As hard as it may be to believe, there was once a time when From Software published all sorts of strange and wonderful games that didn’t have “Souls” in the title; these games may have on the whole sold next to nothing and were rarely localised but even so a lot of them were genuinely good, or at least good in the “This is weird and will probably appeal to about a dozen people, but they’ll really like it” kind of way.
Onore no Shinzuru falls more into the former than the latter camp of pre-Souls From Software, although being such a unique action-puzzler it is going to take a little explaining so I’d say it’s a little like… like Groundhog Day but with 100% less Bill Murray. And absolutely no groundhogs. What it does have are loads of ninjas that are all copies of you, apart from that one rival ninja who isn’t.
OK let’s try again, but now with my sensible hat firmly on my head. In spirit at least it reminded me of Half Minute Hero as they’re both titles that ask you to perform a task that is technically unworkable in the time you’re given to do it in, but are designed around the One Weird Trick™ that makes it possible.
There’s no question that above any puzzling concerns the first thing that’ll draw anyone to Onore no Shinzuru is its striking art style, all vivid colours and distinctively stylised shapes singing on the PSP’s beautiful widescreen display. And if you’re especially eagle-eyed you may have thought the level backdrops and stage select icons look more than a little familiar… That’s because they’re all either reproductions or tweaked versions of prints from Hiroshige’s “The Fifty-Three Stations of Tōkaidō” It’s a fantastic decision that infuses the whole game a unique style without feeling like it’s mindlessly copying for copying’s sake. Thankfully this visual feast doesn’t come at the expense of the game itself, and every puzzle element is always clear and easy to read at a glance.
Looking past the art, Onore no Shinzuru is an action-puzzle game that asks players to reach the highest floor in each of its deathtrap-laden levels before they run out of time. The twist here is that you have to use multiple time-limited (sixty seconds) copies of your ninja self to successfully work around these traps, cooperating with previous yous to push switches, activate spike pits, grab keys, and defeat the occasional boss.
This doesn’t mean that every copy of yourself needs to find a way to the exit; that’d be impossible. Every ninja you control before the final level-completing one is just there to clear the way; rushing ahead to flip a lever so the next one can run across a bridge, that next one then using wind magic to blow away a wall of flame so the one after can pick up a key and unlock a door, and so on. This carries on floor after floor, layering your own actions over yourself to go higher and higher until you reach the goal stairs and clear the stage.
As complicated as that sounds it’s kept under control thanks to carefully designed puzzle pieces that have unique and consistent behaviours, only ever effecting something you can already see. Regular wooden switches are simple on/off switches that must be held down to stay active. Red switches are timers, the time left between flipping on/off displayed above the switch itself. Green switches act as pre-boss checkpoints, spawning a warp gate in the starting area that allows any future ninja to cut straight to the battle. Pitfalls will drop you through to the floor below, sometimes as a time-wasting punishment, sometimes to gain access to otherwise inaccessible locations. Spikes do something nothing else, not even the final boss, can do – kill you. And you’ll need to sacrifice a ninja to them to spring the trap and make it (temporarily) safe for other ninjas to cross.
Being a ninja in the video game sense means that rather than being gifted with a knack for stealth or subterfuge the one thing you can do is cast cool ninja magic to harm your enemies or assist with puzzles. Make a little stone statue to hold down a switch, light a torch with fire magic, or harnessing the power of the winds to blow away a wall of flame.
These spells cost Onore no Shinzuru’s MP equivalent, which is usually gained from walking on tiles on the floor that you or any previous copies haven’t already walked on, and occasionally boosted by collecting scrolls found along the way. Unused spell energy carries over from one ninja copy to the next, so in some instances it’s best to spend one ninja’s sixty second time slot just running around building up your magical reserves so the next few can get on with whatever they need to do.
