Platform(s): PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC
Developer(s): Red Fly Studio
Release Date: August 28, 2013 (Xbox 360, PC), September 24, 2013 (PS3)
NOTE: This review is based off of gameplay of the Xbox 360 version.
There’s absolutely no denying how much of a fan of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles I am. I have a shelf full of figures, both sealed and open, pajama pants that I wear all the time, the complete 80’s animated series on DVD in collectible Turtle Van packaging, the 25th anniversary movie collection on Blu-ray, and, of course, a majority of the video games spawned from the license over the years. One title I’ve always held in high regard, as well as count among my favorite games of all time, is the Super Nintendo version of Turtles in Time. To this day, I still have yet to find a Turtles experience that can top that classic brawler of yesteryear. It captured the look and spirit of the 80’s cartoon while delivering a fun and addictive brawler that could be played over and over. After playing Activision’s first crack at the Ninja Turtles franchise, titled Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows, the wait for that coveted quintessential Turtles experience continues.
Out of the Shadows, developed by Red Fly Studio, is based off of the currently-running Nickelodeon show. The game’s plot feels like a mish-mash of TV episodes thrown together, as April is kidnapped and the Turtles try to uncover the reasons why Shredder is stealing technology from the alien race known as the Kraang. The story is told through some in-engine cutscenes as well as some rather poorly-drawn, still animation frames, with the latter giving the game a cheaper feel. Gripes aside, it’s nothing spectacular and merely serves as a means to chain the game’s four chapters together. While the game certainly borrows from the TV show’s universe from a plot and character standpoint, the visual style and sound are radically different. Out of the Shadows opts for a darker look, with the Turtles sporting a more realistic and humanoid appearance as opposed to the cartoonish aesthetic of the show. This has been a very divisive point amongst fans, but I, for one, appreciate a darker look for characters that not only originated as dark characters in the comics, but have needed a more gritty modern representation after being depicted as child-friendly animated characters for so long. Environments also take a similar cue, with a lot of shadows covering most backdrops, giving the game an overall darker tone. Even the Foot Clan has a more realistic look, with standard Foot Ninja actually looking very similar to how they appeared in the original live-action movie, which is a nice homage.
If only Red Fly could have secured the voice cast from the TV show. The one in place is actually good, but simply not as good as the cast in the show and the lack of it also hurts the authenticity of the presentation. Also, Raphael happens to suffer from some forced delivery in many of his one-liners, and seeing as he’s my favorite turtle, it makes it all the worse for me to cope with. Casting aside my personal gripe, one nice touch is how the turtles will start random conversations between fights as they traverse rooftops and hallways. These discussions are rather hilarious and sometimes make references and in-jokes that long-time Ninja Turtles fans will appreciate. The only crying shame is that, despite the game’s short length, these conversations somehow manage to repeat themselves several times throughout. The battle chatter suffers from the same issues, with phrases being repeated ad nauseum.
Speaking of battling, TMNT titles have been predominately beat ’em ups, where the four brothers take to various locales and beat the snot out of everything in sight. Out of the Shadows is no exception, but what sets it apart from previous endeavors is how much more evolved it is. While TMNT brawlers of the past pretty much consisted of mashing one or two buttons repeatedly with little to no depth, this entry takes an approach not unlike Rocksteady’s Batman Arkham series and adapts it to a co-op experience, or, at least it tries to. It’s worth noting that all four Turtles are always on-screen at all times and can be freely switched between when playing solo, meaning the other three are controlled by surprisingly decent A.I. that manage to not constantly die on you.
Battling in Out of the Shadows consists of using weapon attacks and kick attacks, with the former being more damaging while the latter has the ability to break through enemies that block your attacks frequently. Using these in combination can mix up your combos, keeping enemies guessing and potentially chaining together many attacks, which is crucial for pulling off TPKOs, or Turtle Power Knock Outs, which serve as powerful finishers by doling out heavy damage. Pulling off TPKOs near fellow Turtles can allow them to jump in, creating flashy attacks that also increase the combo meter for every Turtle involved. Not every character can utilize team attacks from the outset, however, but they can be unlocked by leveling up the team and spending ability points to not only teach each Turtle new attacks, but increase their stats and even unlock perks that all four Turtles share. Every Turtle has his own set of skills and play style, so no two Turtles feel the same in combat. For instance, Raph likes to use brutal hand-to-hand attacks, such as kneeing enemies in the face, punching the daylights out of them while they’re down, and performing suplexes and powerbombs like a pro wrestler, while Leo’s style has more finesse and relies on fancy sword work, with spinning attacks that can hit multiple enemies at once. It’s no longer just about range and attack speed like in previous TMNT titles. Now every Turtle has their own fighting style, and it certainly helps give the game a sense of replayability and variety.
There are also special attacks that can be triggered by holding the Right Trigger and making circular motions with the right analog stick, similar to EA Sports’ Fight Night franchise, that can be unlocked for each Turtle. This is where things start to get a bit hairy. Whereas the buttons are generally responsive and rely on timing to create effective combos, the right stick motions don’t always register. I’d sometimes make the correct motion, only for my Turtle to either not respond or perform a different special attack entirely. For instance, one special requires a full 360 degree motion clockwise on the right stick, but when attempting to perform that, sometimes my Turtle would instead use a special that only requires a quarter circle motion, but isn’t as effective in dealing damage. So, not only did the game execute an inferior command, it also used up a block of my special meter that I have to build up again in order to use the superior special, which definitely generated some frustration when it happened.
