Have you ever watched a game trailer so uninspiring as to make you laugh, then decided to play the game anyway and were caught surprised by how much you actually enjoy it?
Cue my story of Ninja Legends, which many lambasted as an overpriced Fruit Ninja clone when it was announced for the Oculus Quest, and I was firmly in that camp. I never intended to even give the game a chance because I didn’t want to pay for it, but I was offered a chance to play it and let me tell you: Ninja Legends is a lot more than a Fruit Ninja clone.
Disclaimer: My copy of Ninja Legends was provided by Coinflip Studios. However, my opinions in this review are solely my own and have not been influenced by Coinflip Studios in any way.
Ninja Legends is a stationary wave-based slasher defense game where you stand in an area the size of your Guardian and fend off wave after wave of ninjas who are trying to kill you. This is where the similarities with Fruit Ninja stop, because there’s more to it than just timing your slashes properly.
You start off with dual swords, but as you progress through the levels, you can unlock other weapon types like the claws, the staff, and the spear-like naginata. There are also Shadow Abilities, which are like secondary weapons that require energy to use, where energy is accrued by killing enemies. Shadow Abilities include a bow, a chain dart, an energy blast, and more. This interplay between main weapon and secondary ability is fun and introduces a small element of tactical decision making, forcing you to use your energy wisely and make sure you don’t waste it by missing.
And unlike Fruit Ninja, the targets in Ninja Legends charge at you and fight back. Each one has a unique set of attacks that you can block if you read them correctly. Some enemies, for example, throw shurikens at you that you can knock out of the air. Others slash at you with swords that you can parry. In this sense, each enemy is like a reaction-based microgame that provides a nice level of mental stimulation in a game that’s otherwise heavy on physical activity.
And yes, you can add Ninja Legends to the growing list of “Oculus Quest games that make you sweat bullets.” Like Beat Saber (our review) and BoxVR (our review), Ninja Legends can give you a fantastic cardio workout if you come into it with the level of enthusiasm it demands, especially when using weapons like the claws or the staff. And the nice thing is that you get small moments to catch your breath between waves. If I had to compare, I’d say that BoxVR is still the best workout, but Ninja Legends on Ninja difficulty or higher is more draining than Beat Saber on Expert difficulty.
This is most evident during boss fights, which occur every few levels in Ninja Legends. These are the most fun parts of the game, at least for me, because they involve the most strategy and tactics. Boss fights are one-on-one and each boss has a wider variety of attacks than normal enemies in normal levels. It feels like you’re fighting an actual person, and the later bosses even go through phases where their attack sets change and force you to adapt on the fly. They aren’t easy, I guarantee you’ll be winded after a five-minute boss fight.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the beautiful environments, which aren’t graphically advanced but still manage to feel strangely immersive. It’s easy to feel like you’re truly fighting in a bamboo forest at night, or overlooking a village while fighting on a mountainside.
While the graphics in Ninja Legends aren’t bad, the animations are. Enemies charge at you and stop abruptly, then switch between animations without any sort of blending so that it feels like a game from the early 2000s. And when enemies die, they turn into ragdolls. I understand the idea behind it and it may sound cool on paper—when you thwack an enemy they should go flying—but it just looks ridiculous in practice.
But my main gripe is that you can block an enemy’s attack but the enemy’s full attack animation will play anyway. I’d expect the animation to stop where swords clash, but as it is, you can’t really tell whether you successfully blocked an attack or not based on animation visuals alone. There’s a small particle effect at the clash point and there’s a small clash sound effect that plays, but that’s about it. In a game where blocking attacks is the crux of the gameplay, I’d expect much better animation quality when an attack is blocked. It takes away from the overall presentation of the game, which feels polished otherwise.
As far as level design, there’s nothing much to talk about. Each level is basically an environmental stage for enemy waves to spawn on—and that’s fine, I’m not complaining about that. I do have a complaint about certain levels that are played in 360 degrees, where enemies can spawn in front and behind. Again, this sounds awesome on paper, but in actuality it’s literally kind of a pain. When you’re constantly spinning front to back with a front-heavy Oculus Quest, it causes face strain and excessive skin irritation. I find that I enjoy the 180-degree levels a lot more.
To be fair, the 360-degree levels wouldn’t be so bad if the 3D sound was better. While Ninja Legends does support spatial sound, it doesn’t make full use of the feature and therefore you can’t rely on it. Enemy movements are silent, which technically makes sense because they’re ninjas, so you’ll never hear a ninja creep up on you—you’ll only hear them when they yell to attack, by which point it’s too late to turn around and block in time.
This is quite frustrating, to be honest, because each wave produces 3-5 enemies, and they can swarm on you quick. Once you’re swarmed, it’s impossible to block their attacks because most likely they’ll be attacking in unison. At that point, you have no choice but to eat the hits and try to wipe them out before they can get another round of attacks in. Fans of Ninja Legends might say that this is where strategy comes in, that you need to pick off the enemies before they reach you, but hear my complaint: this assumes you have energy to spare on a special attack, and you can’t pick off enemies that you don’t know exist because you can’t hear them approach.
My final complaint rests in the harsh scoring system. Unless I’m missing something critical, or maybe I’m just super bad, I can never earn more than 2 out of 3 stars regardless of how well I perform. Even with a single hit and an accuracy in the 90% range, no dice. Is it reserved for perfect completions only? Is it because I’m playing on Ninja difficulty? All I can say is, when the criteria for a 3-star rating is this tough, it kills incentive to replay levels and try for a better performance.
I think Ninja Legends is quite enjoyable if you take the time to learn the enemy attack patterns, play enough to unlock the weapon and ability combo that suits your playstyle, and do so on Ninja difficulty or higher. Other than BoxVR, no game gives me as much of a workout as Ninja Legends, and it has enough replayability that I’m keeping it installed.
However, for it to be worth the full $20 price tag, I’d want better telegraphed attacks, cleaner block animations, and more gameplay variety. I recommend buying it if you like repetitive wave-based defense games, but wait until it’s on sale.
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