One sadly underutilised technique in the game is that if you can get two copies of yourself casting the same spell in the same place at the same time, you produce a more powerful a wider-reaching variant of the wind and fire spells – a neat trick, but unfortunately not something you ever need to do. It is also fair to say though that maybe leaving it as an optional bonus is for the best – the timing isn’t especially tight but with everything else that’s going on it always felt like more of a happy accident when I did it (even on purpose) than a cunning tactic; but again this is possibly a chicken-and-egg scenario seeing as it’s never called upon in the game.
Not all stages culminate in a boss battle but when they do they’re always an enormous screen-filling monstrosity from Japanese folklore – ever wanted to take on a Gasha-dokuro, Ushi-oni, or Umi Bōzu? Now you can! In a slightly different take on the rest of the game each boss is again a race against the clock to whittle down their health before you run out of time and/or ninjas.
So when facing something like a giant gnashing skeleton (or the similarly-behaving Daidarabotchi) you don’t directly attack the boss at all but the pile of bones lying in front of it. As this is the first boss you’ll encounter the only real resistance you’ll have to suffer is a hole-creating attack that completely surrounds the bone pile in pitfalls, costing you precious time as you rush back up the stairs to continue the assault. Similar but different are the Fujin (later accompanied by Raijin) boss battles – you still have a static object to attack but winds keep you back and targeted lightning strikes cause pitfalls to appear in the floor where you were standing (or are standing, if you don’t move out of the way in time).
After that spectacular first battle bosses come in all sorts of imaginative forms: Spider-ish types that need you to keep up a rhythm, pushing them back and eventually over the edge of the stage; huge ghosts that can only be damaged if you protect three lanterns in the arena from gusts of wind, waves of water pushing you backwards unless you take shelter behind stone walls… even though later versions of these adversaries are quite obviously the same thing with a different head on top and a few new challenges to deal with they never fail to impress or excite as you desperately avoid their attacks and try to do enough damage before the clock runs out.
Speaking of the clock: After defeating a boss you do have to still rush up one final set of stairs and reach the goal before your time/ninjas run out, and there have been a few instances where I’ve failed the mission in these last few seconds. The good news is the boss’ death animation stops the clock so you never feel unfairly held back, and as the story mode levels all feel so quick and well-balanced it never came across as a game-quitting upset even for someone as impatient as myself.
Once you’ve cleared a stage you’re awarded a rank and experience points based on your performance – you can replay any cleared stage as often as you like if you want to improve or earn more XP (you are awarded a lesser quantity of XP if you fail a stage too, so even a complete wash-out isn’t a waste of time). Whenever you level up you’re given some points to spend however you wish on your ninja self, upgrading your attack power, speed, copy ability or ninja magic. The upgrades are noticeable but the game isn’t designed in such a way that you have to worry about upgrading “wrong”, and even with more D ranks than I’d like to admit to my name I never felt the need to grind XP or that any difficulty or failure was down to having not enough of the right sort of ability levelled up.
If you fancy a break from the story (I should point out that “story” here means “Rescue the princess!” in a charmingly retro sort of way) you can choose to tackle dozens upon dozen of extra unrelated puzzles in mission mode, their most stand-out difference from regular play being their fixed ninja abilities and stats without any room for upgrading. There’s a lot to do here, and keeping it entirely separate from the main game allows those who long for more exactly what they wish for without drowning players who are happy enough with the story’s twenty-one stages.
Other options include a very helpful tutorial filled with useful examples for you to play through, four player co-op (!!) stages, and even the ability to share a demo using the PSP oft-forgotten game sharing feature.
Onore no Shinzuru’s got an exhilarating and endearing sense of speed, all busy little ninja echoes doing their best to help each other out. Even when you’re directing six or seven ninjas across multiple floors it never feels out of your control and if you are struggling to fell a beautifully-realised ancient demon or navigate one-way flooring and skeletal warriors the problem always feels more within your own understanding of the puzzle than any mean-spiritedness caused by the game’s design. As a PSP exclusive and being reasonably light on Japanese text this excellent game’s a very easy import recommendation – get going!