), and it can assist you with environmental navigation. It is functionally similar to the wall climb in the original Ninja Gaiden, which allowed quick jumps and successive wall grabs to move upward. However, in this case, the ninja is forced along his jump trajectory for quite some time before being allowed to initiate a midair direction change, thus making the execution of the move more clumsy and further from the overall ninja design.

The ninja can grab onto thin platforms and shimmy along the bottom, pull himself up, or drop down through them. He can also grab solid ledge corners and pull himself up, but since the ledges and walls are given a ¾ view, it can sometimes be difficult to tell the precise point at which you will grab a ledge versus clinging to the wall, making navigation somewhat more difficult, and requiring the aforementioned vertical wall climb to recover.

There is a stealth element as well, although its usefulness may not be readily apparent to the player at the outset. By ducking and walking, the ninja is in sneak mode and can creep up behind enemies and execute an instant stealth kill. However, there are some design decisions that run counter to the player’s intuition, which may make it difficult to successfully perform this maneuver. First off, enemy line-of-sight is hidden from the player at the start of the game (it becomes available as an option later), so there is no simple way for the player to know whether or not an enemy can see him. Making noise or running when an enemy’s back is turned will still cause him to go on the alert. Secondly, it’s possible to be spotted by an enemy who is offscreen, and projectile-throwing enemies can attack you from offscreen as well. By running away to avoid these attacks, you may find yourself alerting other nearby enemies and being attacked by multiple foes simultaneously, even multiple offscreen projectile attacks.

One of the more interesting qualities of Ninja Exorcist is that the environments are geared toward exploration and there is an RPG-style upgrade system. At the outset, the player is ushered along an enemy corridor, but before long, he is presented with multiple paths through the levels and a number of doorways that lead off into the unknown. Many doorways lead to challenge-style areas that lock the player in an area and task him with defeating all of the enemies to earn a reward. Most often these rewards come in the form of shuriken or arrows, but sometimes you will encounter a permanent health upgrade. Permanent health upgrades are tucked away in a number of rooms throughout the game as a reward for players who thoroughly explore the world. Additional swords may be found by exploring the world as well, which you can equip to increase the amount of damage your attacks do, your critical hit percent, speed, and the strength with which you knock back enemies.

In general, there is one main path forward, although you may be sidetracked by challenge rooms or find a door that leads back to a previously-explored area. What’s more interesting is that enemy deaths are persistent throughout the game, and there is no respawning. On one hand, this helps to balance the RPG side of things by keeping the player from grinding his way into all of the game’s available upgrades, but it’s also interesting that you can kill an enemy in the very first area and no enemies will replace him for the duration of the game. This also makes exploration a bit easier since you can work on taking down enemies before actively exploring the area, and you are free to backtrack without penalty, including returning to statues that allow you to save your progress and restore you to full health in the process.

Each time the player levels up (the pause menu shows the required experience for the next level), he is given one point to spend in the upgrade menu. In this menu, there are 3 branches, each focusing on a different type of gameplay, and choices along each branch must be purchased in order. The first branch is called skill, and is dedicated to combat tactics. Upgrading along this path will give the player more combat moves and will even activate a heavy attack button on the controller to deal more damage with slower attacks, which can be worked into combos at will. The second branch is dedicated to stealth and provides moves for disabling opponents and doing things like pulling enemies down through thin platforms and stealth killing them. The last category, called special, is a miscellany of options including some new attack and movement abilities, such as the ability to grab enemies with your grappling hook. There are 5 upgrade slots in the skill and stealth categories and 4 in the special category. Making purchases along one category allows you to tailor your ninja toward a specific skillset, although you are free to mix and match these abilities to meet your needs.

The grappling hook becomes available about a third of the way into the game. You are able to aim your grappling hook 360 degrees and launch it at will. If you connect with something you can hang from, you may then reel yourself in and out, manually swing yourself to the left and right, jump away, or disengage the grapple. By allowing complete freedom in your grappling direction, the game offers a great deal of precision, but sacrifices speed by making it more difficult to initiate a series of successive jumps. Most games with grappling hooks force you to zip to a specific point, like Mark of the Ninja, but those that allow for successive swinging also limit the directional controls in order to maximize speed. Both Bionic Commando and Ninja Five-O restrict grappling to 45 degree increments and offer a default 45 degree upward angle when moving to the left or right. Precision aiming is useful while standing on the ground, but executing a precisely-aimed and timed grapple in midair is considerably more difficult, especially when required in rapid succession. In addition, given the size of the environments, missing a grapple point will often send you off the bottom of the screen and into the unknown. While enemies do appear on your minimap, spikes do not, so it’s quite possible to miss a required grab and find yourself instantly killed.

The most common foes you face are ninjas, some of which attack with swords and others with projectiles. When alerted, they will yell one of a small number of very loud exclamations, which you will hear with great frequency if your playstyle does not tend toward stealth. If multiple enemies spot you, they will all yell, sometimes yelling the same line simultaneously or yelling over each other. You also have to contend with some airborne enemies in the form of floating red demons and skeleton birds, each of which have dash attacks that can put them in your face rather quickly, requiring you to stay quick with your own dash move and preparedness to unleash some midair buttwhooppery.

There are also 2 boss encounters, but it is the same boss creature in each instance. The boss is huge and slow, but its attacks have great reach, which means you’ll need to wear him down with projectile attacks and/or make heavy use of your dash maneuver to get out of his reach, using hit and run tactics to wear down his life bar.

Presentation-wise, the game features detailed hand-painted backgrounds, interesting set pieces, and illustrated characters, although the levels themselves were built using a limited tile set with noticeably visible seams in some areas, and character animations are a bit stilted. Despite the RPG-leaning format, the narrative does little to immerse the player in the overall experience, as it lacks structure and presents the occasional spelling error. We also experienced a couple of game crash bugs that unexpectedly booted us back to the Xbox 360 dashboard, so an extra pass of coding polish may be in order as well.

Ninja Exorcist was developed by Nebula Game Studios, and this is the studio’s first commercial release. The studio is headed up by creative director Joel Cappelletto who handles game design, level design, art direction, and sound direction. Ahmeet Sharma is the technical director and composer, with additional compositions provided by Syntonic Sound. The studio’s art and animation team does in-house work and offers contract work to other studios.