After the success of Metal Gear Solid on the original Playstation, stealth games have become a very popular genre. Many companies have tried to emulate Konami's success, often with mixed results. On the surface, stealth games seem to be pretty simple, but it is a hard formula to pull off successfully. For every Splinter Cell, there's a Tenchu 3. Red Ninja: End of Honor falls somewhere in the middle -- it has the seeds for a solid game, but everything feels a bit unpolished and never seems to pull itself out of the realm of the average.
Penned by Japanese film director Shinsuke Sato (The Princess Blade), the plot here offers no surprises. You play Kurenai, a young woman who was taken in by a clan of ninjas after her father was slaughtered by the evil Black Lizard clan who wanted to take his plans for a super-weapon. Dispatched by her superiors to assassinate a corrupt warlord, Kurenai begins finding hints leading to the whereabouts of the leader of the Black Lizards and sets out to avenge her father's death.
So the story is nothing all that great, but I'm the type of gamer who plays for the action, not a bunch of cutscenes. In it's defense, though, the cinematic breaks in the gameplay are done well, with some solid voice acting and nice "camerawork" -- but they're nothing you're going to bother watching all the way through once, if at all.
Kurenai looks very nice with some detailed animations -- and I'm sure all of you hentai freaks out there will appreciate that you can look up her outfit depending on what she is doing. Unfortunately, she's Red Ninja's only high point graphically. The enemies come off as flat and, worse yet, there's very little variety. Besides the bosses, you'll be taking out the same two or three goons the entire game.
The background graphics are fairly bland as well -- even though there's an attempt at flair with some fire and water effects, a lot of the levels simply blend into each other because they look almost exactly the same. The graphics aren't "bad" per se, but coming off of the heels of the near photo-realistic Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory or even older entries in the genre like Manhunt, Red Ninja at times almost seems like a first-generation Xbox game by comparison.
Sonically, Red Ninja does handle itself well. The ambient sounds (crucial in a game like this) are nicely done, and the score fits the mood of the game. My only big complaint is the repitition of the in-game phrases the characters say. It's funny the first couple of times one of guards screams out "My leg!" after you hack off one of their limbs, but after the fiftieth time or so, it loses its' effect.
Red Ninja's big hook is the "tetsugen", a chained weapon that allows you to do everything from lopping off people's heads to swinging across giant chasms. It is definitely a novel concept, but the execution isn't as good as it should have been due to the sloppy control. You do have the ability to target specific parts, but the floaty control makes it tough to pull off the flashier means of dealing death. Even when you do connect with the weapon and get a kill that results in fountains in blood that are pretty cool, it tends to lose its' effect after a while. Kurenai can also do stealth kills ala Tenchu by sneaking up behind enemies, but, again, these lose interest for the player, simply because there are only about three that Kurenai can do throughout the game.
The game does give you the ability to pull off a lot of nice moves, such as wall runs and being able to seduce your enemies. However, the controls never give the player the feeling that they're fully in command of Kurenai. A lot of times, you'll just end up mashing buttons trying to make her do something after the enemies discover you. The best stealth games allow you to switch to full-on ass-whooping mode if you so desire, but Red Ninja's control scheme places you into a pigeonhole. Far too many of the enemies force you to take them out a certain way. In this day and age of open-ended gameplay, making players use a trial-and-error method to get through a level is simply not acceptable.
Even if the control of Kurenai was handled better, the in-game camera nearly de-rails the entire experience. If you play Red Ninja, get used to hitting the left trigger (which displays a first-person view), because oftentimes the game will force you to view the action from angles that simply make it unplayable. Due to their style which requires precise timing, the camera in stealth games is vitally important; unfortunately Red Ninja's often hinders the player instead of helping them line up their next kill.
The Bottom Line
Despite its' problems, I had a fairly fun time going through Red Ninja. It does take some patience, but once you get the hang of the controls and learn how to manage the camera, the game does offer some fairly exciting stealth maneuvers along with some ultra-bloody action. However, there's very little in the way of replay value. Even with the tetsugen, Red Ninja does kind of have a "been there, done that" kind of feeling. It's a good game to play through once, but it's highly doubtful that most gamers would bother to pick this up again after beating it. I really wanted to like this game a lot. I'm a big fan of the stealth genre, and, let's face it, ninjas (especially female ones) are cool as hell. Perhaps if there is a sequel, the developers can work out some of the kinks and make Kurenai an icon along the lines of Solid Snake or Sam Fisher, but as for now, her adventures are something good for a short blast over a weekend and not much else.
worth a rental
Publisher: Vivendi Universal
Rated M for violence
Version reviewed: Xbox
Available at Amazon.com