Tuesday 8 April 2014

The path to the tiger: reviewing Ninja!

It's a difficult decision. Do I just give in and offer him all my worldly possessions right there and then? Or do I risk lying and joining him in his murderous gang in the hope of taking it down from the inside? 

Bofu glares at me as I step forward, swearing fealty to him and his people. It's not an action I take lightly, knowing that this could cost me in the ranks of the Kwon, my people. He tells me that to trust me, I must cut any allegiance I have to my gods. 

My gods are vengeful.

I realise that my character, a ninja-in-training who abides by the code to never do evil (much like Google, in that respect), wouldn't break such an oath just to save his skin, or the skin of the man that they have evidently captured. 

No, I can't do it. Instead I launch at Bofu, the Apostate, with a flurry of kicks, a throw and a punch to the neck. He goes down quickly. His 'faithful' companions leave in a hurry, leaving the prisoner. 

This is fairly early into Ninja!, book zero in the Way of the Tiger series. These books might ring a bell, being popular at the height of the adventure gamebook boom of the 1980s, when Fighting Fantasy, Knightmare and Lone Wolf filled the shelves of local book shops. But this is the newest addition, taking place before Avenger! by Mark Smith and Jamie Thomson. Part of the new deluxe series, a pricey but luscious revitalisation of of the series, Ninja! by David Walters introduces us to the world of Orb and the titular ninja protagonist.

As a gamebook primarily about a martial artist the combat rules are more involved than, say, Fighting Fantasy. There are various options you can use in battle, such as punching, kicking, and throwing. Each has their own pros and cons, such as kicking being slower but delivering more damage and throwing allowing you to expose your opponent, but also yourself. Inner Force is a sort of mythical ninja skill that can make your attacks hurt even more.

I continue on my way to the next city, in search of the second flag. Being a test of skill, I must get my hands on two flags to present to the Grandmaster of the Dawn. The Island of Plenty, on which I trek, is full of danger. At one point, I was assaulted by a spirit that tried to suffocate me, but I quickly dispatched it before it could do me any harm.

I end up in a city, beautiful in structure but filled to the brim with samurai in lacquered armour. An old man calls over to me and I respond. He gives me a philosophical question as a test of enlightenment to see whether I am worthy of taking his flag. The question concerns turning against my fellow Kwon ninja if they were to delve into less-than-wholesome activity. I ponder for a few minutes, thinking that he might expect a certain answer so I should answer the opposite. Was it a trick? I decide to answer honestly. 

Ninja! doesn't dish out cheap challenges. Most fights have some sort of special rule tied to them, whether it means that a certain opponent will switch between weapons or that you might have the chance of being poisoned. Some of the most important choices aren't determined by a dice roll, but by taking note of the information you are given and making an educated deduction. However, there was at least one time when I felt as if I was led completely against my will and to my detriment, but this was quickly forgotten after a thrilling combat and escape.

The challenge curve is smooth, becoming increasingly more difficult as you progress. The three skills you choose at the beginning of the book will help you greatly, with two in-particular I found to be indispensable to beating the game. It's all about making the right decision right from the get go.

A woman lay bleeding on the snow-laden floor as a hulking stone lion begins its second charge at me. I dive out of the way, grab her discarded sword and plunge it into the creature. What follows is a string of the worst luck I've had in a game. I roll low, the creature rolls high. I'm utterly eviscerated, bleeding out on the ground. In my weakened state I make one last ditch effort to finish off the beast...

Throughout Ninja! you will meet a variety of friends and foes. Each has their own skill and personality, such as a headstrong warrior who is both fearless and reckless at the same time. Your rivals are relatively fleshed out, but only as far as a gamebook can go. Their builds and fighting styles are described well, and it's good to see a gamebook with a series of allies rather than just enemy after enemy.

Ninja! is perhaps one of the finest gamebooks in recent times. It doesn't have the freedom of Fabled Lands, or the depth of Destiny Quest, but it does have a great story and world, along with a well-designed adventure that provides a good challenge with a few surprises along with way.

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