*Note: Review reflects my experiences of version 1.6 of the game.*
As the likes of Xbox Live continue tackling barriers of entry for its storefront and ‘snap-compatible’ games continue growing, there’s bound to be more and more mobile developers vying for a spot on this platform. Enter Nutjitsu: a top-down stealth-a-thon that’s one of the first results of the [email protected] self-publishing program. This port from Windows 8/Windows Phone comes from Ninja Bee, developers behind the Keflings series. Though what it’s trying to accomplish isn’t much for a mobile game on an Xbox One, it also doesn’t capture the gameplay foundations of its inspiration in a way that even makes for quality filler time between your main game’s matchmaking sessions.
The concept is a simple yet cute idea: you play as a ninja squirrel trying to slink through a maze-like level from a single-screen, top-down perspective akin to Pac-Man. But rather than being chased by ghosts through neon-lit corridors, you’re surrounded by samurai kitsune on maps that looked inspired by Medieval Japan.
Taking from its arcade inspirations, Nutjitsu isn’t really interested in having some kind of end-game for the user; in fact, there’s no story to it. Instead, the available game modes are a random assortment of objectives. In the standard Ninja Missions, a randomized objective and map is selected. These missions can vary from collecting a certain number of colored acorns (of course), remaining in a glowing part of the map for several seconds, acquiring scrolls, grabbing a limited amount of acorns and then putting them in a stash on a certain part of the map, etc. There’s also a survival mode that tasks you with grabbing acorns while surviving for as long as you can to rank up in the online leaderboards. Overall, there’s a solid variety of maps, a total of fifteen, and Ninja Mission modes that can be shuffled around and are complimented with five difficulty levels.
The kind of variety offered in modes does work with the game system’s simplicity. Like Pac-Man, movement is dedicated to just moving the control stick up, down, left, or right and enemies pack a one-hit KO; unlike Pac-Man, weaving through these stages is more oriented on special power-ups allotted to the player at the beginning instead of set on certain parts of the map. There are three different kitsune enemy types:
-Hunters: act as the typical grunts that walk around the map
-Trappers: leave a trail of acid that’ll momentarily slow you down (and fades away at a slower rate on higher difficulties)
-Dashers: highlight their direction and charge at a faster rate than the other two
Individually, none can pose a serious problem; together, swift movements between all three of these enemies within the vicinity is quite challenging and the simple, intuitive controls make those split-second getaways all the more pleasing. Their means of detecting and chasing players is by picking up on footprints that momentarily light up whenever you move. Once this happens, you either need to outrun them to the point that they lose track of your footprints or use a special power-up to mask detection.
While relatively ample variety and good game feel mesh together early on, Nutjitsu's game design fundamentals are inherently broken. Unlike with Pac-Man, where accrued player skill and familiarization of the base game is how one would gain a greater score, Nutjitsu juggles player skill with an xp-based perk system that tallies your score for that round into an in-game currency system for special power-ups and more loadout options. These power-ups range from your character and his/her trail instantaneously disappearing for a set time with a smoke bomb, a decoy ninja into luring guards in a different direction, and other means of helping you escape. The problem is a pack of three for any of these items comes at a hefty cost. Of course, increasing the difficulty will increase the amount of currency you can acquire, but success will put you at ends of having to use those power-up items several times to avoid losing since more and more guards materialize on the map as you get closer to your goal. When considering this and the fact that more experience points are rewarded for these kinds of escapes, it’s obviously a conscious design decision that at its very core encourages grinding to just reach the next ninja level and/or enough in-game money to purchase the items you need to have a real chance of succeeding on five-throwing-stars maps. And though a lot of games have capitalized on making players reach the ‘zen of grinding’ in the past, there’s nothing like extra story fluff or grand locales to explore from all of it. It’s just a bunch of shuffling and replaying levels to crawl towards the next goal.
Map design is another issue that makes the grinding feel more exasperating than it should. Aesthetically speaking, there’s a wide variety of Eastern Asian locations like a small dock, temple, grove, castle, etc. While there are a grand total of fifteen to play through once reaching higher ranks, less than half of them feel distinctive when it comes to player strategy. It would almost be proper to consider many of them as visually appealing scenery to repeat layouts. It’s also bothersome to deal with specific maps that have curved steps that force you to cross them by going one space left/right, one space up/down, one space left/right just to cross over to another platform. Even those sorts of small things tied with the visually-busy nature of some of the more colorful maps make it harder to develop any sort of rhythm with it.
Before even getting to play a game the production qualities is going to be something that’s questioned early on. One of the first noticeable aspects about the game is the smaller-than-the-TV-screen border where all of the action occurs. As mentioned at the beginning, this was originally a mobile phone/tablet-designed game and was ported to Xbox One’s marketplace. And though the technical aspects make it seem like the most simplistic currently on said marketplace, the artistic design seems rather meticulous with its colorful aesthetic which more than makes up for it. Less forgivable than sub-par technical aspirations with new hardware is when that doesn’t even guarantee a consistent frame rate. I’m honestly shocked to see visual/audio stutters and slowdowns occur for a game that shows no reason to be demanding on the hardware.
Sound design would altogether be the worst aspect of the game as well. While the quality and demand for aural technical proficiency may be much lower when it comes to mobile phones and their speaker quality, that’s not going to be the same case for a downloadable product on consoles. The original song playing in the background for the majority of play (gameplay and map selection) is just a clichéd assortment of Japanese-inspired tunes that, while pleasant the first few times, wears out its welcome when climbing to the final rank. The sound design for the usable power-ups, enemy alert phases, and more just all sound like cheap downloads from certain websites that you get aural queues for free. Note: this doesn’t inherently mean I think all basic, chip-tune, etc. effects are bad altogether. A game like Shovel Knight can be praised for something like that because those designers had a very specific focus in emulating the SNES era of 2D platformers down to the very color code and chip tune. The clear difference is in the artistic intent, which was clearly not the case with Nutjitsu since the cheap quality in audio design doesn’t coalesce with its detailed, hand-painted environments.
When it’s all said and done, the most enticing feature to Nutjitsu is—sadly—the technology tied to it; namely, being one of the first games that works with Xbox One’s snap feature. And it’s a shame too because a collect-a-thon like Pac-Man was something I didn’t know I was in the mood for until I stumbled upon this title. Even with the considerations of being a modestly-priced downloadable title at $6.49 (standard)—though I personally picked it up on sale for around three bucks, it doesn’t do much beyond the funny concept and eye-pleasing artwork. Had there been a greater focus on better design in maps, capturing the true essence of fun grinding, and proper balancing of power-ups, this could’ve been a worthwhile one for either quick bursts or extended sessions. Unfortunately, that satisfying game feel of getting away from several kitsune guards at one time can only go on for so long until the ‘adorable-ness’ of it all wears off. Consider it one of the less-tasty nuts to be stored in [email protected]'s tree.
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