These days, it seems like everyone has a virtual town, farm, or space station to look after. Hardcore gamers may mock their friends’ exploits on Farmville, but that doesn’t stop many of us from playing games with very similar concepts. Kairosoft, the Japanese developer that received critical acclaim for Game Dev Story almost a year ago in May 2012, knows this better than anyone. Its mobile business model consists solely of assorted business and town management simulations which, despite their hefty price tags, have sold briskly and won the company a devoted following. But their latest sim, Ninja Village, might be Kairosoft’s best game yet.
Some of you Kairosoft veterans might call me a liar as soon as the game starts. There’s good reason for that. On a functional aesthetic level, not much has changed in the company’s formula from game to game, and Ninja Village is no exception. The same sprites are here, with different outfits but the same word balloons and animation. The user interface is virtually identical to what we’ve seen in the past. Even the cheering girls that appear when a positive notification pops up are twins of the ones in their previous games.
But that’s not really the point. If you’ve never played a Kairosoft game before, all of these things are fresh, and it’s all overwhelmed anyway by the medieval Japanese setting, which is gorgeous. You play as a clan leader hoping to take advantage of Japan’s power vacuum to unite the region’s warlords under your adorable pixelated fist. If you don’t choose a name for yourself, the game automatically calls you Lord Hattori, after the legendary warrior and tactician Hattori Hanzo, and the plot vaguely resembles the real Hattori’s rise to fame as the man who helped one shogun take power, except here, you’re helping the deposed shogun regain his throne. The shogun is kind of a pansy and only shows up to give you large sums of money and help you train your army against his own (laughably weak) forces, but if you play like I did and pretend you’ll be an evil vizier after this chump gets back on his feet, it’s actually even more fun.
The usual town-management tasks pop up immediately to occupy your time, but though there are a lot of tasks to keep track of, the learning curve is never so steep that making a successful village seems impossible. Despite the semi-regular tutorial dialogue, figuring everything out is mostly trial and error, but no mistake is so big as to cripple your ability to progress. This is a good thing, since one of the major mechanical flaws in Ninja Village‘s interface becomes apparent whenever you try to select something that’s in close proximity to anything else. Not only is it incredibly easy to tap on something you didn’t mean to, even when zoomed in so far on the map as to make paying attention to anything else impossible, but some menu options (for which there is no zoom) will take effect after a single tap, so you’re probably going to buy some junk and troops you don’t really need—and there’s no way to get rid of either. This is fine in the beginning, when all the goods are cheap, but rapidly becomes frustrating later on. Equally aggravating was my inability to give my villagers specific tasks. Having grown up with Age of Empires and the like, I’m accustomed to being able to micromanage, and seeing my ninjas ignore a field of crops ripe for harvesting in order to cut down a tree on the other side of the map when I had plenty of lumber was infuriating.
On the other hand, Ninja Village manages to make up for that aggravation in a host of ways. Not the least of these is the constant sly, absurdist humor that can only come from a game where gangs of talking frogs are a legitimate threat than can only be solved by military force. I met a pack of wolves that, upon their defeat in battle, moaned that they should have known not to be late with their rent. Early in the game, I recruited a young ninja warrior named Jon; he is the only man in the game I’ve encountered with an Anglo-Saxon name, but he’s not even close to the only one with a mohawk. I put a baby chicken on his head, which unfortunately hid his fab ‘do, but provided him with more combat defense than most basic pieces of armor. This is a game with its tongue stuck so deeply in its cheek that surgery might be necessary to remove it, and the resulting comedy is priceless.
Also deeply engaging is the combat system, which bears a strong resemblance to Kairosoft’s Epic Astro Story. Your mission to unite Japan under the shogunate will bring you into conflict with larger and larger forces, and just like the learning curve for the town building portion of the game, each type of unit—infantry, archers, gunners, and cavalry—is introduced at the appropriate time for you to fully grasp its advantages and disadvantages. You can direct your army to target different groups of enemy forces, send animals you’ve tamed into battle as mounts or additional cavalry, and customize your villagers with a huge array of combat equipment—most of which will actually impact their sprite’s appearance back in town. It’s got a tremendous amount of variability, which is delivered in easily digestible chunks and an attractive package.
I could rave about this game all day, but suffice it to say that Ninja Village is, like Epic Astro Story, a game that tricks you into thinking it’s a shallow time sink while hiding an immersive gameplay experience just below its surface. It’s an iceberg of a game, one worthy of the Kairosoft brand, and with enough replay value to merit its $4.99 price tag. If you’re looking to take a hilariously addictive trip to fake old-timey Japan, Ninja Village is the game for you.