Open Emotion Studios make some of the most ambitious games on Sony's PlayStation Minis service. The ambition stems from the team's outstanding art-direction. Like the Irish outfit's previous release, Mad Blocker Alpha: Revenge Of Fluzzies, Ninjamurai is a familiar gameplay concept refreshed by soft, hand-painted visuals and similarly impressive animation. There's a bleak, miserable tone to Open Emotion's titles that's quickly becoming the studio's gimmick. On a platform dominated by chirpy sprites and colourful backgrounds, Open Emotion's content sticks out in a good way.
There's one moment in Ninjamurai where you're being chased by a grotesque, gargoyle-like beast. Its eyes are crimson red, its face twisted into a bitter snarl. The fiend's body is blurred by long swirls of paint, as though to indicate the creature's speed. You have one objective: run. It's as close as a PlayStation Mini can get to a set-piece; there are no big budget explosions and no crumbling architecture, but the encounter is challenging and breathless as you desperately scramble from left-to-right, frantically searching for the solace of the "Mission Complete" screen.
Ninjamurai is part platformer, part Shinobi, part Sonic the Hedgehog. Open Emotion clearly grew up with a Mega Drive controller in-hand. The studio's previous title Mad Blocker Alpha was a Columns-esque puzzle affair, but Ninjamurai is mostly Shinobi with a touch of Sonic. Playing as a mysterious scarfed figure armed with a samurai sword, you'll spend much of your time with Ninjamurai double-jumping through sprawling, non-linear structures.
Ninjamurai's hook is its speed. This isn't the kind of platformer where you stop waiting for floating blocks to align, in Ninjamurai you run. You run as fast as you can, because the game design encourages that. Long, 45-degree slides break up the platform-hopping and wall-jumping, encouraging you to dash from start-to-finish with trance-like precision. The game can be brutal, but restarts are prompt enough to encourage that grudging "one more go" factor. Ninjamurai is the kind of game you'll curse at excessively as you restart over and over.
The level design is completely contrived. Structures and fittings seemingly float in mid-air, with no real context as to their purpose. Hopping through the scaffolding is fun and a genuine test of skill, but we wouldn't have minded a little more visual context. Thankfully Ninjamurai himself looks fantastic, his hand-painted character model animated impressively as he hops between ledges, his scarf flowing behind. What's great about Ninjamurai's visual style is that it has a kind of 16-bit feel to it despite the graphics being hand-painted. It's hard to put your finger on exactly what Open Emotion's done to achieve the style, but we think it comes down to the game's animation loops.
Stages are dotted with gun-wielding foes that can be taken out using Ninjamurai's samurai sword. The character can actually switch between stealth and combat stances, earning the ability to turn invisible or strike with a sequence of devastating flurries. In most cases we actively tried to avoid enemies, looking to complete the stages as quickly as possible. You actually earn an in-game achievement for completing levels without attacking any foes.
Ninjamurai's story mode adds context to the gameplay but we never found the narrative particularly compelling. The game is very much about its platforming and level design, and the story gets in the way a touch when it pops up.
Time-attack and Survival modes are included to increase the longevity, all of which are suited to the game's pick-up-and-play nucleus. Even the story levels are brilliantly digestible, lasting roughly five-or-so minutes a piece when you factor in deaths and restarts. The game's well suited to bus and train rides.
Ninjamurai's not flawless though. The game's controls can be irritatingly twitchy in places, making some of the platforming sections rage-inducing. Double-jumps and after-touch allow you to reposition yourself if you make a mistake, but simply aligning yourself on platforms can be a face-distorting test of patience. The level design is similarly awkward, opting for a non-linear approach that can be unclear and difficult to navigate. A few more visual cues could have easily lessened the ambiguity of the level design.
But irritations aside, Ninjamurai is a compelling byte-sized platformer with a glorious visual style. Open Emotion's moody aesthetic continues to impress us, so much so we'd love to see the studio make the jump to high-definition and concoct a full-blown PlayStation Network title utilising its trademark visual style. Ninjamurai can be frustrating, but there's a satisfaction to the game's fast-paced, skill-driven platform hopping that makes the game captivating once you're in the zone.