"You have complete control of the encounters you fight, and battles play out exactly as you plan. Sun Tzu would be proud. He'd also be extremely bored."
In an attempt to understand, truly
understand, the mess that is Legend of a Ninja: A Shadow to Remember, I completed the game multiple times, acquired all the endings and explored the mechanics in their entirety. It was a task akin to staring into the void. I think that at this point, Legend of a Ninja understands me as well as I understand it.
The world of Legend of a Ninja is based on a series of Amazon novellas by Jarius Raphel, which allows characters to touch on a deeper more fleshed out world, but it also means that you are expected to know the significance of things that go unexplained. The world map is cramped with environments, but forgoes any explanation as to how they relate to each other. Sure, it'll tell you what the place is, but not what that means in relation to the world. Every area, organization and character is a thing with a history, but it is often irrelevant to the plot and even the world as a whole. We learn that the country of Relik is controlled by the Demon Clan, but we don't learn how that actually functions or why that matters. This isn't the expansion of a universe; it's an empty series of references.
Visually, the game is standard RPGMaker with the Samurai pack. The Samurai pack gives the game an eastern flair, but if you have experience playing RPGMaker games, there's nothing new to see. Well, the main characters' face-portraits are decent edits. Unfortunately, the Samurai packs portraits clash stylistically with both the RTP and the automatically generated face-portraits, and Legend of a Ninja uses all three styles.
The visual design of the maps is clearly the mark of inexperienced mappers. The areas are very samey, with lots of square buildings comprised of square rooms. Even the forest. While there are some neat visual touches here and there, the quality of each map's appearance varies wildly. The inside of most of the buildings are needlessly large and empty. I guess the extra room would be good if all the ninjas had dogs...
Even with the design problems, there was a lot to like in the presentation of the game. The battles have great atmosphere, each enemy group has a unique message when the encounter is triggered, and the battles begin and end with sombre sound effects. Combined with the tense music, the battles snatch your attention. All of the original music is quite good, melodic with a strong sense of presence, and Club 9s and Rock Village are the environments that stand out to me.
Experiencing Legend of a Ninja is annoying thanks to a plethora of errors and poor design decisions. The run button is also the button that skips dialogue, which means I skipped the first box of almost every conversation. Sprites show up or move where they aren't meant to in cutscenes. Nameless NPCs all share the same dialogue, taking it from a collective pool, which is lazy to the point of irritation. And switching party members is extremely cumbersome. None of these issues are game breaking, but you have to wonder why they exist.
The game boasts a three-turn combat system that at first blush sounds very intriguing, but ultimately amounts to the game's biggest flaw. A three-turn system has a lot potential, and by limiting the number of moves, it could create an interesting give-and-take. An RPG's battle system often boils down to "attack, attack, attack, heal," and having the system be more tactical is a sound decision. Would the game look at the fights and judge the rounds to decide a winner? When I began playing, I had no idea.
Unfortunately, the system shoots for the moon and simply crashes back to earth. It doesn't create tension, strategic, or tactical depth — in fact, the three-turn combat system seems to have been implemented without regard for the game balance.
It's also weirdly at odds with the world of Legend of a Ninja. Allegedly, when a ninja is involved in a fight, it's life or death — except in the game it's not. After all three turns pass, the battle ends and you heal to full, but you get no experience. That is almost certainly not "life or death." With the exception of the two bosses, you can't actually get a game over from combat. There is no punishment for failure, which just doesn't work.
All this means that Legend of a Ninja devolves into a single viable strategy. Go on the offensive and go all in. This means that the only valuable equipment and skills are the ones that boost damage output. A related tangent: there is an elemental system that serves no purpose. There is one area (elemental forest) where your move's elemental property matters, but every other enemy in the game is weak to all the elements and all the bosses resist them. Buy an elemental skill, save up for the best katana, and you're golden. I Thunder Punched my way through the whole game, and it was glorious.
In a weird way, it almost forces mastery of the system. At the beginning of the game, you'll be hard pressed to find an encounter that is easily winnable, but they exist! Every new environment involves learning which encounters are worth fighting. This is made doable thanks to both the lack of punishment, but also because the game allows you to run from every fight with 100% success rate. There is no reason to fight an encounter you don't want to! You have complete control of the encounters you fight, and battles play out exactly as you plan. Sun Tzu would be proud. He'd also be extremely bored.
If this sounds like a horrible exercise in tedium, not only are you right, but it seems like the designers felt the same way, too. One of the most interesting elements of the game is a "dark side" option you get early on. If you side with Orlo of the Evil Moustache and kill a party member, you get instant access to all of the elemental skills (Thunder Punch!). This nets you less of an alternate story and more of a screeching halt on progress that locks you into the bad ending. The quests are ended, and the only thing to do is kill the last boss. If you're going to have a strict dichotomy of good/evil choices, this might be the best version of that system I've ever seen.
And this almost works, except that absolutely everything is always in your control. Without any roadblocks, you can actually accomplish every mission by running and picking up treasure until you can buy your way into power, so there is nothing tangible to tempt you. I don't think "Money is Power" is what Legend of a Ninja was trying to say, but Legend of a Ninja is never saying what it wants because it gets in the way of its own intentions.
In the story, the hero must master all the elements (by buying them) so they can master their own heart. In doing so they transcend, but need true love to keep them present in the world as a force of good. A bittersweet idea that relies on two people's love and faith. To gain their love, you have to take them on dates, where they will either open up to you or some other ninjas will interrupt you. The more expensive the dating spot, the less likely you will be interrupted. That's it &mdash they don't grow closer over the mission or anything. Like power, love is purchased in The Legend of a Ninja.
Theme is important to the success of a video game. When a game not only entertains us, but speaks to us as human beings, it becomes a part of us. It can criticize our experiences and enrich who we are. We take something away from it, and we grow. That's why it becomes an experience we can never forget. So when a game completely fails to communicate to us what it is trying to say outside of the most basic level, when it never shows us its intent and only tells us, the game has failed itself. As players, we can love the tone and texture or just love the aesthetics or find the whole thing too fun to put down, but that doesn't change the fact that the game didn't even achieve its own goals.
In its best moments, Legend of a Ninja's writing manages to be merely inoffensive, but the ideas it is trying to communicate are good. If nothing else, the dialogue is earnest and sincere. For example, no matter which ending you acquire, the game ends with a groan-inducing title drop. The game's sub-title is metaphor wrapped in a clunky turn of phrase that can't possibly be used in believable dialogue, but they did it and it was awesome. I'm giving the story an additional 5% just for the title drop.
There is a lot of heart in the project, and that's clear. It was an extraordinary experience even if it wasn't a good one. While this isn't a favourable review, there were ideas on display that I would like to see refined in the developer's future efforts. For anyone who plays it, Legend of a Ninja will surely be A Shadow to Remember.