Developer: Red Fly Studios
Platforms: Steam, Xbox Live Arcade (Reviewed), PSN (Coming Sept. 24)
The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are part of a long-standing legacy that spans quite a few generations of fans at this point. Some fans are more attuned to the original run under Mirage Studios; which featured a grittier, more violent style of the turtles. If you remember Raphael as the leader of the group, you belong in this category. For others, like myself, the most recognizable personalities and aspects of the TMNT brand stems from the 1987 TV series (Heroes in a half shell, turtle power!) and the film trilogy that started in 1990. (Go ninja, go ninja, go!) In the aftermath of these two adaptations, Leonardo became the leader and the turtles began wearing uniquely colored masks, instead of collectively wearing red masks like in the comics. In another slight alteration to continuity, April O’Neil took on her trademark role as a news reporter, as opposed to her original occupation as a computer programmer.
Since then, the turtles have also starred in the surprisingly excellent animated series on Fox in 2003. Remaining loyal to the comics in terms of story and style, this adaptation was the perfect jumping-on point for newcomers both young and old. Currently, the TMNT are starring in a Nickelodeon cartoon series aimed at a younger audience. Personal feelings about the show aside, the point of this trip down timeline avenue isn’t just to rattle your nostalgia cages, but to point out how “the heroes four” have undergone numerous cosmetic and continuity changes over the years. This will play a major factor once we dive into the narrative arc for this review. But before that happens, let’s first set up exactly what Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows is all about.
Taking inspiration mainly from the current animated series, the final title of Xbox Live’s 2013 Summer of Arcade, TMNT: OOTS – I know, it’s not pretty – takes place early on in the turtles’ crime fighting careers. While they’ve run up against the Foot clan headed by the Shredder before, they’re still honing their skills and learning what it truly means to be a team. April O’Neil is a teenager now, and while she’s still their central connection to the outside world, she’s every bit as brash and immature as the turtles themselves, much to Master Splinter’s dismay. Now that she’s their “age” in terms of maturity, there’s some weird puppy love thing going on with Donatello; he’s crushing on April big time. I assume this has something to do with the Nickelodeon series, but more on that later. For now, what’s important to note is that the Foot and the Krang, who are now a collective alien race who hive-mindedly follow the orders of Krang Prime, are involved in some sort of major undertaking which will likely have devastating consequences for New York City.
Players can take control of whichever turtle they choose and swap between each on the fly, unless you’re taking advantage of the drop-in drop-out 4-player co-op functionality, in which case you must stick with your turtle for the remainder of the chapter. In traditional beat-em up fashion, OOTS can be enjoyed as a simple button masher; but strategic players who want a little more depth will have quite a few options to play around with. The downside is that some controller button-mapping issues hamper the experience, taking most of the fun out of combat and reducing it to a tiresome process of mind-numbing basic combos until the screen prompts players to execute a finisher.
Since this is a special case of such an awkward control scheme, allow me to detail the controller layout: Players move with the left stick, rotate the camera with the right stick, and switch between turtles using the D-pad. So far so good. Using an Xbox 360 controller, Pressing “X” initiates a weapon attack (using Leo’s katanas, Raph’s sais, etc.), Pressing “Y” is an offensive kick. Together, these attacks can be chained – further once upgraded – to launch a flurry of weapon attacks and fierce horizontal face-stomps. The “B” button is your block/counter button and functions in a similar style to the combat system popularized by the Arkham games, while “A” allows for evasive maneuvers and will be used to interact with doors and vault over/slide under obstacles.Finally, items can be cycled through by squeezing the left trigger and used by tapping the left bumper.
It all sounds tried-and-true, until the introduction of special moves. Once an energy bar is filled via pulling off a combo string, a special attack can be executed by holding down the right trigger and rotating the right thumbstick by a quarter-circle. Further upgrading these special moves allows for stronger attacks that consume more energy bars, of which their are only ever three (under normal circumstances). A two-bar special attack will require holding the right trigger and rotating the right stick a half-circle, while a full 3-bar special requires a full-circle rotation of the right stick. The problem here is that forcing a player to hold down the trigger and then rotate the right stick means that the controller’s face buttons are completely out of reach; leaving players with the choice of either attempting a special attack and being completely, albeit momentarily, vulnerable without the option to dodge/counter incoming attacks, or simply avoid executing special attacks altogether. Couple this with the fact that it’s nearly impossible to discern between a quarter-circle and half-circle rotation in the midst of fighting off a half-dozen foot soldiers at a time, and it quickly becomes a chore to accurately select the intended special attack.
What makes this even more unforgivable is the time and effort Red Fly Studios spent offering a diverse set of moves for each turtle. Each brother fights with their own signature style: Raphael is obviously the heavy bruiser with an in-your-face style, utilizing slower close-quarters-combat techniques and even a few of his favorite wrestling moves to knock out opponents. Leonardo is a master of crowd-control and can leap into a pack of enemies and stun them all, leaving him in complete control of the situation. Michelangelo does low-damage but is fast as lightning; perfect for building high combo chains which unlock finishing moves faster. Finally, Donatello has the longest range, using his Bo staff to continue combo attacks by bopping most enemies from afar, then getting in close for maximum damage. All of these different fighting styles offer completely different special attacks, with five unique special moves per turtle. On top of that, some special techniques are completely different depending on the type of enemy they are used on. Single-bar specials will usually see Leo swing his swords to damage opponents, but when used on low-to-the-ground Mousers, he’ll instead execute a unique special move and simply jump on top of a couple and crush them instantly.
