Previously available on Steam and now releasing digitally on consoles, Within the Blade is a 2D stealth/action platformer developed by Ametist Studio – fun, exciting and an incessantly bloody affair packed with cool weaponry and high-octane action. The game will appeal to fans of the original Ninja Gaiden series, released during the latter half of the eighties, which went on to popular acclaim on both 8 and 16-bit consoles.
Basically, the game’s plot is as follows. The Shogunate has lost control in feudal 16th century Japan, leading to a civil war and the rise to power of an evil warlord and his Steel Claw Samurai clan. Steel Claw has allied itself with an assortment of demonic powers in order to assume dominion over the populace. However, The Black Lotus ninja clan, in a bid to defy Steel Claw, has sent out a pixelated shinobi warrior who has been tasked with sabotaging Steel Claw in a bid to restore order to the land.
Structurally, Within the Blade is pretty traditional. The game is divided into five distinct acts, totalling twenty-five levels, which predominantly feature side-scrolling 2D action. These landscapes are littered with death dealing booby traps and uniquely calibrated enemies that require a variety of tactics and combat approaches to effectively subdue.
As you move through the levels, the resilience of the enemies you face increases, so that you have to consider how best to approach them. Is it wiser to sneak up on a Samurai before engaging in combat or avoid them entirely, due to the threat they pose?
The answer to this question is thankfully never entirely certain. The ninja you control has a variety of intuitive functions at his disposal to simplify your decision making. You can sneak attack enemies from the tall grass or the shadows, kill them from above (provided you have a sword available in your arsenal), engage in direct hand-to-hand combat if you fancy your chances and are adept with the defence mechanic, or run, jump and hide, until an enemy’s alert level reduces. There is also the option to commit seppuku if events have taken a turn for the worse and you want to bring gameplay to a close on your own terms before an enemy does so for you.
Completionists will appreciate that each level comes with its own set of challenges to accomplish for extra credit, which vary from level to level and include everything from killing all the samurai at a given stage to setting fire to a warehouse. The developer has also included RPG elements, with skills and weapon upgrades available from The Black Lotus Village between levels. Here, munitions and a variety of ninjutsu paraphernalia can be purchased and crafted, using resources and currency acquired from treasure chests and defeated enemies in-game. As you level up your ninja and start to acquire a wider ranging assortment of armaments, which include shurikens, bombs and smoke screens to assist in your endeavours, the action becomes more varied and engaging. Controlling your ninja is never frustrating and the game never feels cluttered, clunky or confusing, even as the number of enemies and obstacles in your way increases.
There are a number of environments to battle through, ranging from rescue missions set in enemy fortresses to zombified townships rife with infected peasants who spew green bile and refuse to stay dead. Each level comes with its own unique problems and threats, whether it’s having to locate a key to a locked door in a fortress to find your way to safety, or dodge spinning blades whilst effectively avoiding stronger enemies, who will harass you at every turn.
End-of-level bosses composed of demonic oddities and supernaturally augmented martial artists feature periodically, though for the most part, they serve as narrative punctuation marks to be got through prior to continuing to the next stage. The game’s boss fights are probably its least interesting feature, posing limited challenge for gamers who are used to puzzling out end of level weaknesses.
For gamers looking to slash and sprint their way through the action, easy mode allows for a reasonably rapid play through. However, even on the game’s least challenging setting such an approach will only get you so far. During earlier, less hazardous levels a gung-ho methodology will generally suffice. To progress to the later levels though – and get the most out of the games rewarding stealth functionality – it is necessary to deploy your ninja’s variable skill set and abilities. If you want to avoid the frustration of a repeated bloody death and infuriating checkpoint re-spawn, best to learn how to sneak up on enemies through the tall grass earlier rather than later, when a change of tactics will prove exasperating.
Pixel art graphics make for a cool, retro visual aesthetic that calls to mind any number of 8 and 16-bit era platformers. However, there is enough variety in the backdrops, and interactivity within the gaming environment, to mitigate user boredom. The game’s accompanying score is unremarkable, functioning as atmospheric wallpaper as you scurry about offing bad guys, dodging spinning rotor blades and somersaulting over pits laden with sharpened stakes and spears. However, the game’s sound effects effectively make up for any musical shortcomings, with squelchy death noises in particular serving as an entertaining and darkly humorous aural counterpoint to the frenetic, gory action.
Remarkably bloody for a game that relies on a limited colour palate and sound effects to enliven proceedings, Within the Blade is a well-considered and diverting single player experience that translates well to the Nintendo Switch. The visual and structural aesthetic will predominantly appeal to vintage and retro-gamers enamoured by simplistic platform hoppers and classically rendered graphics. However, by focusing on gaming mechanics and playability rather than narrative complexity, the developer has ensured that there’s plenty of fun to be had for older players of all stripes, and enough variety and in-game rewards to merit investment.
Within the Blade is available on Steam now, and releases digitally on Xbox One, Xbox Series, PS4, PS5 and Nintendo Switch on July 16.