Castle Crashers is a game that, so far, is not available on the App Store. This is apparently a problem for some people, because every once in a while, we see someone take a kick at capturing its particular brand of chaotic fun. Many of those games are really just trying to capture the spirit, which in its purest form hearkens back to River City Ransom on the 8-bit Nintendo system. Some games, however, miss the spirit entirely and make a more superficial attempt. Ninjas - Stolen Scrolls [$0.99] unfortunately falls into the latter category.
An evil ninja has attacked your master and stolen the ancient scrolls of the clan. Choosing from an initial assortment of four color-coded ninjas, each with slightly different stats and a different element of magic, you must battle through a fairly large selection of stages, sometimes via branching paths, to regain them. You'll travel from left to right, brawling your way through hordes of weak enemies, some huge bosses, and various stage hazards, gaining experience points and gold as you go. Experience points will eventually result in a level up, where you can opt to improve one of your three stats. Gold can be spent on items and more powerful weapons at the shop. I could literally change less than five words in this paragraph and use it to describe Castle Crashers.
Well, it's not a crime to riff off of something, and many times, such inspiration and subsequent improvement has resulted in a superior, or at least worthy, product. The problem with Ninjas is that although it copied all the window dressing, it's missing some of the key elements that make better games in this genre fun to play, resulting in a missed mark that's as frustrating for the way it missed as much as the fact that it did miss.
Naturally, there isn't any multiplayer in this game. I can't honestly say I expect it when it comes to iOS, but it would be nice to be pleasantly surprised. This type of game, unless it's very well-designed or very brief, tends to get a bit repetitive as it goes on, and having friends along for the ride is usually the perfect remedy for this ailment. There's no such joy here, so you'll be making the lengthy, repetitive journey on your own.
The bigger problem with this game is something we touched on in our first impressions of the game: the controls. Originally, this game was available on the Xbox Live Indie Game service, with very conventional gamepad controls. To its credit, on iOS, Ninjas makes a strong effort to have a unique, functional control system without relying too much on virtual buttons. It fails almost completely, but I give it credit for trying. Movement is handled by swiping the screen, which could almost work if it weren't so imprecise and inconsistent. You'll find yourself moving when and where you don't mean to, and in a genre where the strategy almost entirely revolves around positioning, it's a kiss of death.
The game attempts to mitigate this footwork failure by allowing you to attack left or right at any time by tapping either side of the screen, which at least means you don't have to try to turn yourself around to hit someone behind you. Finally, defeating the ostensible purpose of relegating movement to swipes, there are virtual buttons used to unleash your magic or use your items. These ranged attacks are pretty unreliable, however, because precise positioning is incredibly fussy to pull off. Nothing really works as well as it needs to, and it ends up killing the game.
It's unfortunate, because there are a lot of aspects of Ninjas that are done quite well. The game looks absolutely great, with excellent art and animation and a vibrant cartoon style. The bosses in particular are awesome. They're huge, strange, and have a ton of character. The selection of weapons is positively huge and full of fun stuff to use. It takes a while to earn the coins to buy things, but they're definitely worth the investment when you do get them. There are tons of stages that roll out in a somewhat non-linear fashion, and honest-to-gosh worthwhile stuff to unlock without whipping out your credit card.
Unfortunately, none of this matters because the basic controls are so poor. I'm more than willing to deal with quirky controls, and to try to adapt to unusual or awkwardly implemented setups, but I never ended up feeling comfortable playing Ninjas - Stolen Scrolls. Virtually every death was as a result of erratic outcomes from simple movement commands. As the stages get quite large in scope and you are booted out to the map with none of the gold or experience you earned should you die during a stage (unless you use an expensive item), it's easy to get very frustrated when you can't simply move a bit to your left to avoid an incoming attack.
It's a beautiful game with lots to see, unlock, and earn, just like its obvious inspiration. Unlike its inspiration, it's just no fun to play at all. If the developer added a more conventional set of virtual controls to the game, I'd likely recommend it. In its current form, however, it's just not worth fighting the controls to get to the content. You'd be better off picking it up on Xbox for the same price. Ninjas, vanish.
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