The saving graces to combat are the Turtle Power KOs: finishing maneuvers that are much easier to pull off and lead to some pretty awesome team-moves. After beating down enough baddies and leveling up a few times – all the turtles gain XP simultaneously and level together – the turtles will be ready to execute finishing moves. These happen after building a high enough combo chain and, once prompted on-screen, are initiated by holding the right trigger and tapping the corresponding face button. The obvious favorite here will likely be the team finishers, which will allow the player turtle and any teammate close by to join up for a fun, high damage special attack. If timed perfectly while all four brothers are together, they can perform their signature Shell Shock move; a devastating finisher where all four turtles surround an enemy and smack their shells against him. It’s almost impossible to get all four turtles close enough to pull off when playing solo, but the few times it happens feel satisfying enough to be worth it.
Managing to overlook the small controller missteps isn’t enough to clear the forest just yet, though. Out of the Shadows is further plagued by a number of tired technical glitches and gameplay issues. Enemies occasionally get stuck on the environment, and since all opponents must be defeated to progress, this sometimes results in a forced restart. The camera is terrible and actively partakes in assisted suicides by getting stuck behind objects and leaving the player fighting blind. There isn’t any sort of enemy lock-on, so some wonky targeting will leave the turtles whiffing attacks from close range and being totally vulnerable to ensuing counters. Enemy weapons are often left floating in mid-air once they are defeated, and the turtles will often phase through each other, especially when executing taunts – which grant temporary buffs to the turtles. It’s also worth noting that there are very few dialogue exchanges between the turtles, so prepare to hear the same conversations over and over again on each level.
There were two other weird glitches I came across as well: Once the turtles reach experience level 10, players unlock Classic Mode, which allows the game to be played in black-and-white. The moment I switched Classic Mode on, a gigantic white bar appeared horizontally across the majority of my center screen, leaving only slim bars of the actual game at the top and bottom of the screen viewable. This only happened twice upon further testing, but the effect lasted until either restarting, or otherwise forcing a loading screen of any kind. Additionally, there are small hacking segments throughout the campaign whenever the turtles must bypass a locked door. Combat prohibits hacking from being initiated, however, if players are being stealthy and attempt a hack only to be surprised by an enemy moments later, the mini-game loading screen will loop for far longer than usual. The problem this time is that the game is not paused, so your fellow turtles will be forced to engage in blind combat while the screen is stuck at the loading page. By the time the mini-game begins and the player quits out, the entire party is almost always dead. Dumb partner AI plays a role in this technical glitch, and also means most boss fights quickly turn into one-on-one affairs, with the other brothers going down almost immediately. Protip: There’s little point in reviving them, because they’ll just go down again, so it’s better to save any healing items – pizza, obviously – for yourself.
It may seem like I’m being overly critical of OOTS, and perhaps I am, but try to understand how I’m coming at this: I absolutely adore the Ninja Turtles. I still have a 3-foot Donatello plush in my bedroom that I’ve had since I was too young to understand my colors. (Truth is, I actually wanted the Leo plush. Sorry Donnie!) But it’s not that kind of obsessive love where everything with a TMNT logo on it instantly turns to gold. It’s the kind of love like you have for a child, when you want nothing but the best for them and to see them succeed, cringing every time they stumble or fall. All I want is for my turtles to be shown proper respect they deserve, and for the world to see them at their best. Unfortunately for Out of the Shadows, this isn’t one of those times, and it breaks my heart.
There is some light at the end of the tunnel though. Let is be said that Red Fly Studios managed to perfectly capture the personalities of every turtle in both their actions and their dialogue. Mikey is still a ham, and offers many of the games laugh-out-loud or facepalm moments. Early on in the game, the turtles take on an advanced form of Humanoid-shaped Mousers, whom Mikey dubs “Mansers.” Likewise, his seemingly never-ending rant on pizza toppings is an absolute treasure of a moment. The other turtles are as faithfully adapted as well, preserving the essence of the TMNT for fans to appreciate throughout the experience.While the story is loosely tied to the Nickelodeon series, there are Easter eggs and throwbacks to previous turtle adaptations. Mikey and Raph can do their signature bowling ball special move, and each turtle has a special secondary weapon: Leo can join his dual katanas by the hilt and use them as a boomerang, Donnie has his gravity gauntlet, Mikey’s nunchaku also double as a kusarigama, and Raph has his iron gauntlets to further pummel his foes with. Even the Turtle Lair is bathed in nods to the fans and fun goodies. The final payoff, which most fans will hopefully find rewarding, comes during the end credits; when players can finally hear the full version of the Partners in Kryme “Turtle Power” theme song that’s teased throughout the entire game. T-U-R-T-L-E POWER!
Consisting of just four chapters, it’s more than possible to complete the campaign mode in about five hours. Luckily, there is a challenge mode pitting the turtles against waves of enemies, and an Arcade mode that fills out once the story mode has ended. Arcade mode is a completely separate adventure that spans seven stages in traditional side-scrolling beat ’em up fashion. For some, this may actually be the highlight of the package. While there is no story to go along with it, the turtles can gain experience here that carries over to the main campaign and vice-versa, so once the story has ended it’s best to go back to the Arcade and try your luck with an upgraded move set and better health/damage output. Once taken into consideration, these additions nearly double the amount of play time for the overall experience.
Overall, TMNT: OOTS is an unpolished and painfully average beat ’em up. Fortunately, the developers are very
obviously turtle fans and managed to keep the attitudes and the spirit of the TMNT alive throughout the brief
adventure. There’s a lot to like, it’s just hard to see past all of the shortcomings that stand between players and their enjoyment of the game. The extra modes offer an unexpected amount of fun and replayability on to the total package, and the diversity of fighting styles between turtles are encouraging enough to merit multiple campaign playthroughs to truly get the most out of the adventure. Still, if I have to hear Mikey say “Booyakasha” one more time I swear to…
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