Ninja or Die: Shadow of the Sun is a curious little game. It’s one of those that will either find an audience because of its gimmick or will be largely ignored because of it – but either way its fate is heavily tied to the core conceit. It boasts one-button gameplay, although that isn’t true at all. It’s 90% left mouse button, but you do need the right button and a couple of keys to cycle items.
It casts you as a Ninja, unsurprisingly, who must catapult himself around various environments like a wrecking ball. There’s not much of a story in the early access build; it’s mostly just a series of tutorials followed by a couple of gameplay levels. Suffice to say that there are bad guys, and you’re a good guy, and you have to beat them by hurling yourself at them at a rate of knots.
You get around the environments by aiming the cursor at hard surfaces and clicking, with a charged version for clearing large areas. If your Ninja hits an enemy they’ll take damage, if he hits a hazard or projectile, he will take damage. It couldn’t be much simpler, to be fair, but there are some issues that drove me mad. For a start, the tips and guide text is in a massive black box that obscures half the screen, and even though you can dim it, it gets in the way when you’re trying to plot trajectories.
I also found having to stop to go into your inventory and select items to use utterly destroys the pace and negates the entire point of it being one-button-reliant for the rest of the time. It’s obviously a game built on its gimmick and will almost certainly find a fanbase among speed-runners, so why have the bag be such a roadblock to the breakneck pace? Likewise, it told me to pick stuff up and carry it, but even with multiple plays I was never entirely sure how I did it.
Ninja or Die’s pixelated 8-bit graphics are stylised, but don’t help differentiate between enemies and the environment – especially when you’ve got dotted trajectory markers everywhere. Eventually I found a rhythm, but it took a littler hard work to get there and I’m not sure its gameplay that will hold up over a prolonged period of time.
You’ll find upgrades now and then to your weaponry, and collectibles like Rice Balls to refill your health. There are also boss fights that break up the speedy traversal levels where you’ll need to plot your angles much tighter in order to do damage and negate injury.
If I were a gambler I’d wager that Ninja or Die: Shadow of the Sun will find a pretty loyal audience when it hits the storefront. It has an intriguing, interesting core mechanic that sets it apart from most rogue-likes right off the bat, but it’s also pretty frustrating and, well, kind of gets in its own way. It’s hard to judge a game based on such a short slice, and Ninja or Die certainly has my curiosity, but time will tell if that central conceit is enough to carry it.
Ninja or Die is out on August 2nd for PC (Steam), come back soon for our review.