In 1560 A.D – Japan’s last Shogunate lost full control over the realm causing an eventual explosion into a massive civil war with other provinces of the once-mighty empire. Anarchy reigned through the country as the different clans waged an all-out bloody war for supremacy. One clan “Steel Claw” in particular led by their Daimyo (Military Leader) Mamoru Imai, began seeking the knowledge of old forbidden practices and worshiping dark entities to try and place a curse upon his enemies. Mamoru was soon to be infected by the spirit of a vindictive and very malevolent Samurai warlord. Through this infection, “Steel Claw” began a campaign of chaos and hatred spreading vile darkness through the lands, infecting other nations along with it. The demonically possessed Daimyo allies himself with nine other powerful demons and forges a massive army born from hatred and fueled by blood. No one army can withstand him. All hope is on the detachment of the shinobi clan “Black Lotus”, operations of sabotage only can weaken the power of Mamoru. The warlord must be assassinated or Japan will crumble into dust.
Another Ratalaika Joint
I’ve reviewed many titles published by Ratalaika Games and what I adore about them is that they push out such a versatile range of games. There is no specific genre that they like to target, but they seem to bring some hidden indie gems to fruition. This is their latest title, developed by Ametist Studio, and appears to be their only project currently with a title known as Unshaded en route in July 2021. Within The Blade first made its appearance on Steam for PC back in August 2019 and now we get to experience its goodness on Xbox Series X. If you’re after a Japanese-themed ninja warrior experience that takes huge inspiration from games like Shinobi then you’re in for a real treat.
At first glance appears to be your standard platformer but it delves much deeper than this. There is a mixture of stealth, combat, and RPG elements present in this experience and it all blends extremely well. Your approach to this game can be taken in several ways. Choose to take your time and use the shadows and stealth to your advantage and attempt to slay every enemy on the map. Or you can try to plow your way through the levels, which could be a speedrunner’s dream. The game is set up to negotiate the playthrough any which way of your choosing, the goal being to defeat the boss at the end of each chapter.
There is a tutorial that can be played through before the main campaign but it wasn’t very instructive and didn’t explain the control system well enough. If you start the campaign you have markers informing you of the basic commands. Movements such as jump, double jump, double jump, and then wall-running, and how to traverse platforms and block and attack with your sword. The wall running can be especially fiddly to master as you have to time the double jump just right to gain a height advantage to run the rest of the wall. I found myself practicing this for around ten minutes before I got the real hang of this. I recommend learning this thoroughly as jumping and running in error can cost you your life.
Attacking is super simple with the press of the X button, with repeated taps to land combos. Y is your block button and is critical in the harder areas later in the game. The combat is so satisfactory as you sever heads, limbs and create a bloodbath as you tear through the enemy. For lovers of gore it is all here for you here but tread carefully as it could also be you who bleeds out. Along the way are hidden spike pits, rotating blades, explosives, and fire attacks coming towards you. Even on the “Easy” mode, I still found it a real challenge taking on a cluster of enemies attacking at once. Practice and precision really go far, but it is also possible to skip past all enemies just to work through to the end boss if you wish.
Killing is fun though, and also gains you experience at the end of each level. Enemies drop loot which can be collected for later use, you can also find loot scattered throughout chests, boxes, and barrels. At the end of each level, your health will regenerate and you’ll be permitted to return to your home village to stock up on items, craft weapons, and more. What I was really surprised to see was quite an expansive skill tree, each unlock will make your ninja stronger, faster, and more agile. The development team has done fantastically here to create stuff to do outside of just working through the level, defeating the boss and that’s it. It gave me an urge to go and replay levels to see if I found it easier with my new unlocked abilities.
Boss fights are exceptional and provide a real aura of those tense moments from retro 90’s titles gone by. They are extremely challenging to defeat and genuinely put you on the edge of your seat. A memorable boss is Asura who took me a while to bring down. I had sheer adrenaline running through my veins as I had a flicker of health remaining and I had literally two hits to finish him off. There is a true sense of pride as you hear that achievement pop when you clock the boss. Achievements are fairly easy to obtain here as is the case with all Ratalaika published titles.
Beautiful Old School Style
Now I’ll admit that I booted up Within The Blade with minimal expectations and I was pleasantly surprised. The game features a beautiful pixel-art style that brilliantly uses a wide range of blended colors to recreate the Japanese atmosphere. Cut-scenes are well animated and the brief interactions with readable text are well presented. Some highlights that stuck out for me regarding aesthetics were the blood splatter and explosions along with fire. All these factors make it one of the nicest looking pixel art style games I have ever had the pleasure of spending time with. I can’t fault anything in this area whatsoever and I tip my hat to the devs at Ametist.
The sound effects and music are equally as great as the visual aspect. Japanese-themed music sets the tone as you progress through each level. The pitter-patter of your ninja’s feet and the slash of your blade mixes in and really gives you those authentic vibes. The intensity ramps up for the boss fights and a mash-up of heavy metal-style music kicks in. I welcomed this as it led to a maximum adrenaline rush.
This is probably one of my favorite indie titles that I have played through in 2021. This is a must-play for anyone who enjoys games of the ninja genre or something that echoes the late 90’s retro titles such as Shinobi and Altered Beast. There are hours of fun to be had and even the most casual of gamers can pick up and enjoy this. Outside of the campaign, there is a challenge mode with 20+ extra levels to play through that are extremely difficult to master. This adds real longevity for those who want the maximum from the title. If I was to fault anything about this game it would be the lack of different environments, backdrops felt repeated an awful lot of the time. This, however, did not ruin my enjoyment of the game as I was far too busy slitting throats and trying to stay alive. If you want a slashing, I mean smashing time, I urge you to pick up Within The Blade and try it. Be careful though, you might cut yourself.