This title was once called Kunoichi. You can call it what you like, but you better be careful calling it the sequel to Shinobi. While this title is the spiritual successor to Shinobi, let me assure you that they are not in the same category.
In the game, you play as a female shinobi (a Kunoichi, imagine that) who must defeat demons and spirits in her quest to discover Ajujiki, the demon sword from Shinobi. Does this title have what it takes to break free of the demon curse of its predecessor? Lets find out shall we?
Lets face it, Shinobi was bland. Most of the levels were designed with a pallet of gray, green, and black with very little to distinguish between levels. Thankfully, Nightshade isn’t afraid to break away from this mold and bring some color to the table.
The levels are varied and bright. You will fight on top of a stealth bomber as the landscape screams by at impossible speeds, you will dash along the rough edges of Japanese apartment buildings, and you will find yourself in abandoned subway tunnels. All of this color and a seemingly locked 60fps comes at a cost however, a good portion of the areas you’ll be seeing will be fairly basic in design.
Hibana, the main character, looks pretty fantastic. Gone is the red flowing cape to be replaced by a set of twin tails that extend from the back of your all-too-familiar helmet. They react in much the same way as the cape in Shinobi…thankfully the entire game wasn’t designed around it this time.
Each level is capped off with a boss fight, and as before the bosses are quite big. A giant bug with tenticles and the ability to run you over as it curls into a ball, rival ninja or kunoichi, or giant semi-robotic demons round out the cast nicely and are well detailed. After defeating whatever vile creation you might encounter you are treated to a very well rendered CG cutscene to explain whats up next. Overall the graphics are well done, even if the background graphics areas are a tad lacking.
I have to admit that I enjoyed the music in this title quite a bit. Most of the background tracks can stand on their own and do a great job of bringing the high speed action to life. Very few of the tracks really didn’t fit my liking.
On the other hand, how many times can you hear a very muffled “Goodnight!” from the main character? As you fight through levels you can execute multiple kills in short succession. When you accomplish this (must like Shinobi) you will be treated to a short cutscene which is punctuated with about 6 phrases such as “Goodnight”, “Too easy”, and others. Given how often you’ll be trying to ramp up these combinations you’ll get tired of the voices quickly, which is a shame. Let me explain…
The voice acting in this title is fairly good. Hibana’s voice actor sounds reasonably like she resides on this planet and might actually care about what she is doing. On the other hand, the nimrod she gets her ‘orders’ from is simply painful to listen to. Spewing forth innane things like “Don’t disobey orders!” and “You have your orders!” makes me wonder if game creators really think that is how real orders are given or how real soldiers are motivated. Oh well, I digress…the point was that most of the voice acting is passable and the music is great. The sound effects are also well done with only a few ‘odd’ sounds in the bunch. All in all, fairly well done.
The controls in Shinobi (and arguably everything else) were an exercise in frustration. To give a full range of movement, realistic ninja-like speed, a variety of ninja abilities, ninja magic, and martial arts into one little controller is a daunting task. For all intents and purposes, Nightshade succeeds where its predecessor failed.
As before, left analog is movement and right analog is camera rotation. The face buttons are kick, jump, dash, and slash. R1 is used to lock onto the target, R2 switches to the next target. L1 is used to throw shuriken, and L2 is used to unleash your Ninjitsu. After about two levels all of these buttons become second nature and you will settle into the control scheme fairly comfortably.
The camera and controls mesh well with a close camera when needed and a more distant camera as appropriate, most of the time. There are still small nuiances that will get in the way such as camera angles that you just can’t quite hit for one reason or another, or some times where you could use a few more feet back or a few more feet closer to better engage the enemy. This will become painfully apparent in smaller box rooms. Making use of the target lock-on system is the only way to retain your sanity in smaller areas. It is definatly better than Shinobi, but still can leave you cold as you settle into a lock, dash, slash, slash, relock, dash, slash, slash pattern.
Wall running returns in this title, as does being able to jump from the walls then double-dash in the air. Much of what made Shinobi very cool was included and upgraded for this title. You’ll find yourself running along the wall and dive-kicking your enemies in no time as the learning curve is almost nill thanks to the solid control scheme for this set of actions.
This is the hard section…it has to ask the tough questions like “Is the game fun?” or “Will I break my controller playing this game?”. Well, if you played Shinobi, you will be happy to see that this title was created for normal people who can’t spend a lifetime perfecting the technique just to play the game reasonably well. The difficulty level ramps up at a natural pace and seems to have been carefully balanced.
In Shinobi you could perform Tate, (pronounced Tah-Teh) or stealth/speed kills. You could line up a series of 4,5,6,7, or more kills that would all occur fairly simultanously. This has returned for Nightshade and serves a greater purpose. You can earn Chakra which allows you to unleash a massive combo that takes down even the toughest bosses in a few short strikes…that is if you can hold onto it until the end of the level.
Speaking of bosses and fighting, there are some issues with Nightshade that definately should be brought to light. The Tate system, while very cool on paper, works only halfway in practice. What should be a very smooth blitz through enemy after enemy degenerates into a button mashing frenzy as you try to get your six kills. The camera won’t get around fast enough to target, so you really are left to simply hit the direction that the lock on arrow shows and mash the button quickly to kill whatever might be in that directly. When it works, it works well…when it doesn’t work, it is completely broken and Hibana will just stand there looking tough, or worse yet dash to the nearest bottomless pit and throw herself in it. This only adds to the sometimes frustrating difficulty level of the game and really doesn’t help the overall depth.
In the first Shinobi title you could completely obliterate most of the bosses with your Ninjitsu. This isn’t the case in Nightshade as those powers are more relegated to mere tools to help you through parts of the level or something less useful than intended. You are given three powers, Ka’en (fire explosion), Raijin (lightning invulnerability), or Fuga (wind slashes). None of them are particularly powerful and only the Ka’en is indescriminate enough to really impact a boss as they usually are almost invulnerable save one small (glowing?!) spot on their head or left butt cheek.
For a game that gets so much right and improves in so many areas, other areas have become almost completely useless. For instance, you probably will not kick an enemy unless your thumb slips onto that button. It is almost useless and is often blocked. If you come up against a heavily armored enemy you can kick them to destroy the armor, for some reason your sword simply won’t do it. The shuriken is almost the same way…more often than not I forgot I had them. Like Shinobi 2 you can jump and do a shuriken burst, but most of the time its pretty much just something you can do if you happen to remember that you have it.
The stealth dash is really the staple of this game, allowing you to whip past your enemies and hammer them with your short sword attacks. You’ll find that you can also dodge most damage this way, or when combined with lock on you can also dash around the enemy in a circular pattern. It adds to the hack and slash mode of the game, but only brings it up to a passable level.
Shinobi was very difficult. I’d say that it was a special brand of difficult that superceded all other forms of difficult to create its own genre of difficult. Thankfully, that has been toned down a bit to the point where you might actually want to complete the game and then go back to try to find the 85+ ninja coins to get the extra costumes, artwork, and special unlockables that will keep you coming back again and again.
To help with this, Nightshade features three difficulty levels, time attacks, and bonus stages to keep you going. It also features two different control schemes to allow you to ‘ramp up’ your ninja powers before you tackle the ‘big boy’ controls.
The hack and slash style of battle, repetition of wave after wave of enemies, and difficulty level even at lower settings might steer some folks away from playing the title even once more past completion. If you enjoyed Shinobi, you’ll find a kindred spirit in Nightshade, if you hated Shinobi you might want to rent this title before you commit.