Oh! Shell-shocked!

Like many people my age, I grew up with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Movies, comics, cartoons, and action figures depicted the lean, green, fighting machines everywhere I looked, so it’s no wonder that I’ve remained enamored with the franchise throughout the years. It helps that they’ve maintained some measure of success in many of these mediums since their mid-’80s inception. But there’s still one area the Heroes in a Half-shell continue to stumble in: games.

Sure, we all remember how awesome Turtles in Time was in the arcade, but that was more than 20 years ago. And, yes, we’ve seen some mediocre-to-above-average TMNT offerings since then, but we haven’t had that huge blockbuster hit that harnesses the magic of Turtles games from decades ago. TMNT: Out of the Shadows hoped to be that game—the one that could marry nostalgia with the expectations of a modern audience. The good news? It did succeed in avoiding being average. The bad news? It’s downright awful.

I was cautiously optimistic when I heard about Out of the Shadows. Unlike the middling offerings based off the second cartoon from the early 2000s, Out of the Shadows is based on the latest animated incarnation of the TMNT. A downloadable title sounded like a good way for Michelangelo, Leonardo, Raphael, and Donatello to dip their toes back into the digital waters, especially with a new iteration like the Nickelodeon cartoon fresh in everyone’s minds. After playing the game, it felt like Red Fly Studio had a bunch of ideas on a board in the planning stages of Out of the Shadows and instead of paring them down like most developers would, they tried to cram in every idea they had and ended up with this confounding mess.

The most glaring and obvious flaw comes from the gameplay, which tries to channel the Batman: Arkham series with buttons assigned to weapon attacks, kicks, jump, counters, and gadgets (usually just shuriken, but other Turtle specific items later). In theory you were supposed to feel like a true ninja badass. Each Turtle would have their own style based on their weapon and personality, and you could switch between Turtles with the D-pad like some multi-character action-RPGs do (think Marvel Ultimate Alliance).

Instead, the combat is busted—the first of many broken things you’ll notice in this game. There seems to be a delay between your button inputs and when your character actually performs the action, causing you to frequently break your own combos with an extra button press intended to make up for the game’s inconsistent speed. Because the Turtles don’t automatically lock on to their nearest foe when fighting, it’s difficult to aim many of your combat maneuvers, especially when you’re just dealing with a single opponent. Worse yet, if you’re using projectile weapons, you’ll sometimes hit a friendly instead of a foe.

Tying the game further into the action-RPG genre, the Turtles can also gain levels and earn points to be put into the most elaborate bunch of skill trees you’ll ever see in a downloadable game. Some may relish the challenge of trying to earn the dozens of points it’ll take to max out a single Turtle, but I’m of the mind that it’s just overkill. The convoluted system feels a microcosm of Red Fly’s development approach: Come up with up way too many ideas and never stop to cut the fat.

This isn’t to say Out of the Shadows doesn’t have a couple of highlights, though. The arcade mode, which features seven stages taken from the game’s campaign, utilizes four-player local/online co-op so that you and your friends can get a hint of how things were back in the 8- and 16-bit TMNT glory days. Even this, though, is tarnished by the odd, realistic art style that tries to make the Turtles look like they did in their 1990s live action movies and a horrendous camera that glitches and gets caught every time you turn a corner.

And don’t think that the questionable art direction and busted camera are limited to Arcade Mode, because they only get worse in the campaign. The off-putting visual style only becomes more pronounced via the cutscenes, where voice acting is done over animation-style stills that look a lot more like the cartoon the game is supposed to be based off of. This transition from realistic gameplay to cartoony cutscenes and back left me completely befuddled. The incongruity becomes more dramatic if you try the “classic” option that then turns everything black and white like the original Eastman and Laird comics.

The voice acting, at least, is a bright spot. The actors from the cartoon are not present, but a solid cast led by voice acting veterans like Yuri Lowenthal as Donatello and Catherine Taber as April O’Neill do their best with a script and dialogue taken straight from common TMNT canon. The only problems with the audio come from the fact that every time you pick up an item, a line of dialogue is spoken corresponding to the Turtle you were controlling. As an unintended side effect, sometimes story sensitive lines will be triggered at the same time you pick up a pizza and you’ll have two separate lines played simultaneously as an incomprehensible, garbled mess. That’s not to mention how quickly it gets annoying to hear Donatello lament the fact that he’s eating pizza off of a floor every time you pick one up. Maybe it’s some weird Pizza Hut propaganda.

The campaign’s problems don’t end here, however. It also suffers because it only supports two players locally. Considering you can play the arcade mode locally with four players—which, for all intents and purposes, is nearly as long as the campaign—there is no reason to not have this feature in both modes.

At least, that’s what I thought until I tried playing the campaign locally with a friend and was presented with a split screen. That’s when I realized that there had to have been two different teams working on the two modes separately, with no communication between them. To have all four players presented relatively comfortably from a single viewpoint in arcade mode, then to squish the third-person action point of view into split screen in campaign is quite simply one of the most boneheaded things I’ve ever seen in a game like this.

But even that’s not the crux of Out of the Shadows‘ stupidity. I’ve never spent so much time being lost in a game so linear. There are several massive arena-like enclaves where you’ll have to face countless classic Turtle baddies including Mousers, Foot Ninja, and Purple Dragon gangsters. Once you clear the area, you’ll then waste a lot of time running around and mashing the A button to see what is or isn’t climbable and just what will open up the path way to the next area, since there are no indicators or mini-map to help you along. The worst, though, is when a single enemy will have glitched into one of the boundaries of the arena and you don’t realize that until you do your lap, knock him out so you can advance, then have to run around mashing the A button again, still hoping to find the right path out.

But then again, maybe this is all just part of Red Fly’s lack of self-editing. There were some decent core ideas here that ended up getting lost under the piles of gameplay garbage thrown on top. (One of those bad ideas includes spending some of their budget on getting the rights to Partners in Kryme song “TURTLE Power” from the 1990 movie to serve as their main title theme, by the way.) There are references to the comics, the movies, the cartoons and previous games. There’s split-screen, local co-op, online co-op, skill trees, action-RPG character selection, and Batman-like combat. At the end of the day, TMNT: Out of the Shadows doesn’t know what it wants to be and doesn’t do anything it tries to be well. It doesn’t make the younger Nickelodeon fans or the older, nostalgia-driven fans like myself happy. All it ends up being is a mess and a waste of time.

Developer: Red Fly Studio • Publisher: Activision • ESRB: T – Teen • Release Date: 08.28.13
There seem to be the beginnings of some good ideas in TMNT: Out of the Shadows, but none of them are properly fleshed out. Instead, these shortcomings are simply covered up with more half-followed-through mechanics, resulting in a mess of a game.
The Good The arcade mode will feel nostalgic for some. 
The Bad Lots of glitches, loose combat, and an identity crisis.
The Ugly Everything visually about this game.
TMNT: Out of the Shadows is available on Xbox 360 (XBLA), PC (Steam), and coming later for PS3 (PSN). Primary version reviewed was for Xbox 360.