Review: Cubic Ninja

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CC, the dashing, square hero of Ubisoft’s Nintendo 3DS puzzle game Cubic Ninja, needs your help. CC’s ninja pals and the lovely princess of a squarish kingdom just east of the Far East have all been cube-napped, and they need to be rescued. Are you up to the task of guiding CC along on his rescue mission?

Cubic Ninja is basically a less demanding and more puzzle oriented take on twitch speed platformers like Super Meat Boy and N+. To rescue the princess, you must guide CC through 100 levels filled with spike traps, bouncy bumpers, flamethrowers, air-blowing fans, swinging wrecking balls, timed switch and door puzzles, and other obstacles that attempt to impede your progress. The objective in each stage is to get from the starting point to the exit hatch as quickly as possible, and without getting hit. Any hazard you come in contact with results in instantaneous death.

The difference with Cubic Ninja is that it is actually not a platformer, but rather a tilt-based puzzle/maze game. You roll little CC along on his quest to rescue the princess by tilting and turning the 3DS itself, the handheld’s gyroscopic sensors translating every twist and turn into a means to get your cubic hero tumbling until he’s dizzy. Tilt the 3DS to the right, CC tumbles off to the right. Tilt forward, CC slides up. And so on and so forth.

Playing Cubic Ninja reminds me a lot of the old handheld puzzle toys I grew up with. You know, the little plastic boxes that have a metal ball trapped inside, and you have to tilt the case around to roll the ball through a maze or into a small hole. It’s the same general idea here spread over a full-length game, and for the most part it works well.

The tilt controls are a gimmick, but they do perform with good precision. The tilt sensitivity is right on, allowing you to carefully nudge CC with nuance and subtlety when necessary, while also offering quick reaction time when you need to made a sudden stop or turn.

The only major control concern I have is when moving CC between the foreground and background. If you hold the 3DS up and turn it so the screen is facing the floor, CC falls forward into the screen, enabling him to bypass certain traps or barriers that only block off the background layer. This is a clever idea, but trying to play with your head leaning backwards looking up at the screen held above isn’t a comfortable position to be in.

If the system tilting method doesn’t strike your fancy, you can always control CC more traditionally by using the Circle Pad and face buttons. Under this scheme, all movement is controlled by the Circle Pad, and popping between the background and foreground requires a much more manageable button depression. Needless to say, I preferred the Circle Pad.

Either method you choose, Cubic Ninja is a fairly easy game to complete within about two to three hours. The main story mode consists of 100 levels evenly divided into five themed areas, but unfortunately there is no gradual increase in challenge. New traps and enemies are introduced as you go, and you can collect scrolls to build up special ninja skills, such as throwing stars and a shield. But even with these things, I never felt like the game was evolving. I was able to complete the overwhelming majority of the levels well under their target times on the very first try, and the challenge only seems to come in sudden spikes every few levels. Not until the final two bosses and the ‘Extra’ stages that unlocked upon completing the story mode did I get the stiffer ‘die & retry’ level of resistance that I wanted from the rest of the game.

Although brief on the first shot through, Cubic Ninja has good replayability features, as long as you grow smitten enough with the core gameplay concept to want to continue playing. There is a Time Attack mode with a ghost save option, a Survival mode that challenges you to play through as many random stages as you can in a row with only one life, and a nifty level creator that allows you to intuitively lay out custom map designs using the stylus. As you progress through the story, CC’s cubic ninja pals become available as playable characters. Each character has unique material traits, such as weight and bounciness, so going back through old stages forces you to change your approach based on the chosen ninja.

The downside is that sharing ghost data and custom levels is done exclusively via QR codes. Thus, you either need to have other local players to swap code scans with in person or you have to seek out other players online who have uploaded their QR codes to a message board. I’ve searched around, but I haven’t had any luck finding other players sharing codes. Ubisoft should have set up an online database for more widely accessible level exchanges.

I’m iffy about the look and sound of the game as well. On one hand, the character designs are fantastic. I would totally love to see CC and his friends turned into collectible vinyl figurines. But everything else that surrounds the characters just looks and sounds so ‘blah.’ The music for each area consists of the same five-beat track looping over and over again. And the graphics, while bursting with personality from an art design perspective, are so dull and one dimensional, largely consisting of flat, white textures on top of flat, grey textures. Water and fire themed levels bring some life to the party, but even then you’re still just looking at plain blue and brown colored map tiles.

Cubic Ninja isn’t all that it could have been, but I do give it high marks for trying something different from any other 3DS game currently available, and for daring to be original on a platform that is thus far too dependent on ports and the usual franchise rehashes. Overall, it is a joy to play for what it is and while it lasts, and you should most definitely give it a whirl if you happen to stumble upon it while scavenging the bargain bins. But the lax difficulty and the limited data sharing implementation leave this game feeling more like a missed opportunity than the sleeper special it had all the potential to be.

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Pros:
+ Tilt-based gameplay is fun, unique and intuitive
+ Toy-line-quality character designs
+ Unlockable characters and level creator add some replay value

Cons:
– Doesn’t present enough of a challenge until it’s too late
– Sharing ghost data and custom levels done exclusively via QR codes
– Visually and aurally bland

Affiliate Links:
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Game Info:
Platform: Nintendo 3DS
Publisher: Ubisoft
Developer: AQ Interactive
Release Date: 6/14/2011
Genre: Action/Puzzle
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Players: 1
Source: Review copy provided by publisher

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About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!