Ninja Pizza Girl – Multiple missteps mar an otherwise solid platformer


Reviewed July 20, 2016 on Xbox One

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Disclosure: An Xbox One download code was provided by the publisher for this review
Ninja Pizza Girl is a game I wish I liked more than I actually do. It has a strong set of core mechanics, and a very positive anti-bullying message, but some stumbles along the way prevent it from reaching its full potential. It is certainly an enjoyable experience, but the rough edges are hard, at times, to ignore.

At its heart, Ninja Pizza Girl is a relatively straight-forward side-scrolling platformer, focused on finding a fluid path through the level. The objective is simple: deliver a pizza to a customer before it gets cold, chaining together jumps, slides and wall-jumps to reach the goal, all the while avoiding the MeGaCo goons who seek to mock and slow down the player. The basic idea of the game reminds me of the Mirror's Edge mobile game that EA put out a few years ago (though thankfully NPG controls far better than that game).
Purely from a mechanical standpoint, the game works well. Landing a jump into a slide, taking out multiple enemies in the process, feels good, wall-jumps are easy to pull off, and moving from one move to the next feels very fluid. As successive moves are executed without stumbling, being hit by enemy attacks, or suddenly changing direction, the character beginnings to sparkle subtly. Eventually, the game briefly slows down, the dubstep kicks in, and the character starts to leave rainbow colours trails in her wake. Getting that effect, and knowing that I am nailing what I am trying to do, just feels great. Oddly, on some occasions, the dubstep didn't kick in, and I was left playing the game in near silence. I'm not clear if this was a bug, or an aspect of the mood system I was misunderstanding, but it was a tad disappointing when that happened, regardless of the cause.
Well designed levels mean that even on a first run at a level, it's generally easy to see a path (not necessarily the fastest path) through a level, which complements the mechanics well. Some of the later levels can be a little less obvious, and may double back on themselves, but generally speaking the difficulty ramp means that this didn't feel frustrating. Most of the levels have multiple paths, and on some of the later levels I found I could avoid entire segments by taking the less obvious path. This made it fairly rewarding to revisit levels in search of collectables or a better ranking (determined by the time remaining).
Some of the levels, typically those at the end of a chapter, mix up the gameplay to some degree. In one, the time constraint is removed, but the pizza must be kept above a certain temperature by passing or standing near oil drum braziers. There is also a race against a rival pizza runner, and a timed collectable hunt. These levels help to break up the game, and are a welcome addition to the more standard platforming / speedrun levels.

The game is mostly bug-free, though I found I could hover in-place in a few locations
Outside of the core story progression, the game has a few additional features that extend its longevity to some degree. Collectables found in the levels can be used to unlock additional costume for the main character and additional items such as game modifiers, interviews with the developers, and artwork. Though collecting these items can sometimes disrupt the flow of the level, it also provided a useful hint of alternate paths that could be taken. The game modifiers, such as double-jump, big-head mode, and first-person mode, are interesting ways to revisit older levels. The first-person mode feels odd and is difficult to control (the controls are unchanged, so I still need to push right to go forward), but I suspect the developers realised this - an achievement called "We didn't think anyone would do this" is unlocked after beating a single level in this mode.
This is also a speedrun mode, where either individual levels or the entire game can be tackled, and players are ranked on a leaderboard according to time taken.
It's in the art direction and story telling that things start to go somewhat awry for Ninja Pizza Girl. None of these issues on its own would really be a problem, but the number of missteps lead to the game feeling rough around the edges. Firstly, the game doesn't look that great. It's fine for what it is trying to do, but the 3D models are fairly basic, and I am not a huge fan of the 2D character portraits. Furthermore, whilst the dystopic near-future world is well-designed, the levels are all very similar stylistically. From an artistic point of view, if I've seen one level, I've pretty much seen them all.
From a narrative standpoint, the game is tackling surprisingly difficult themes given its genre, principally bully and self-esteem. On the whole, the game presents a realistic portrayal of these issues. Though the situations and characters sometimes feel forced (delivering pizzas does not typically provide so much introspection), the dialogue is relatable and feels natural. The main arc of the character, building her self-esteem and seeing the support of those around her, is strong.
That said, the narrative and the gameplay frequently feel at odds with each other. Repeating a level multiple time, striving for that perfect run, when that level opens with a quote containing "Sometimes courage us getting out of bed in a morning" just feels weird in a way that is difficult to describe. It is hard to reconcile the fun of platforming and seeking to not only be good but be the best (in terms of level ranking or leaderboard placement) with the notion that the main character is having such a hard time. The experience as a whole is just a little discordant.

There is also a sudden escalation in the abuse thrown at the character towards the end of the game that takes it from being the story of an individual's struggle with bullying and self-esteem to being a focused attack on a local business by a large corporation. Though this lead to one of the strongest sequences of the game - running from an ill-defined 'cloud' of bullies which I took to be a metaphor for running away from problems - it also made it more difficult to empathise with and relate to the main character. I can easily relate to being the target of local bullies; it is much more difficult to imagine being specifically targets by big business.
Finally in terms of narrative, there is a concept of character mood. As her mood deteriorates, the colour palette of the game become more washed out, stumbles are more frequent, and the mocking of in-level enemies more easily resulting in the character falling to her knees and stopping (at which point the player must mash A to continue). I like this in concept, and it ties neatly into the themes and message of the game. However, I found the execution to be somewhat clumsy. It is difficult to tell the character's mood level-to-level - the effects are too subtle to really notice much of the time, and this information isn't explicitly surfaced. Furthermore, it is difficult to tell what will reduce the mood - even after beating the game, I'm not 100% clear if it is story-based, performance-based, or a blend of the two.
More than that, I found that the way to improve the character's mood potentially sends the wrong message. At the end of a few levels, I was presented with a message to the effect of "Gemma's mood is low. Maybe she should buy something" (refreshing items or the aforementioned costumes) using the collectables found in the level. I doubt it is deliberate giving the positive message that the game as a whole presents, but I found this linking of happiness and consumerism to be rather problematic.
Overall, Ninja Pizza Girl is a mechanically solid platformer that tackles difficult themes reasonably well. I want to applaud the developers for addressing these issues, but must also point out that gameplay occasionally suffers as a result. I am still happy to recommend the game, though the problems mentioned above mean it is a far from flawless experience.