[After playing the PC version of From Software's Ninja Blade, writer Lewis Denby discusses console to PC game conversions, and what can go horribly wrong, in this Gamasutra opinion piece.]
I recently played the PC version of Ninja Blade. The Xbox 360 original released around a year ago, and the PC version, launched in North America late last year, finally hit the UK last week. The day I spent reviewing it became one of my least favorite of the year so far.
Ninja Blade is an insane game. It's generic and predictable, but you almost suspect it wants to be, and it magnifies those genre quirks into something utterly overblown and ridiculous. I'm not really into that anyway, and even without the impenetrable wall of PC-specific problems, I still don't find Ninja Blade to be anything above utterly mediocre. That's fine, though - a lot of people will be okay with the game's approach. It's okay for players to disagree over a game's quality.
Except, I must admit to being completely dumbfounded by the handful of positive reviews this PC version has received. That's because, as a PC game, I found it to be borderline unplayable. With an Xbox 360 pad plugged in, it basically works - aside from a couple of controller glitches here and there. But to what extent is it acceptable to release a game for one format, while essentially demanding you use the controller from another one?
Just as a quick guide to what we're dealing with here: when you create a new save file at the start of Ninja Blade on the PC, it warns you not to "turn off your console." Yes, Ninja Blade is one of those conversions: not so much converted as made to perfunctorily run on a different machine.
In-game, you're asked to press A, B, X and Y in various sequences as part of Ninja Blade's extraordinary abundance of quick-time events. Whether you have an Xbox 360 pad plugged in or not, the game captions these button icons with text describing the PC equivalent controls. Only it doesn't always do that. Sometimes, you're left staring at a giant, pulsating, green letter A, and no idea what to do with it.
It's true that many PC gamers now have an Xbox 360 pad set on the desk next to their mice and keyboards. And there are games on the PC that I would never have dreamed of playing without a gamepad. Batman: Arkham Asylum certainly relies on the ease of combo-chaining that a more traditional PC set-up simply would not be able to provide.
But the PC version of Arkham Asylum still gave you the very reasonable option of playing it with that format's default control mechanism. The game remained entirely playable, and the on-screen prompts adjusted depending on which input you'd opted for. The latest Tomb Raider, for all its quirks, was another hero in this respect, seamlessly altering its instructions and icons the second you plugged in or removed that Xbox 360 pad.
With that pad plugged in, Ninja Blade becomes more than playable - and although I have heard reports of controllers glitching and not recognising, I only experienced a couple of minor problems myself. The game, while uninspired, effectively does work as a game. It's fit for purpose.
But, actually, is it? That label on the front tells me it's a PC game. The minimum system requirements don't mention an Xbox 360 pad. I can play it, because I happen to have one, but what if I didn't? Would I still be stuck on that first level, trying to work out what on Earth the game meant when it told me to waggle the left stick? And would that be my fault for not owning something increasingly widespread in PC gaming, or the fault of those responsible for such a catastrophic port?
I can't help but feel it's the latter. When you're creating a game for a particular format, it makes absolutely no sense not to optimise it for that format. And there's this nagging, though perhaps overly dramatic, voice in my head that says: that product is not fit for the purpose for which it's sold. It is described as a game for my PC. Unless I own a peripheral designed for a different system entirely, one not mentioned in the game's accompanying literature, I cannot progress past the first level.
Picking specifically on Ninja Blade might be a little cruel. It's happened a great many times before, with conversions of some of the finest games around. Resident Evil 4's PC release famously omitted a menu option to quit the game, such was the laziness of the conversion. There have been countless occurences of this type, and there will undoubtedly be more. And it's time we start getting a little bit irked about it, each and every time the issue crops up.
But these good reviews of Ninja Blade? Bizarre. I cannot understand them. I've yet to read a review that doesn't at least mention the sloppiness of the conversion, but I have read a couple that suggest it doesn't really matter. Try as I might, I can't get behind that. It's a PC game that doesn't work properly with PC hardware. Whatever Ninja Blade's merits as a game may be, it utterly fails as a product.
[Lewis Denby is editor of Resolution Magazine and general freelance busybody for anyone that'll have him. If he'd been paid for such a shoddy conversion job, he's not sure he'd be able to live with the guilt.]