Every Saturday, we’ll highlight a Dota 2 custom game that is fun, playable, and relatively bug-free. To find a custom game, go to the ‘Custom Games’ tab in Dota 2 and enter the name as we’ve provided it in the search box in the top right—in this case, Hardcore Ninja.
I’m a lone juggernaut, my fingers poised over the keyboard as I blink around the map. Death could come from around any corner, and it’ll come quickly. Fortunately, my two remaining opponents are in exactly the same position; the eyes of their dead team members fixed on them just as mine are on me.
Hardcore Ninja bills itself as ‘a PvP Battle of pure reflex’, but it’s more than that. A round lasts between 30 seconds and a minute, five players on each team controlling juggernauts equipped with four abilities and a quelling blade. My first ability, ‘Deflect’, makes me invulnerable for 0.7 seconds. My three other spells are slightly reworked versions of Blink, Magnus’s Shockwave and PA’s Dagger. The latter two, of course, are instakills. First team to 15 rounds wins. That’s it, apart from a final flourish: scoring a kill resets all cooldowns.
One of the enemy juggernauts blinks on top of me, startling us both. I blink away to the other side of some trees, earning us both a brief respite—but now we each know where the other is. A blown shockwave skims past me, giving me the confidence to poke my head around the corner and fire off my own. He deflects, but by this point my blink’s off cooldown and I teleport behind him with an auto attack queued up. He falls just as his friends’ dagger is about to bury itself in my chest. I blink again, attempting the same trick as before. He deflects, forcing me to do the same as our attacks bounce off each other. Luckily for me I’ve still got a dagger in the bank, which I throw at point blank range before he manages to get his shockwave off, winning my team the round. The whole fight probably took about three seconds.
A game of Hardcore Ninja captures the best bits of Nidhogg and Samurai Gunn, using the threat of instant death to imbue every moment with tension. This fits perfectly with the round based structure from Counter-Strike, generating those gleeful stories of one person managing to overcome an entire team on their own. It’s fun being that guy, sure, but rooting for your own last surviving team member from the side-lines is almost as good. Even when the roles are flipped, watching a skillful player pick apart a team is rewarding in and of itself. It’s fundamentally a game about looking cool in front of people, which ticks all kinds of boxes for me as a mid player.
Sure, it doesn’t have the complex teamfight interactions you see in Dota proper or some of the more expansive custom games, but it doesn’t need them. One of the problems I’ve found with other custom games is that the fun is behind a learning curve akin to actual Dota. Introducing new systems, new abilities and new items may create depth, but it also results in the need to learn a whole new language in order to compete. Ninja’s simplicity does away with that: someone who’s been playing for 10 seconds will be as clued up as a player who’s invested several hours. There’s still plenty of depth to be found with the few ingredients it gives you. For every death that comes randomly from a stray shockwave, there’s an intricate duel where anticipation, trickery and finesse are key.
At the moment there are just two maps, and one of them is far superior to the other. It’s a small arena with clumps of trees that leave players obscured from each other most of the time, weaving in and out of the copses into clearings where an encounter is more likely. Playing around with sightlines adds a whole new element to the game, where one juggernaut can leap at another only to melt back into the shadows as their attack gets dodged or absorbed. The second consists of a grid of pillars and next to no fog of war, which robs matches of the tension that provides.
For the most part, the game’s streamlined in such a way that suggesting potential improvements is tricky. Working in the disjoint from Manta Style, which needs impeccable timing, would allow for even more impressive plays and raise the skill ceiling yet higher. However, that would mean either adding a whole new ability or replacing an existing one, which are nicely balanced as they are. A timer to end the occasional frustrating match where one player just hides would be a welcome addition—or better yet, a shrinking arena. Ninja does suffer from the unavoidable problem of early leavers that affects every custom game. Here, at least, that’s somewhat mitigated by how short each match is. Besides, some of the best moments emerge from being outnumbered.
At its best, Hardcore Ninja is a purification of some of the elements that most appeal to me from Dota proper. It’s a 15 minute battle of pure mind games, juking, dodging spells and landing skill shots. For players who focus on heroes which rely heavily on such techniques, it’s excellent practice for the main game. It’s also a good way for players to try out a high damage, low health playstyle without the pressure and responsibility that comes with an actual game of Dota.
On its own terms, Hardcore Ninja nails the feeling of being both deadly and fragile, just as a Ninja should be. Go check it out.
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