The beat 'em up and run-and-gun genres have been a staple of the video game landscape ever since the mid-80s. With more recent and notable entries such as Castle Crashers and Cuphead, it would be wrong to say that the genres have disappeared completely, but they are no longer as prominent as they used to be. This was part of the reason why I found Ninjin: Clash of Carrots to be surprisingly refreshing. Ninjin is more of a beat 'em up than a run-and-gun, but it does share elements with both genres.
Ninjin: Clash of the Carrots was developed by Pocket Trap and published by Modus Games and is available now on Steam, PS4, Nintendo Switch and Xbox One. The game is mainly inspired by anime and Japanese folklore. It follows the story of two ninjas as they try to return the carrots that were stolen from their village by the Mole-ruled shogunate. The game features a charming art style, pretty good music and a fairly goofy storyline and characters.
Ninjin is a simple game. Each of its levels comprises waves of enemies, with the final wave usually being a mini-boss
, and the final level in each world being a boss. From the first level, you are introduced to the game's unique take on the beat 'em up genre - you are constantly running to the right. This means that the only way to damage enemies with your primary weapon is from their left. I found this constraint to be quite an interesting one because it forces you to not only evade enemies and projectiles, but also find a way to damage the enemies.
The most praiseworthy element of the game is how it treats most of the enemy encounters as puzzles or mini-challenges for the player to figure out. It does this by first introducing a new enemy, then having the player learn them by fighting one or two of them and
afterwards pairing it up with other enemies in interesting ways.
This can be seen from the first tutorial level where you are taught the basic actions of using your primary weapon, dashing, dash-attacking and your projectiles. The game just tells you what button to press; it is up to you to learn how to perform these moves properly. As you progress through the game you will be slowly introduced to new enemies that will test you in different ways. These range from pigs with spears that hit you from behind, alarm bells that call for backup, ghost puppies that drain your stamina (which you need for projectiles and dashing) to floating foxes that block you from using a specific action and many, many more.
Ninjin is never boring because of this. There are constantly new combinations of enemies that force you to approach the situation a little differently. For example, the monkey enemies will chase after you in rage if you break their helmets. Alone they are easy to deal with, but once you meet an enemy that breaks their helmets with its attack, they become much harder. Ninjin has a constant layer of strategy to it - which enemy do you focus your attention on? If there is a bomb enemy, do you try and destroy it first from a safe distance, but then put yourself in danger due to other enemies?
The strategy also exists when it comes to your character's build. Ninjin features a wide assortment of primary weapons and projectiles which are your damage dealers. You also have artifacts, which are items that grant passive effects, but you can only hold three of. Finally, you have unique stones that will unleash a powerful and invincible attack once you fill up a special meter by hitting enemies with your primary weapon. This means that your character becomes more customizable the further into the game you are and the more items you unlock.
I liked that if I had a hard time in a level, I could examine my build and change it to try and fit the level better. If the level had waves with a lot of enemies, I would focus on a build that would let me build up my special meter quickly. If I was fighting a boss, I would not need an explosive projectile built for dealing with a group of enemies. I did, however, find the process of unlocking new items a little irritating. You either beat a level and new items appear in the shop or you find a random chest in a level which may give you a new item. Furthermore, each world has a limited amount of items you can get from chests. If you are stuck in a level and changing your build around does not seem to help, then there is very little you can do other than to keep trying.
I also think that not all the primary weapons are that useful. Once I found a weapon type that I liked, I found that there was no reason to buy other weapons. I also wish that each weapon was a little more unique, because the only thing that changes is the damage, length, critical hit rate, the weapon type and maybe an elemental effect. There are only four weapon types and three lengths, so while there are a lot of weapons (roughly 100) many of them just feel too similar. On the other hand, the projectiles and artifacts are great and most are unique so they really allow for each player to build a character that fits their own strengths.
The currency in the game is carrots. These are dropped by enemies and need to be manually collected, so you may endanger yourself if you try to collect all of them. I like this because, again, it shows how important making quick decisions is in this game. Aside from regular carrots, you will also find rainbow carrots. You will use these in a separate shop to buy cosmetic accessories. I appreciate this split because it means that I could buy an accessory without worrying about saving carrots to buy an artifact I wanted.
Before I move to some of the issues I had with the game, there are a few other things I wanted to mention. You can play the entire game in co-op and even in online co-op, though I could not find anybody else playing online when I tried. When playing co-op you each get to have a completely different character and can try to have it so you
both cover each others' weaknesses. The downside is that if one of you dies in a level, the level is over. Finally, I have to praise the ridiculously good statistics page that not only shows you separate stats for each character, details on each level you beat, and how long you have played, but also shows how many carrots you have missed and how many chests each world has left.
My biggest issue with Ninjin has to do with its healing system. You heal by not taking damage during a wave and by reaching a specific number on your combo meter. If during a wave I got a 20 plus combo, yet got hit, I would heal 5 health points. If I hit nobody and did not get hit, I would heal 10 health points. This way the game encourages a playstyle where you keep hitting an enemy, without getting hit yourself. The issue is that there are some moments where it feels like you can't avoid taking damage due to the amount of enemies and projectiles on screen. It's because of waves like these that healing becomes essentially impossible. Even relying on a high combo number is not enough because the game relies on a checkpoint system with the combo number to health conversion. This means that a 63 combo and a 93 combo would heal the same because they are above 50, but below 100. getting low combo numbers is not useful either because it barely heals you. This makes many levels more of an endurance run as enemies chip away at your health and you have no real way to heal. This is especially bad in boss fights because there are only one or two waves.
My two other big issues in the game come from the optional content. The first is the "Oni TV" endless challenge mode. You unlock this mode early in the game, and in it you fight endless randomized waves of enemies. Beyond the aforementioned problem with healing, I also find that forcing you to start with the most basic items and no artifacts or stones to be too difficult. The only way to get items is by picking from three random items every three waves. You do not get to see the items stats and you only have ten seconds to pick one - so good luck. The only reason to do this mode is to get 10 special chests with special items. These drop every 10 waves and picking up a chest you have already picked up will give you carrots. The mode is good for training and earning carrots, but it feels impossible to even reach wave 30. Most of the waves are so random and long that they work against the core strength of the game - the puzzle element of the designed waves of the main story.
Finally, I have a serious pet peeve with the way the game ranks your performance in each level. The game gives you a rank from C to S, and even tells you that getting all the S ranks will gain you "gifts". I still don't know what the game means by this because getting an S rank has more to do with luck than with skill. I have no idea how the game calculates your rank, and I personally hate that it includes your accuracy, because this way it incentivizes a specific playstyle. This, like the previous issue, goes against one of the game's strengths which is allowing players to build their own character and thus allowing for different playstyles.
To conclude, Ninjin: Clash of Carrots is a fun and silly game that is not only charming but can also be brutally challenging. It features some great, well-designed levels and a large variety of enemies and items to collect. It seems perfect for anyone who wants to play a game with a close friend just like Castle Crashers and Cuphead. If you can look past its annoying optional content I see no reason to not buy it.