“TONIGHT, I DINE ON TURTLE SOUP!”
The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (TMNT) have had a somewhat checkered past in the gaming world. It all began with an insanely difficult game for the Nintendo Entertainment System, reached an early peak with an excellent arcade game, and the rest has been a wonky string of mostly decent titles. How does their latest adventure, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutants in Manhattan fare?
Developed by Platinum Games, Mutants in Manhattan came as a surprise to many shellheads when first it was announced. Many had gushed about the possibility of Rocksteady Studios, gifting their signature free-flow combat to these three-fingered ninjas. I’ll admit to daydreaming about such an idea, but if there was one other studio with a proven track record for fast-paced action, it was Platinum. And yet, this is by no means a perfect game.
With its artstyle and character designs heavily inspired by the work of Mateus Santolouco (an artist for IDW’s TMNT comic book series), Mutants in Manhattan does an excellent job of emulating the “feel” of a comic. Simplistic textures with matte colors and thick, black borders help achieve such an effect for the backgrounds. Thin wisps of wind, cartoon-esque explosions, and transparent motion lines also come together to create a captivating cel-shaded aesthetic. Truth be told, I can’t remember the last time a game’s art direction caught my attention like this — and trust me, images don’t quite do it justice.
Each of the four turtles (Leo, Raph, Donnie, and Mikey) are capable of showing more emotion than previous video game incarnations, due mostly to their large, child-like eyes. This is a key component of Santolouco’s art, so it’s great to see it carried through into three dimensions. Unfortunately, the story rarely gives the character models a chance to do much more than make silly faces — a contrast to the often grim comic storylines.
While it may take its visual aesthetic from the IDW TMNT comics, the story doesn’t seem to fit within its continuity. In fact, Mutants in Manhattan apparently exists in its own world, where most of the well-known stable of TMNT heroes and villains are already established. The plot simply follows the turtles on a seemingly average day, left to contend with the latest team-up between the fearsome Shredder and alien Krang. Bebop and Rocksteady also appear as bosses, along with other iconic villains whom I won’t reveal here. I will say that on the more heroic side, hockey goon Casey Jones is an especially disappointing exclusion. April O’Neil is present, however — and not as a damsel-in-distress! That’s pretty friggin’ astonishing for a TMNT game. If only she weren’t so annoying…
As for the gameplay, it definitely leans heavily toward the “hack n’ slash” variety. While you can throw infinite shurikens third-person shooter-style, the focus is definitely on melee combat. There’s a light attack button and heavy attack button, along with four powerful Ninjutsu attacks offered while holding left trigger/L2. Such attacks can only be utilized once before they must cool down. Each turtle gets four to choose from, and you can swap them out for others, all unlocked during story mode. These offer a wide array of abilities, such as activating a healing aura, surrounding yourself with laser-shooting UFO’s, unleashing a flurry of attacks, and even forcing everyone on-screen into a dance-off! Sadly, it is not accompanied by Vanilla Ice’s Ninja Rap. Each Ninjutsu attack can be leveled up by spending battle points accrued during missions, bolstering them further.
Items can be picked up during gameplay as well, though only four can be held in your inventory at any given time. Some are helpful powerups, like the health-restoring pizza and speed-boosting energy drinks, while others act as throwable weapons, like freeze bombs and plasma turrets. These come in especially handy during boss fights, but if you happen to use them beforehand, more can be purchased from Splinter mid-mission for battle points.
Playing solo, you quickly learn the importance of switching between the four turtles mid-combo. Many of the Ninjutsu attack compliment one another, so one combo may begin by slowing time as Leo, letting loose a flurry of strikes as Mikey and Raph, and culminate in a Sumo Slam from Donnie. As if there wasn’t enough variety already, Ninjutsu moves can also be combined for co-op attacks with another character, so long as it is activated at the proper time. This happens often when joined by AI-controlled partners, while it’ll take slight coordination during online co-op. Needless to say, this is a thoroughly enjoyable combat system… sadly, the rest of the game doesn’t live up to it.
Many believed this would be a sandbox-style game, where you drop in as the four Ninja Turtles to roam New York City and activate missions. If you are one such individual, prepare to be disappointed — this game is the exact opposite. It is entirely mission-oriented, broken up into stages and designed around each boss. In that way, it harkens back to the sidescroller roots of TMNT games.
Each stage is a pretty decent size, with plenty of nooks and crannies to explore. Alas, there is absolutely zero reason to do so! It was truly odd to see so many diverging paths in even the more linear stages, only to find dead ends. Even the games collectibles dare not creep in these out-of-the-way places, positioned mostly in the areas where your objectives initiate.
Speaking of the objectives, they contribute greatly to the painfully formulaic nature of every stage. You roam an area until April urges you to activate Turtle Glass (think Batman: Arkham Asylum’s Detective Vision) to spot enemies through walls. After that, you’ll be assigned a seemingly random goal. Whether it’s “kill all enemies!” or “shoot down every helicopter!” they mostly fall into mundane categories. Complete three or four objectives, and the boss battle ensues. The variety of objectives increases later on (and I won’t spoil the stand-out moments) but much of it feels a bit boring, which shouldn’t be the case for a game based on high-flying ninja action.
That would be fine and dandy, provided the bosses themselves proved interesting. Well… they just aren’t. Bebop and Rocksteady were both mindless, easily-defeated buffoons — which does fit their character. However, only two bosses stand out as being somewhat challenging on Normal difficulty, and the final three are particularly disappointing. Don’t expect an epic showdown against Shredder, is what I’m saying. Furthermore, the story mode only lasted me five hours — and considering nearly an hour of that was spent desperately searching for secrets, along with at least 20 minutes in menus, and you see just how little you get for $49.99.
THE VERDICT: 5.5 OUT OF 10
The beautiful artstyle, well-designed stages, and excellent combat are screaming to be part of a great game… but this isn’t it. It’s just okay, and borders on being ridiculously short. Each stage has a secret boss unlockable on a second playthrough, and 50 comic book covers are scattered throughout to find, but these are obvious methods to pad out your playtime.
There are some nice touches for TMNT fans, like the pizza eating mini-game used to recover health after a knockout. Even so, this won’t be remembered as the Ninja Turtles equivalent of Batman: Arkham Asylum, nor is it likely to be remembered for much at all. Hopefully a sequel will receive more care and attention.
For more information about what the score means, check out our official review scale.