Originally launched under the name “Pixel Shinobi: Nine Demons of Mamoru” as an early access Steam game in 2017, Ratalaika Games has ported and published “Within the Blade” for console release on July 16, 2021. Boasting epic stealth, platforming, and RPG mechanics on their launch page, Within the Blade seemed to have all the components I would love in a 2D ninja action game. This review is based on a full playthrough of the PS5 release.
The story simple: civil war has engulfed Japan, and the leader of the Steel Claw clan is using the forces of darkness to seize power across the land. As a shinobi from the village of the Black Lotus, you are part of the resistance. After clearing out a few levels of bandits, you learn of the Nine Demons that lord Mamoru of the Steel Claw has installed throughout the land to maintain power. Your mission is to kill them all.
Beginning with a brief tutorial of the basics, one of the first things I noticed was how awkward controls felt. Running or jumping at a wall and pressing “up” engages a wall run. The issue with this feature is at the top of the run, your shinobi dashes outward from the wall; often into traps, enemies, pits, or simply wasting your time. You can press “down” during a wall run to prevent this, but after a full playthrough I felt that this poorly optimized mechanic was meant as a trap for hasty players rather than good control mechanics. Building in purposeful frustration as a feature seemed like a bold move, but I kept at it.
Swordplay in Within the Blade is a mixed bag as well. Every sword swing inches you forward, and the end of a three-hit combo leaves you open for far too long. This lead to falls off of ledges in the middle of combat, and way too many counter hits from enemies while I recovered from a combo. That being said, when calculated hits worked in your favour, they have weight to them and enemies explode in a satisfying shower of blood. These frustrations did encourage stealth, which is one of the other approaches to combat.
Catching an enemy before they see you allows for a stealth kill. Keeping to the darkness or out of lines of sight allows you to instantly dispatch foes while pressing block upon contact. Surprisingly, this works on all enemies outside of bosses. Assassinating a heavily armoured unit is fun, because they can often kill you in two hits. Overcoming larger enemies is easier with ninja tools, which are the final component of combat.
From kunai to smoke bombs, there are many items to use. Land mines, healing potions… almost 200 crafting recipes are in the game. I found that levels contained enough drops to simply not use the crafting system, but I played with it enough to be dismayed. Whenever making purchases from NPCs or crafting at your workbench, the game always buys or crafts in groups of two. This prevented me from crafting a new sword at one point (because weapons have durability), as making parts of the sword ate up double the available materials at each step of the process. A bug this simple surviving so far into the game’s development was astonishingly bad. So, let’s talk about something else.
Boss fights started off really fun and engaging. There was a skeleton in a field of bones, a floating Kabuki head with ghost hands, and a spider demon lady whose abilities went buggy and invisible so she could take half your health because you couldn’t see the webs she put on the field. *sigh* Yes, even bosses are a mixed bag. It seems like in all aspects, you have to take the good with the bad in order to enjoy Within the Blade. There was a really great zombie boss that would’ve been fantastic if it wasn’t for the nearly instant deaths that the poison clouds and zombie barf could manifest. I’m not saying these fights weren’t fun, they just had issues. I could say the same about the level design.
Levels are seemingly randomly assembled out of premade sections, keeping replays fresh and mixing up gameplay. Not all of these come together to allow stealth, so it is a little frustrating that the end score of each level heavily punishes how often you were seen. Some levels have requirements to finish like rescuing captives or destroying enemy supplies; sometimes you can ignore all requirements and just run to the right: as almost all gold and experience rewards are removed by the damage taken and times seen. Around two thirds through the game, there was no incentive to do anything but rush to the end of the level, as your ability to level up skills, craft, and buy items is taken from you without warning.
Losing access to your inventory and skill tree for a large portion of the endgame was when I knew that Within the Blade had some serious design issues. Because of weapon degradation, I ran into a situation where my sword broke, and I had to do the second last boss with only my fists. Surprisingly, after a few dozen deaths I was able to kick him into submission. But, being forced into this gameplay situation was beyond strange. The skill tree itself opens basic combat functions you would expect to have at all points in the game, like attacking in mid-air or while running. There are good abilities in the skill tree as well, like resistances to poisons and special moves, but ultimately this was tacked on so they felt good about saying they had RPG mechanics.
Within the Blade was a strange experience for me. For every time the game clicked and was fun, there was an issue right around the corner that compromised that enjoyment. If this was the initial release, I would be more hopeful for future improvement and refinement. As it stands, the game’s highs and lows perfectly balance to create an astonishingly mediocre score.