If fiction has taught us anything, it’s that if you’re looking to win a war and take over as the grand poobah of it all, the best thing you can do is strike up a bargain with demons. Clearly, it’s one of the best ideas ever.
So, during a civil war in the Feudal Era, one warlord takes it upon himself to strike up a bargain with some shady demonic salesmen for ultimate power and control of Japan. In the vein of the best of these stories, only one man can save Japan and assassinate the warlord. And this is where the ninja, Hideaki of the Black Lotus clan, comes in. It’s your job to take the fight to the warlord and his minions to bring peace and prosperity back to Japan.
If you like your ninja games full of fast and furious stealth with a glistening barrage of visceral and violently gory combat, then developer Ametist Studios’ incredibly surprising ninja-‘em-up, Within The Blade, is definitely the vocation you should be taking up.
Within The Blade is a side-scrolling 2D pixel game, combining light RPG elements, fast-paced and gory combat, and stealth into one package.
Before you jump into the fray, it’s a good idea to run through the tutorial at the main menu to get an idea of how the game plays and the skills you’ll need to master in order to become a blistering dealer of death. Though the tutorial section will give you the run-through of the gamut of your skills, in the actual campaign you’ll have to unlock them through the skill tree. So don’t go in expecting to use dash strikes from the get-go.
Once you’ve started the game proper, there’s no hand-holding, just your ninja being handed a task and then taking the fight to a variety of locations across the game’s twenty-five levels. The game combines platforming elements, light RPG elements, and crafting into its core as well, giving you much more to play with than a simple brawler. Though make no mistake, the combat and stealth are what it’s all about, but unlike most ninja games that reward a measured, careful and slow approach to stealth, Within The Blade is about speed in all things. That doesn’t mean you can’t be stealthy, you just have to be quick about it.
If you choose to forego the stealth route, you can engage in armed or unarmed combat, though you can’t block if you choose to solely use your fists. Combat revolves around a fast flurry of strikes, whether armed or not and each enemy type has their own set of moves to adapt to. Blocking is key to success as the end of a combo can leave you open to enemy counterattacks. Actual combat, outside of the game’s challenging boss fights, should be your last resort. Swift strikes for instant kills is what you’re aiming for as, at the end of each level, you’re graded on things such as how many times you were seen, how long it took to finish the level, etc. Each level also has its own set of sub-objectives, such as five stealth skills or not being seen more than five times, which adds some replayability to the proceedings as levels grow in complexity the further in you get.
Stealth is a little more challenging to get right. You can take your time, at the expense of a good score, but ideally you’re looking to marry some patience with perfect timing to get that sweet, sweet, throat slash. Enemies have set patrol patterns, but learning to move quickly through the grass without alerting anyone takes some time to master, as does getting the kill to activate without enemies becoming aware. Within The Blade requires you to literally be on top of your enemies for the stealth kill to activate which is easier said than done.
Your journey is aided by an assortment of secondary weapons, ranging from shurikens to kunai to the ever-wonderful smoke bombs and explosive bombs. These can be picked up from chests within the levels, bought, or crafted. Speaking of the crafting, between levels you can return to your village to unlock new skills for Hideaki or to purchase weapons or their blueprints to make some of your own. Enemies have a chance of dropping the resources you need to craft. You can also choose which items to take with you into battle here.
Visually, Within The Blade is simple, yet gorgeous. The pixel art is wonderfully detailed and every kill has a visceral, weighty feel to it. Visual effects, particularly on explosions, are quite gorgeous to watch.
Controlling Hideaki can take some getting used to as the ninja moves incredibly fast and has a tendency to slide all over the place. This makes combat and precision moves, such as platforming or pixel-perfect air strikes tricky to get right. Mastering the game’s controls will take some time but are completely worth the effort. If you don’t make that attempt, you’ll find yourself sliding into a fight when all you wanted to do was crawl through the grass or nail a landing at the edge of a drop.
The game’s story may be somewhat cliché by now, but there’s enough reason to continue slaying your way to victory. Sadly the game could have done with a better translation as some of the dialogue and narrative moments are rather wonky.
One area that I did have a major issue with is the UI for when you’re purchasing items or outfitting and crafting items for Hideaki. There is no highlight around the items you’re using or looking to craft or equip yourself with and that becomes very annoying. When browsing through shops, some items will have an icon on them when highlighted, so you’ll know that you’re looking at a particular recipe, but weapons won’t so you’ll have to rely on the description to know which item you’re currently on. Equipping Hideaki is even worse as there’s no highlight on the item you’re currently on or even on the inventory boxes to know whether or not you’re adding something to inventory or storing it.
Despite these minor shortcomings, Within The Blade is an addictive, brutal, and satisfying 2D stealth and action game that deserves to be on your radar.
Visuals8/10 Very Good
- Gorgeous and visceral pixel art
- Fantastically fast combat and stealth kills
- The UI for purchasing and crafting needs some tweaks
- The translation needs more proofreading