Platform: PlayStation 4 (reviewed)
When you mash up a bullet hell game with a classic beat ‘em up, you get Modus Games’ Ninjin: Clash of Carrots for PS4. Set in an anthropomorphic feudal Japan, you play as Ninjin or Akai, a ninja rabbit and his fox companion, seeking to rescue your village’s stolen carrots from the evil Shogun Moe. This game was adorable, and I wanted to like it, but its disparate elements never come together.
In most levels, you are constantly running forward, with enemies approaching you from ahead and behind. Some enemies attempt to engage you in melee combat, while others fire projectiles at you. You can fight back with your trusty katana or shuriken. The shuriken can be thrown in any direction by flicking the right analog stick. Throwing shuriken and dashing costs stamina, which regenerates over time as long as you are only moving.
Ninjin is colorful and kid-safe. The pixel art style is cute and its jokes might seem bawdy to a third grader. Its blustering villains are straight out of early 90s Saturday morning cartoons and its enemy designs make each opponent immediately recognizable. Aesthetically, this game does a lot of things right.
You can also dash in any direction, which renders you momentarily invulnerable. This is a key part of the game due to the fact that you can’t turn around and use your normal melee attack. Like a shark, Ninjin is always moving forward. You can also use a dash attack by pressing dash, attack, and a direction on your left stick.
Attacks come in waves, and the game tracks how well you did against each wave. If you manage to hit the enemy a lot but not get hit, you are rewarded with extra life points that can help if you got hurt in previous waves. Dead enemies also release a spray of carrots, which you can collect and spend on new weapons and passive upgrades.
In later levels, completing large combos will allow you to activate your elemental stone, which will transform you into a dragon that can rush around, killing everything on screen. The game sends a whole ton of low level enemies at you when this happens, letting you defeat them en masse for large bonuses.
Ninjin is trying to be a kinetic, cartoon action game built around fast-moving, agile combat. However, it fails in two key areas: control and combat mechanics.
Ninjin’s control is a bit of a mess. NPC enemies make a point of commenting on how fast and tricky you are, but I never felt like a ninja - more like a drunk guy running around waving a tire iron. The game’s frenetic action encourages you to run around the screen, but you’re mostly just swinging wildly, hoping to hit something. You move forward faster than you move back, creating an incredibly awkward experience.
Ninjin’s combat revolves around the fact that you can’t turn around. If someone is coming up behind you, you can’t turn around and mash your attack button to kill them. You can use a backwards dash attack, but if you don’t kill the enemy chances are, you’re going to get hit. And you can’t just press your back up against the left side of the screen - enemies come from that direction, and may strike you as they enter the screen.
The game’s combat revolves around the dash ability. The first thing the game teaches you to do is dash through enemies that are coming up behind you. The dash makes you invulnerable, but when the screen is absolutely jam packed full of enemies, it doesn’t matter much; you’re getting hit as soon as you exit the dash.
These problems are exacerbated by the fact that the hit detection works as if you’re in a side scroller, not a 3D beat ‘em up. Your attacks only hit in an extremely narrow X-axis plane in front of you. If your enemy is slightly above or below your weapon animation, you’ll miss.
Rather than giving weapons some Y-axis arc, the devs compensate for this design decision by throwing enormous groups of enemies at you. In short, it’s hard to aim, so they present you with the broad side of a barn. This isn’t a satisfying solution; as soon as you start to cut down the group’s numbers, aiming gets hard again.
Making matters worse, there’s no hit stun in this game as far as I can tell. Striking your enemies does not impede their ability to hit you back. Thus, you have to walk into their melee range, hit them, and then try to dodge out again. This might be fine with one or two enemies, but you’re rarely attacked by a small group. This is a design flaw I really do not understand. Hit stun creates combos which makes crowd control doable and interesting. Game designers have known this since Final Fight. Why isn’t this mechanic here?
Ninjin is an uncomfortable compromise between the bullet hell devs and the beat ‘em up devs at Modus. Bullet hell games depend on players being fragile and agile, moving around obstacles and gunfire - think Raiden. Beat ‘em ups rely on strong, slow protagonists who can dish out and take huge amounts of punishment - think Double Dragon. Am I an unstoppable force of nature carving my way through the armies of the Shogun or am I a delicate ninja flower who must evade, evade, evade? The devs couldn’t seem to make up their minds.
This is a screenshot of a wave that made me give up this game. The enemies circle you relentlessly. The blue guys fire slower moving homing shots at you, while the red guys fire high speed straight line fireballs. No matter where you dashed, you got hit. It was very hard to take out an enemy because hitting them didn’t stun them, so they would just shoot you in the face. This fight regularly cost me at least half of my health bar, and if previous waves had damaged me already, I made it no further. I died shortly after I took this screenshot.
I did reach the boss of this level a few times, usually with about 20 or so hit points - just enough to get shot and die.
Some of these problems could’ve been mitigated with a good regeneration mechanic. But if your performance against an enemy wave is mediocre, you only regenerate a meager three hit points out of a starting pool of 100. Even excellent combos where you were totally untouched only provide 25 hit points at the end of the wave.
At the end of most levels, there’s a boss fight, and if you arrive at that boss fight with a mostly-depleted life bar, tough luck. Early levels are easy to the point of being boring, but I quit around the eighth level of the first world, unable to progress further and unwilling to replay previous levels just to grind for carrots to try out new weapons.
One of the reasons why old school hard games like Cuphead and Rogue-lites like Dead Cells work is because the control is impeccable and the game feels fair. When you die, you know it’s your fault and you know how you can improve next time. Ninjin’s loose controls undermine its aspirations of high difficulty, and remind me of the 8-bit era of games for all the wrong reasons.