If there's anything that movies, television and games have taught us, it's that ninja are deadly. Give them knives, blow darts, ninja stars and swords and they're virtually unstoppable. Ninja Usagimaru - The Gem of Blessings proves that they don't need any of those things to be vicious. Give a ninja a simple addition of a block to their arsenal, and it's just one more way to make an already deadly ninja, deadlier.
Weaponless or not, the important thing about ninja is that they are typically portrayed as resourceful, using any means necessary in a given situation to silently execute their missions. In Ninja Usagimaru, players take on the role of the of the named hero and are tasked with saving villagers from the evil clutches of Japanese spirits called mononoke. As the ninja, players are presented with a series of puzzles in which Usagimaru will have to have to pick up, push, pull and throw a set number of blocks provided in each stage in order to save one villager per level. It's all about using cunning and wit in Ninja Usagimaru, and the puzzles set in a 2D environment provide not only fun but, at times, acute mental challenges as well.
As with any good block puzzle game, there are various conditions that need to be considered before reaching a level's solution, compounded by the limitations on how your ninja can act. Usagimaru's jumping skills are limited to the height of one block, giving the game a small taste of platforming. He can crawl. He can manipulate the blocks in so far as the terrain allows him too. As the game progresses, Usagimaru will be given a set of tools to aid his quest; all this means is that the terrain changes in later areas and these new tools allow him to traverse those accordingly. There's the kunai to break up cracked rocks which may otherwise block pathways and moveable rocks, the kite which allows him to fly up and down air drafts to get to higher ground, and the grappling hook in which our ninja hero can grab special blocks 7 spaces away and pull them towards him.
The mononoke will occasionally provide different types of threats on the board, but Usagimaru doesn't actually have weapons with which to disable them. This game is packaged as a block puzzle adventure, much like Atlus' Catherine or Pushmo, in which manipulating blocks is all you'll need to solve the level's puzzle. Blocks can be used to crush enemies and stun them, while others are simply covered up and allow your ninja to cross their paths safely. Each villager is tied up by a mononoke, and it takes a block on a mononoke pressure sensor to release them, which is a lot like putting a block on a trigger to open a trapdoor.
But it's not that simple, either. Each level forces players to think carefully on how to use the blocks provided. There are ways in which blocks can be misused or placed incorrectly, leading to a series of trial and error restarts, as solutions are not always so cut and dry. Gradually the game factors in other deterrents as well. Spikes on the ground, magic totems that block pathways, mononoke who act in certain ways either by patrolling or thwarting plans for a direct route to their captives, and even the villager's movements themselves as they follow you. It's all very clever and at times, mentally taxing. Ninja Usagimaru tries to ease players into it in a couple of ways but, even so, this is a game that requires some patience.
Ninja Usagimaru has over 50 levels, and after completing the first area tools and subsequent areas will be unlocked. The game opens up rapidly and you're allowed to explore any of the other levels as you desire. There's no real hand-holding - aside from the occasional vague or helpful hints given on each level. Tackling later levels at your discretion may feel like a dare for the brave, when at other times it presents like Russian Roulette. As unlocking tools is just another method to showcase their functionality and level designs, it's understandable that subsequent levels do not necessarily translate into an automatic increase in difficulty.
There's no denying this: Ninja Usagimaru can feel difficult in any given area or a breeze. Some of this is attributed to how easily discernible solutions are or not. There's also the issue where jumping, particularly with your rescued villager in tow, takes utmost precision to land. The jumps need to be very controlled and a misstep can lead to certain death.
In some instances starting a level can feel overwhelming, but only on first glance. Even the 20 minute timer at the start of each doesn't add much pressure to gameplay as the restart button is quite handy until you figure out the solutions. The timer is extremely generous most times. Sometimes villagers will be placed in predicaments that require you to act within a few seconds at the start of the level, or dependent on risking danger, making the timer dishonest. Regardless, this game will have you thinking on many occasions, which is a testament to how creative many of the puzzles are designed.
Ninja Usagimaru is not only a brain teaser at times but beautiful as well. The menu screens look straight out of Okami and Okamiden - imbued with a Japanese woodblock style framed by thick lines - while its characters look like chibi animated drawings. The actual puzzle levels are set on gorgeous slides of nature-background scenes while the blocks, your ninja, villager, mononoke and traps stand out as anime-style sprites and art.
Musically, there's a lot of recycling going on between stages. While there's nothing offensive about the wonderful traditional Japanese sounds that the game gives, the repetition means that the songs become background noises for an even-tempered experience to assist in the critical thinking required to complete some levels. The same can be said of the story, on which Ninja Usagimaru is very light. It's not surprising that the puzzle game sets up only the basics to give players a reason for doing what they're doing. Will you truly be concerned as to why mononoke are attacking your villages, and why the Gem of Blessings is so important? Probably not, but that's not really detrimental to enjoying this game to its fullest.
Light on story, full of beautiful Japanese style in its art and an occasional propensity to be challenging, Ninja Usagimaru - The Gem of Blessings is a good block puzzle game that gradually introduces its mechanics as a smokescreen for somewhat deceptive levels of difficulty. As the game opens up fairly quickly and with ease, players can choose when to dive in and how best to proceed; this approach may give it a feeling of imbalance at times. This ninja journey to saving villagers from Japanese spirits by using blocks at your disposal may sometimes feel a worthy challenge, and there's satisfaction to completing some of the harder puzzles which require a whole lot of patience. Other times, solutions may be as easy as pie.
Ultimately, it's a game that has the potential to keep you busy for a little while. As a ninja, Ninja Usagimaru proves that a sharp mind is the best weapon against any puzzle.