Is there any game mechanic more universally loathed than the quick-time event (QTE)? One moment you’re enjoying a break from the gameplay, leisurely watching the story unfold without your intervention, when suddenly you’re face first in a pit of spikes because you didn’t hit the A button fast enough. It’s the perfect solution to a problem that shouldn’t exist in the first place – namely, how to prevent players from losing interest during a long cut scene. (The better answer? Shorten the cut scene or ditch it altogether.)
The drawbacks to QTEs are common knowledge at this point. Which is why, against my better judgment, Ninja Blade has earned my grudging respect, if not my $60. In a field where most game developers have either lost their enthusiasm for QTEs or given up on the concept entirely, From Software has doubled down on the doomed mechanic. In fact, they’ve built an entire game around it.
Ninja Blade is the rare game where the actual gameplay feels like filler. The real highlight is the cut scenes, but you can’t simply sit back and watch them. Instead, you have to prove your worthiness by executing a series of button press at the right moments. There’s actually a primitive rhythm game built into these sequences – the game grades you based on how close your button press was to the “ideal” button press, which isn’t always immediately after the prompt appears. Line it up at the exact moment, and “Perfect!” lights up the screen; wait a half second too long and you’re merely “Good.” After each mission, you receive a grade based on your overall QTE performance with the option to upload it to an online leaderboard. That’s right, QTE fans: You can finally compete with literally dozens of your peers from around the globe for the title of Best (But Not Necessarily Fastest) Button Presser in the World.
If you’re less skilled at the art of button pressing, no need to worry: There’s no such thing as failure in Ninja Blade‘s QTEs, just another opportunity to succeed. Instead of showing the grisly consequences of your error, the game rewinds the cut scene to a few seconds earlier and prompts you to try again. While it’s not as infuriating as having to wade through a “Game Over” screen after each botched attempt, it stretches the limits of what could rightly be called gameplay – and not in a good way. Imagine watching a DVD where you have to press a different button ever 15 seconds to continue playback, and you have a decent approximation of Ninja Blade‘s modus operandi.
What’s remarkable is that these barely interactive cut scenes are actually tolerable and occasionally even downright fun. That’s partly due to the material, which ranges from surfing missiles into parasitic helicopters to riding motorcycles across an impromptu bridge of airborne busses. Each boss also has a unique “Todomé” finisher that you can only perform after you’ve weakened it. Fail to reach your dazed opponent in time and it regenerates enough health to stay in the fight. Succeed, and you’re treated to what are among the game’s most absurdly elaborate cinematics.
But while the cut scenes demonstrate an over-the-top sense of humor, the rest of Ninja Blade suffers from a serious lack of creativity. At times, it reads like a list of standard Japanese game development tropes. Angsty protagonist? Check. Obsession over infectious diseases? Check. Copious tentacles? Check and check. At times I found myself wondering if Ninja Blade was aiming for a level of parody that simply didn’t translate to the English localization.
The result is a game whose best elements are borrowed from other, better titles. The combat is workmanlike, but shallow compared to Ninja Gaiden. The boss battles are suitably epic in scale, but your gargantuan opponents often feel bland an generic. (It takes more than a few rows of teeth to make a slug look threatening.) And true to its Japanese heritage, Ninja Blade‘s plot is completely incomprehensible, though you’re not likely to play a game about a ninja superhero if you’re looking for a thoughtful meditation on post-humanism or urban epidemiology.
It’s easy to root against a game like Ninja Blade. At best, QTEs are the vestigial tail of game design; at worst, they’re more like a parasite from another medium, subtly suggesting that players can’t be trusted to entertain themselves. But the truth is Ninja Blade is too much of a novelty to change anyone’s minds about QTEs. As long as flow and immersion are the end goals for developers, QTEs will always be counter to good game design – but who says bad game design can’t be good for a couple hours of fun?
Bottom Line: Given its premise, the fact that Ninja Blade is merely mediocre rather than outright terrible is an astonishing achievement. Unfortunately, it’s still not worth $60.
Recommendation: Rent it. Unless you want to compete for the honor of being the world’s best QTE player, you won’t find a lot of replay value here.
Jordan Deam has hated QTEs ever since he lost a week’s allowance in less than a minute to Dragon’s Lair.