Gaming got pretty weird in the 2000’s. As arcades finished dying, online multiplayer supplanted playing games locally. We found ourselves in interconnected solitude – playing with the world, but doing it all alone. For better or worse, thanks to MMO’s, Xbox Live and PlayStation Plus it still remains the normality. Bucking this trend has been the incredible growth of the indie games scene, and the resurgence of couch multiplayer: piling a bunch of friends into the house and playing some games together, shoulder to shoulder.
SlashDash is a small, vibrant, exclusively local multiplayer Xbox One title from indie developer Nevernaut Studios. In SlashDash, teams of ninja’s work together to accomplish goals in short, fast-paced game modes on beautiful maps inspired by traditional Japan. There’s no story, campaign mode or online play – it’s just a good old fashioned couch multiplayer game.
Each player controls a top-down ninja on an overhead, 2D environment. Ninjas can slash with their sword, teleport short distances and use a secondary weapon. If your ninja is struck by another ninja’s sword, they cleverly transform into a log and then respawn back at home base after a short period of time. The teleport can be used to cover a short distance and potentially confuse opponents. It can also be used to skip past certain parts of the terrain, like walls or ponds. Finally, the secondary weapons are used to inhibit the other players. Each player starts with a set of kunai, which disorient any ninja they hit when thrown. There are many more secondary weapons that can be unlocked, though the method of unlocking is not made clear.
There are four modes in SlashDash to be played across nine different environment types. The primary mode is a 2v2 match of Capture the Flag, with each team aiming to be the first to three points. As a player grabs the flag from the other teams base, they move slower and can no longer use their secondary weapons or teleport without dropping the flag. As a single slash causes an enemy ninja to turn into a log, the battles for flags are short, fast and fierce. If a friendly player slashes their teammate, they are propelled forward, allowing for some excellent strategic play. When a player drops a flag, the defending team can stand on top of it for a length of time to have it reset back to their base. As each player scores for their team, the ground on the level becomes more and more coloured in that teams shade, making for a simple way to tell how close each team is to the win.
This is a particularly engaging rendition of Capture the Flag, and is easily the best mode in the game. Each round is short and competitive, with the balance of play swaying back and forth constantly. As each team only has two ninjas, there is a constant battle between attack and defence, leading to an unexpected level of tension. Prepare to yell at your friends a lot with this mode.
Assassination is a VIP style mode where each team of two has a shogun following them around the map. Slashing the shogun scores points for the team, whilst slashing him without slashing any of the other ninjas is worth double points. The shogun is quite slow and cumbersome as he follows a player around the field, however, he can be sent to follow the other player with a press of a button. It’s worth noting that the shogun will move towards the second player as the crow flies, and has no problem getting caught up on walls or parts of the environment.
This mode felt a little weak, due in large part to the lumbering nature of the shogun. Without direct control, he became significantly more onerous to move than I would have liked. The satisfaction of assassinating the opposing shogun without touching the other ninjas and scoring double points, however, was well worth the frustration.
Death Race is a more traditional deathmatch style mode, with each ninja competing to be the first to stay alive long enough to win. At the start of the round a meter in the centre of the screen begins filling for each player. To stop a players meter from being filled, they must be slashed or hit with a secondary weapon. As each player can see which player is winning, inevitably everyone turns on whoever is in the lead. The central meter, which is circular, can be a bit difficult to read in a pinch, but it’s a small quibble. Death Race is fast paced, brutal and extremely tense, especially towards the end of a round. Squeaking out a win by one or two pixels on the meter is a fantastic competitive high.
Finally, Mirror Match is nothing more than ninja-based insanity. Each player gets their own team of five ninjas that are all controlled by the one set of inputs, so pressing the slash button causes all five to slash at once. Mirror Match is last man standing, so it quickly devolves into complete and utter chaos: players lose track of how many ninjas they have left, single ninjas will get separated from the pack, stunning attacks succeed and fail on a whim and in the middle of all the chaos, some jerk will inevitably be hiding up in a corner, scurried away from the madness of it all. Mirror Match is quick, unwieldy and seemingly random, but it’s also fantastic fun. It’s like eating chocolate – tremendously satisfying in smaller doses, but consuming too much will undoubtedly lead to heart problems later in life.
Each of the nine map types are playable in any mode, leading to some great (and terrible) combinations. Seriously, don’t play Mirror Match on the level with traps. Better than the gameplay changes, however, is the visual differences in each of the nine maps. All eschew different elements of traditional Japanese design through the lens of a colourful, blocky world. Time after time I was surprised at how great and unique each level looked. The sound design is quite fun as well, with the slashes and uses of secondary weapons causing a slew of wood block sounds and drums emblematic of Japan.
SlashDash isn’t without faults, and there are a few design missteps here and there. We encountered a number of controller bugs each night we played, having to restart the game every hour or so. Also, it’s currently not possible to play a random selection of maps each round – rather, you have to exit out of the game, and re-select another map. There’s even a random map button back there, but you have to exit out of the game every time to select it. I understand why it would be difficult to randomise game modes due to team structure, but as it stands it seems like a rather egregious misstep. Sadly, the biggest barrier to most players is going to be the amount of content. With four modes, some players will reach their burn-out point pretty quickly. It’s a fundamental design decision of the team, but that may be a point that will always keep a certain chunk of the audience away.
Ultimately, it’s important to remember exactly what school of design SlashDash comes from when considering its perceived slightness of content. Nevernaut Games is a four person indie development team. It’s closer to Samurai Gunn or Nidhogg than Worms or Smash Brothers. It’s not going to replace your multiplayer game of choice, but it can easily be slotted into the rotation and for $10, it’s hard to complain too much. You’ll easily get your value for money. SlashDash isn’t the end-all, be-all of couch multiplayer, but it’s unique, quirky and above all else, fun. It’s an easy excuse to get a bunch of friends over and play some games, which is always okay in my books.