That’s not even the worst part of the combat system, however. Red Fly seems to have attempted to mimic the counter system of the Batman Arkham series, but wound up with a completely broken and unresponsive mess. The way the system is supposed to work is that, once an enemy begins to attack, a white flash shoots out from their body, and pressing the counter button as soon as the effect starts will trigger a counter. I have yet to actually figure out the timing for this, however, as I’ll clearly press the button with the right timing, only to block the attack, which takes away from a “Block Health” meter you have that, once depleted, renders you unable to block anything, or I wind up on my turtle ass after taking a sword to the face. There have been times when countering works, but it appears to be random, and such an inconsistent and unresponsive system all but breaks the game, as it simply does not provide you with a reliable means to defend yourself. Why this title was released with such a broken game mechanic is beyond me, as it doesn’t even function on any conceivably acceptable level.
The issues don’t end there. You’re able to evade enemy attacks with a tap of the A button while holding the left analog stick in the direction you want to go. This works well enough and even allows you to leap and roll over enemies and allies alike, but when you’re in the middle of using an attack button, forget it. You have to wait for the attack animation to end before it will actually work, so if you need to dodge a non-counterable attack, which is denoted by a green effect surrounding an enemy while they’re attacking, you’re screwed. There’s a boss fight with a giant, three-headed mouser that is made even more frustrating by this since it can smash the ground and create a shockwave all around it, but if you’re in the middle of attacking its weakpoints at close range, you won’t be able to avoid it. In fact, if you’re standing too close when this attack is unleashed, you’re still screwed, as the distance evading actually covers is too small to get out of harms way. What’s also baffling is the jump mechanic that is attached to the same button as evading. You can jump just by tapping A without holding the analog stick, but you can only jump straight upwards, not at an angle, making this a completely useless mechanic. You can’t create any combos off of it and the animation for it is stiff and feels unnatural. If you wanted to try and use some dive kicks just like in the old arcade games, that’s too bad.
Want some more issues? Sure, why not. To start, for some reason, someone thought it would be a good idea to sprinkle hacking puzzles into the game. Granted, most are optional, but the higher difficulty ones tend to be so infuriating that you’ll complete half of the puzzle, only to realize that you screwed up and have to restart all over again. These puzzles feel out-of-place and do nothing but bring the pace of the game to a grinding halt. During combat, the camera simply doesn’t want you to be able to see what’s going on. If you get too close to a wall or an object, the camera will just zoom in really close and just above your Turtle’s head, so you can’t see what’s going on. You’ll constantly be fighting with the camera just to get the right angle while fighting enemies at the same time, making for an unnecessarily cumbersome and clumsy experience. The game also suffers from several bugs and glitches, further dropping this unpolished title into the abyss. The framerate will sometimes dip just by rotating the camera while running around environments, giving the game a somewhat unfinished feel. I had one instance where a boss fight simply failed to trigger. Where Karai should have been waiting to fight me, I instead spent about ten minutes trying to figure out if I was missing a platform or ladder I needed to climb, all the while the Turtles kept spouting taunts at Karai while she responded with subtitles only, meaning she wasn’t even in the general vicinity. I had to restart the checkpoint over again. During the final boss, he would float over into a corner and just freeze there for no apparent reason. My attacks had no effect on him, but he would suddenly snap out of it and start attacking me. This actually occurred twice during separate attempts to defeat him. I’ve also encountered conversations with the Turtles that will run over into load screens and even cutscenes, so I had Leo at one point speaking two separate sentences at the same time. Simply put, Out of the Shadows is a rushed title that somehow made it through Activision’s quality assurance and it absolutely pains me to see a game with such a beloved license being handled so poorly.
Out of the Shadows sports two other modes outside of the main campaign. One is Challenge Mode, which basically consists of taking on waves of enemies in each of the campaign’s environments, along with one challenge called Survival, which tests how many waves of enemies you can fight your way through before all four Turtles fall. With all of the issues with the counter mechanics, trying to survive for any extended period of time is a futile effort as there’s very limited healing between each round to make up for the beating you’ll receive thanks to not being able to counter most attacks. The other mode is Arcade, which takes the campaign and makes it into an old-school, side-scrolling beat ’em up spread across seven levels. You would think that a side-scroller wouldn’t have camera issues, but alas, Red Fly somehow screwed this up, too. The camera zooms out too far at times, making your character as well as your enemies microscopic, and foreground objects like pipes, walls, and fences actually obscure your vision, making it tough to see what’s going on at times. Arcade mode supports 4-player co-op, but locally only, meaning you can’t play it with your friends online. Playing it alone is simply boring and imbalanced as, unlike the campaign, only one Turtle is on the screen and you get pretty outnumbered without any help.
Speaking of multiplayer, the game’s campaign can also be played online with up to three other players. I found in my experience that, while load times were rather lengthy, gameplay was actually smooth and lag-free, although playing with three other players that clearly have leveled up Turtles makes for a rather easy experience, as everyone is seemingly over-powered and more competent than the A.I. that’s in place when playing solo.
I can give Red Fly credit for capturing the Ninja Turtles’ subject matter in great fashion, with the overall darker tone being a fresh take on the Turtles, having each Turtle feeling more unique than ever before in combat, and a sense of camaraderie drawn from conversations between the Turtles and some entertaining team attacks infused into the mostly fun combat mechanics that are in place. I can also excuse the short length of the campaign given the game’s $15 price tag. However, everything else falls flat. Terrible counter mechanics, a cumbersome camera, myriad bugs and glitches, and extra modes that suffer from the same issues as the main campaign, which subsequently means they add nothing to the overall game, all serve to drag this experience down. When the fact that “Turtle Power” from the original live-action movie plays during the main menu and the end credits is one of the biggest highlights of this game, you know someone screwed up somewhere. As a major Turtles fan, I can’t help but feel severely letdown, as Out of the Shadows was one of my most-anticipated games of the year. All I can really say is that Turtles fans deserve far better, as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows is one of 2013’s biggest disappointments.