Fans of the ‘90s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon may remember Miyamoto Usagi, a samurai bunny who crossed the shelled heroes’ paths a few times. Originally introduced to the comics world in 1984, the same year as the TMNT, he’s got a legion of fans all his own, and even had his own side-scrolling brawler back in 1988. Now he’s got another one, Usagi Yojimbo: Way of the Ronin, developed in “Close contact” with series creator Stan Sakai. Unfortunate, given the outcome.
First, the high points: There are over 50 enemies, all with their own unique attacks, and the characters are all lovingly detailed. Expressive facial features provide a wealth of personality to the otherwise routine hacking and slashing. Background art is impressive as well, as are the comic panel cut-scenes that pop up from time to time. Boss battles are plentiful, and wonderfully animated for the most part, often taking up a third of the screen or more.
Now that all that’s out of the way, here’s the problem with Way of the Ronin: It’s nowhere close to finished. While it’s true that there are more than 50 enemies, they’re all programmed like cattle. A lot of the time, they’ll hang back from the group, letting you slice them up one at a time. Sometimes they won’t attack at all, preferring to walk against invisible walls, or away from you entirely.
Combat on the whole is a glitchy, half-assed mess. You initially start out with a powerful vertical strike, and a weaker horizontal slash. Over the course of the game’s 13 stages, you’ll routinely learn new combos, but the vertical strike is by far the most powerful move in the game, and all you’ll ever really need to use. By the end, you’ll also have learned a total of four special attacks, but they’re utterly useless. At best, you might knock an opponent down, but you’ll never kill one. At worst, you’ll watch in dumbfounded agitation as Usagi frantically slices the air, or glitches through a wall and re-appears on the other side of the screen, hitting no one. You’ve also got arrows, which are supposedly mapped to a quick drag of a finger across the screen, but they happen more often by accident, and the only boss who requires them barely engages you, since the developers know how horrible the shooting system is from the ground up.
There’s an attempt made at giving the world a 3D feel, allowing you to walk all the way to the back or front of the screen to meet enemies attacking on different plains. This means that horizontal attacks should be your best bet if your opposition isn’t right in front of you. In fact, your standard vertical strike can easily hit enemies above, below, or sometimes even behind you. You’re encouraged to shield against attacks with your sword, but this just leads to getting pummeled. Early on, you’ll pick up a jumping spin attack, which can optimally clear about 80 percent of the screen, but it barely does any damage at all. Likewise, damage on the whole is laughably inconsistent. I was thrown clear across the stage by one boss (into an un-rendered area, mind you), and couldn’t even tell if I’d lost any health without literally squinting at the health bar. Then I killed him with five unanswered vertical strikes.
The damage issue leads to a bigger problem – You can’t die in this game. Enemies routinely drop hearts, so you’ll almost always have at least three quarters of your life bar. The closest I ever came to death was on the final boss, after he’d regained a good bit of health without so much as a sound effect to clue me into it… but then I regained full health without even picking up a heart, and subsequently cut him to pieces.
The entire final level, as a matter of fact, is so full of un-rendered areas and other graphical anomalies that I can’t even be sure it was properly tested. The first time I played it, I couldn’t even start the boss fight since its introductory cut-scene never kicked in, even though the boss was standing right in front of me. When I finally did beat it, I got a quick cinematic and a “The End.” Then I got sent directly back to the map screen. No credits, no nothing.
I could go into the repetitive music, sound effects and voice samples for another half-a-page, but that kind of thing can be easily forgiven – I’ve been playing brawlers since the NES days. Usagi Yojimbo: Way of the Ronin is, unmistakably, an unfinished game. For all its impressive art direction and its handful of good ideas, in its current state, it’s effectively unplayable. The developers saw fit to put in a menu for player comments and suggestions, but they’ve also stated that the game will be expanding to other marketplaces in the next few weeks, such as Steam Greenlight, and it’s already on the App Store.
Aside from all of this, the game is riddled with ads for the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston’s upcoming samurai exhibition, and the new outfit and level you can get for Way of the Ronin by attending. The most egregious of these ads is at the very start of the game, every time you open it. This is kind of like something in God of Blades, which gave me a new level for entering a library. That is, any library. I appreciated what God of Blades was able to give me through that kind of simple GPS tracking, but as much as I love samurais (and boy do I), Boston’s a long way from where I am. By aggressively marketing a whole new level to everyone who plays your game, every single time they play it, you’re geographically isolating most of your audience, and teasing them with premium content they quite literally have no way of getting.
I understand how fast-paced the independent gaming market is right now, but even for $1.99, this game feels rushed and churned out to me. It’s doing fairly well on the Play Store at that price, but it’s been fluctuating in cost up to about four bucks recently, and at least in its current form, that’s inexcusable. Usagi Yojimbo: Way of the Ronin, is very arguably unfit for release. The game has some real graphical style to it, but even that’s hampered by unfinished attack animations and some bizarrely un-rendered stage areas. I applaud the inclusion of a developer feedback menu, but the game really requires an extensive overhaul of its core play mechanics, not just its glitchy visuals.