For many of us who grew up with the Nintendo Entertainment System, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (TMNT) name carries memories of extreme challenges and great arcade action. Ubisoft's latest entry into the growing list of Turtles games delivers neither, eschewing both for a game that at first glance can be mistaken for a Prince of Persia clone. In the end though, it strives too much to appeal to the youngest audience. The result is a game that doesn't look flashy enough to get by on looks alone but offers no compelling design or challenge to make up for it. To be sure, TMNT only does one or two things particularly badly. But having played through the game in a few hours, it seems hard to point to many particular strong points either.
Ubisoft Montreal is clearly targeting the younger side of the gaming audience with TMNT. Therein lies what is perhaps the biggest issue with the game -- they went too far. You quite literally cannot die. If you fall down a pit, the only penalty is that you'll have to start a few feet before the place you died. If you lose all of your health, all you have to do is tap on a button and you'll come back with your health bar full and continue the fight or obstacle exactly where you left off. There is absolutely no incentive to learn any sort of intricacies which may exist as the game essentially plays itself.
Scratch that. There may be a few reasons to learn the ropes. At the end of each stage a grade is awarded based on how quickly you complete the stage (a function of how few times you fall to your temporary doom), how many plain-sight icons you collect, how well you do in battle, and teamwork. Higher grades receive more turtle shells which can be used to unlock artwork, videos, and a few goofy cheats such as the always adorable big head mode.
The best reason to do well in a level is that a grade of 'A' or better nets you access to a challenge map. These bonus missions inspired by Metal Gear Solid 2's VR tasks put players in a wire frame, virtual world and task them with navigating a platforming challenge or defeating a few baddies. The challenge maps aren't necessarily difficult which isn't too much of a surprise, but a few of them are well designed and they do provide a nice little side distraction to an otherwise drab game.
The drabness very much comes from the implementation of an idea that is solid at heart. The gameplay, in a nutshell, is a mix between slickly animated platforming and light combat that isn't too far from a light version of Prince of Persia. It sounds good and the smooth look of Michelangelo and company scampering along walls or grasping onto small ledges work to promote the core idea. The camera occasionally gets in the way of the platforming, but the forgiving nature of the game rarely allows for frustration. With a little more thought put into the level design, the platforming could be great. The blocky world, especially in the jungle levels, and fact that the vast majority of the game follows a singular path with no options for exploration or thought keep the jumping and flipping action a little below where it could have been.
The simple combat doesn't help either. At set points in each of the 16 levels, groups of enemies that look oddly alike will appear out of nowhere and attack you. There aren't any combos that you can control here. Rather, tapping on one attack button repeatedly will string out a single combination attack. The other attack button just does a spin kick and is largely useless. String together enough attacks without getting hit and you'll go into a mega attack mode where the camera tilts, everything goes into slow-mo, and your hits do more damage. Some stages allow you to do team attacks but there really isn't any reason to pull them out aside from boss fights. Remember, you can't die even if you lose all of your life. The enemies don't do much aside from standing in one place and waiting for their doom either. The combination attack looks nice at first, but there's only one for each turtle and it becomes tired even before the end of this short game.
The real problem with the combat isn't that it is uninspired. It's that there is no multiplayer or cooperative mode in the game. Incidentally, this also takes away from the platforming sections. This is a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game, for Pete's sake. That means we have four turtles fighting as a team. One of the main themes of the game even is teamwork. Yet, you can't play with another person at your side or online, let alone three others. Instead, some levels allow you to swap between the turtles to use their sole special move or to just vary the attack combinations. A TMNT game that emphasizes teamwork but doesn't provide any outlet for doing it in real life is by definition weak sauce.
While the graphics on the Cube version don't do anything spectacular, but they aren't as cringe inducing as the versions of TMNT on more powerful systems. The game is rife with blocky worlds and poor design and has major issues with the cutscene compression, but it doesn't look much worse or better than middle of the road games. The sound needs some serious work. Voice acting in a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game will always be cartoonish by definition and that is fine. The repetition with which the sound bytes are tossed out kill the aural experience. We only need to hear "Booyah!" yelled so many times in one game and TMNT exceeds that limit in just a few minutes of play.
If it feels that we're slagging the game a bit much, that's only because the potential here is great even if it is unmet. The game shouldn't be looked at as a total failure by any means. Despite the "E10+" ESRB rating, this game would be much better suited to a child of the 6-8 age range. If you're a parent looking for a game to entertain your budding child that doesn't have a curse word or bleeding human tossed in every few seconds, then TMNT isn't a bad choice at all. The silly story, over-the-top voices and simple design would certainly be more entertaining and less off putting to less sophisticated gamers. Adult fans of the mutant reptiles, though, will likely be disappointed with a game that isn't the least bit challenging or engaging to developed minds.
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