Avatar Ninja teaches the ancient art of button mashing

Review of Avatar Ninja! on XBLIG: Pass
A beautiful, polished reflex game with little substance.

Avatar Ninja is a button masher, pure and simple.  The goal of the game is to collect coins and score points—and this requires your Avatar to be continuously running.

Running involves keeping the Focus and Rhythm meters full. Rhythm is maintained by repeatedly tapping the A button, while Focus determines how fast the A button must be tapped to generate rhythm.  Rhythm and Focus both decrease when an Avatar crashes into obstacles, and the game is over when the Rhythm meter is empty.  To avoid loss of Rhythm and Focus, an Avatar must jump, slide, or throw shurikens, depending on the type of obstacle.  An Avatar can also jump to collect scrolls, which randomly appear and bestow various power-ups.  Other than these three actions, the Avatar isn’t directly controlled.

Overall, gameplay is solid and stable, but I found the Focus/Rhythm system frustrating.  The term “Rhythm” is a misnomer, in that the button doesn’t need to be pressed at regular intervals—it’s the number of times it’s mashed that counts.  There’s no clear indication of exactly how often this is, so I often found myself wearing out my thumb early by button mashing A too rapidly.  (I am not particularly skilled in subtlety or restraint.)

The scoring system also felt off.  Coins are worth 1 or 3 points, and a long string of flawless gameplay is necessary for accumulating a good score multiplier (especially considering the rate at which game speed increases).  Even with flawless gameplay, my best games were ones where Avatar Ninja spawned a series of 200,000-point-bonus Ninja Score scrolls.  Once I recognized that, the game felt somewhat arbitrary—high score ranking felt more dependent on random spawns than on perfecting gameplay skills.  Considering the high score list is the only real goal in the game, that’s a bit disappointing.

Don’t get me wrong, Avatar Ninja is a stellar example of the potential of both XBLIG and Avatars.  The presentation is engaging, with clean a user interface as well as fitting (if overly stereotypical) music and voice-overs.  The 3D environments and obstacles are beautifully rendered.   The Avatar usage is surprisingly well-done: animation is smooth and the game uses Avatars in moderation. (The only Avatar that’s ever shown is the player’s.)

Online high scores also act as a well-placed hook.  Once I realized I was not scoring high enough to rank in the top 10,000, I kept playing in hopes I’d get lucky one game and barely squeak over the line.  After a couple of hours of play my luckiest breaks still landed 100,000 points from the high score list, so I reluctantly gave up.

I’m giving Avatar Ninja a Pass.  There’s no doubt the graphics and presentation are high quality, and some may find its button-mashing action addictive. Personally, I felt like there wasn’t enough substance.

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