Update: I was unfortunately not aware of Shamus Young's severe criticism of Fallout 3 available here to link in the original piece and I regret that. It dovetails rather nicely with what I've written and it's much better executed than my piece. I strongly recommend anyone...
It took me a few minutes to track down the reason Shadow Blade: Reload is even subtitled “Reload” in the first place. Is this the hotly-anticipated sequel to the original Shadow Blade? Has the the game’s ninja protagonist returned from near-death, stronger than ever after training in a secluded bunker and honing a profusion of ancient techniques? Well, not exactly. The “Reload” refers to the game’s new home on Steam Early Access, because it was originally developed for iOS and Android. I’ll give you a moment to count to ten to release any mobile gaming biases.
Reload makes a valiant effort upping the ante on PC, with dozens of levels and precision controls thanks to the luxury of a gamepad or keyboard. As developer Dead Mage has no doubt discovered, however, spit-shining the core gameplay of a run-and-tap touchscreen title is no simple task. Sure, hopping around all ninja-like offers a shot of zany excitement at first, but once you’ve breezed through 30 or so levels with nearly no perceptible increase in challenge or strategy, it becomes tough for the game to effectively stave off boredom.
Let’s wait a second, though. Shadow Blade: Reload is in Early Access, and the game is, theoretically, improving all the time. There is a surprising amount of ninja skills and techniques at the player’s disposal. This includes hurling ninja-stars, slicing off enemy heads, and dismembering oblivious foes so effortlessly (and often in one fell swoop) that they’ve usually already crumpled in a heap before even realizing you’ve approached them. Some enemies never even have a chance to launch an attack—it often seemed as though my finger had barely touched the X-key, yet my avatar was already launching into a flashy limb-severing animation.
I don’t doubt that wacky theatrics are fun to watch on your iPhone, but on PC their impressiveness is greatly diminished. Additionally, there’s little rhyme or reason to what unfolds on screen as you attack. Sometimes tapping X will yank an enemy toward you from a distance before disposing of him, while other times it will simply initiate a standard swipe or an elaborate execution. It’s basically a dice-roll.
Frustrating still is that your ninja can’t actually swing his weapon while running; attempting to do so forces him to stop in his tiny little tracks and swipe from a complete standstill. There’s also a ground-pound downward stab ability and a forward dash, but the former is finicky and the latter for some inexplicable reason gets an entire key of its own. Since the game’s default difficulty is so easy just jamming X over and over, I never used the dash unless it was required for opening doors.
Meanwhile, the game’s level design—though a bit repetitive—is admirable so far, if for no other reason than the sheer volume of stages slated to appear in the final game. There’s a nice selection of environments to choose from, but unfortunately the levels all begin to blur together after the first five or so have been completed. By the time I cleared the Dojo series of challenges, I couldn’t have told you which level was my favorite if you’d thrown a bag over my head and held me at ninjato-point. They had all just bled into one big primordial goop of a memory in my brain. Given the way checkpoints are handled, I began to question why the levels were even broken up at all—the start and end points often felt arbitrary. Still, nobody wants to play 20-minute levels in a mobile port either, so I acknowledge that Dead Mage’s hands are a little bit twist-tied.
After playing for a solid two hours, I discovered what will ultimately be the main draw that keeps players coming back: speed runs. When a level is completed, the game ranks your performance, and the more collectibles you gathered in the fastest amount of time, the higher your awarded rank. I was racking up a lot of D’s early on, but I soon developed the skills necessary to pull in C’s or the occasional B if my ninja-senses were feeling ultra-sharp. Of course, since spamming the jump button nearly allows your to fly in certain cases, gameplay depth unfortunately doesn’t really scale with level difficulty.
Shadow Blade: Reload is still in Early Access, and as such Dead Mage can certainly make adjustments better-suited for PC before releasing a final build. That said, I worry the title’s mobile roots may be too flagrant to overcome: even with dozens of levels and collectible shinies. Reload is mindless enough that I’d gladly ninja through it as I watch TV or listen to a podcast. I’m just hoping Dead Mage gives me a reason to open my laptop to do so, when I could just use my phone instead. Dead Mage hopes to be out of Early Access in 3-5 months depending on community feedback.