TMNT: Out of the Shadows review: Soft-shelled

By all rights, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles should be holding down responsible office jobs by now. It's been nearly thirty years since their debut, after all, and they should all be well into their 40s. And yet, here they are, still scarfing pizza, fighting crime and appearing in questionable video game adaptations of their adventures.

TMNT: Out of the Shadows is the latest such adaptation, and it's definitely questionable. The game is rife with bugs. It has loading issues, oft-repeated one-liners and even an ill-advised hacking mini-game. Yes, someone wedged hacking into a game about beating the stuffing out of bad guys.

The one bright spot is the combat, which is largely an improvement over the frantic button-mashing that composes most of TMNT's video game legacy. Even that, however, wears thin after a few hours.
Gallery | 5 Photos

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows (8/28/13)

Still, the combat is easily the best part of Out of the Shadows. It doesn't so much borrow from the Batman Arkham series as it swipes the whole playbook, but that's not a bad thing, and the addition of multiple playable characters adds a few new wrinkles. Playing as your favorite turtle (Donatello, obviously), you can attack in any direction, chaining strikes between various enemies as they surround you. As your combo count builds, you're able to unleash instant knockout attacks and special moves. As in Batman, enemies will telegraph their attacks, and you can counter them at the press of a button, which not only offers some breathing room but also keeps your combo streak alive.

It's a good system, and certainly more than I've come to expect from a TMNT game, but it does have an underlying problem in that not everything feels essential. For the majority of the game, I found counterattacks to be completely unnecessary. It's effortless to roll or dodge away from an attack, and doing so keeps your combo streak going. Miss a counter, however, and your combo goes back to zero, forcing you to rebuild it before you can unload with more advanced maneuvers. If it's easier and more effective to dodge, and I'm not penalized for doing it, then why bother countering? Some fights near the end of the campaign benefit from countering, mainly because their are more enemies to deal with, but even then it doesn't really feel vital.

I wound up repeating Donatello's most effective combo – a four-hit juggle followed by a devastating midair strike – as much as possible, peppering in the occasional instant KO or special move. The enemies are essentially interchangeable, be they ninjas, robots or street thugs, so there was really no incentive to do anything else. Using the same strategy ad nauseam gets old very quickly.

Another ding against the combat: The kick button is entirely superfluous. Out of the Shadows claims that kicking is ideal for breaking an enemy's guard, even though blocked attacks still contribute to your combo count. In other words, it doesn't matter if you break an enemy's guard, because you can always activate an instant KO after a few blocked attacks. In fact, if you break someone's guard with kicks, there's a good chance you'll knock them to the ground, where they're immune to most of your special attacks anyway, so it's usually better to let them block.

Despite these oversights, combat remains the strongest element of Out of the Shadows, especially in light of its other technical and mechanical problems. The camera doesn't do a great job of following the action. It shifts to dramatic angles whenever you pull off cool moves, which looks great but often also obscures surrounding enemies, making you manually readjust in the middle of a fight. The same thing happens during the game's poor platforming segments, which aren't really platforming segments at all, but rather a hunt for interactive objects that the Turtles automatically leap over. Sometimes these objects – walls, pipes, railings – glow a bright yellow to indicate you can interact with them. Sometimes they don't.

Along the same lines, it's often very difficult to tell where you're supposed to go. I frequently found myself rubbing up against every wall and object, hoping to find that yellow glow. It's worse when you discover that you somehow failed to trigger a cutscene, and that you've been wandering aimlessly because you neglected to cross the right invisible line (or the game didn't notice when you did). During one level, I ran around for minutes before I found one lone robot soldier I had yet to kill, which unlocked the next section. He was just standing there, seemingly oblivious to the giant mutant turtles laying siege to his secret lair. Incidentally, it's totally possible to avoid many conflicts by running past them to the next checkpoint.

That's really kind of a bonus given that the combat can get boring, but it also underscores other technical problems. On more than one occasion, I managed to escape the confines of a level's geometry, and I was treated to the view of unfinished skyscrapers or transparent sewer tunnels (see for yourself in the video above). Once, I jumped onto an invisible train. And again, one of these instances was caused by a cutscene that failed to trigger. Cutscenes, by the way, cannot be skipped – even when playing online. Combat animations don't always sync up, especially when performing team attacks, and sometimes your AI teammates simply stop moving.

Even the presentation elements have quirks. The various menus (pause, character upgrades, etc.) take several seconds to load. The sound mix is off, with sound effects and music frequently drowning out the voice work. Said voice work is actually very good, but the Turtles too often repeat the same one-liners and tell the same stories. I hope you enjoy Michelangelo's long soliloquy about the wide world of pizza toppings, because you'll be hearing it a few times. The music, meanwhile, is forgettable, sounding like the recycled techno beats you occasionally hear wafting out of that club you never go to. The comic book styled cutscenes, while appropriate for the Turtles, are bland and uninteresting.

TMNT: Out of the Shadows feels like it isn't finished, like it was rushed out of the sewers so it could get top billing on Xbox Live during Microsoft's Summer of Arcade. It's a shame too, because Out of the Shadows has a solid foundation in its combat. If it had greater enemy variety and required players to utilize their full arsenal of abilities – and if its technical issues were ironed out – it might have really been something special. There's a good Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game in here – it's just struggling to come out of its shell.

This review is based on an XBLA download of TMNT: Out of the Shadows, provided by Activision.

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