Megara Entertainment, $13.30, ISBN 978-1499106121
Ninja! is a prequel to the ninja gamebook series The Way of the Tiger. While this one is written and designed by David Walters, it manages to somewhat retain the flavor set by Mark Smith and Jamie Thomson in the original series.
You still play the same character, but you’re not called Avenger yet and you are not a Grandmaster at the Temple of the Rock yet. In fact, in this one, you are just starting out on the test that would induct you into the hall of fame, so to speak, but you have to beat three other challengers in this test. The test is simple – all of you would be sent to the Island of Plenty, and here, there are five different Daimyos that rule various parts of the island. The test is to sneak in and retrieve the official flags of any two of the Daimyos – without committing “evil”, naturally, and in this case theft is clearly not a “bad” thing to do at all – and then travel to the Grandmaster of Five Winds who is waiting in Iga. The first person to do this gets to become a Grandmaster and boss over everyone else, how nice.
The gameplay system is the same, but this campaign is surprisingly forgiving compared to the original series. While this makes Ninja! a pretty pleasant stroll through the Island of Plenty, some folks may be shocked when they move on to the rest of the series and discover how brutal things can be. There, a single wrong turn means a brutal demise. Here, getting the two flags is pretty easy as there are several options with lots of opportunities to succeed. Some opponents can’t be killed, but that’s because they are designed that way – barring some really bad luck with the dice, you have to actively look for ways to die here in order to get a bad ending. As long as you don’t pick the obviously “wrong” options or be a jackass for the sake of it, you can’t go wrong.
Not having certain Special Items is also not a death sentence, as you may have skills to make up for any lack. This is nice, but it also means that some skills are far more useful than others. In fact, some skills mentioned in the rules section are hardly used at all, while one or two are so handy in many situations that taking them make the whole adventure much easier to breeze through.
Ninja! is a pleasant introduction to the series, and for those who have played the other gamebooks first, this is a nice trip back into a familiar fantasy setting. For the latter, there are some Easter eggs in the form of foreshadowing to events in future gamebooks, but the gamebook would also lack suspense for those folks. After all, it’s pretty obvious who would survive this test and who wouldn’t, so the twists here aren’t as shocking as they could have been.
The storytelling element is passable – serviceable if somewhat predictable – and the pacing is fine, although much of the campaign feels disappointingly cookie-cutter. But that’s Ninja! in a nutshell. The campaign works best as an entry level gamebook, banking on the simple gameplay mechanics and largely forgiving campaign structure to help newcomers take in the scenery and the flavor. Therefore, if Ninja! is less memorable compared to the later gamebooks, it’s probably designed to be that way, for the sake of the newbies. It probably won’t be fair to hold its lack of challenging or memorable encounters against it, right?
By the way, the trade paperback version of this gamebook can be a disappointment because it is a straight-up print out of the digital version. The “turn to” parts in the options are still underlined as links, and the illustrations are blurry. There are other indie gamebooks of similar price that are far more attractive, so what is the problem here?