Genre : Action
Release Date: February 10, 2004
Buy 'NIGHTSHADE': PlayStation 2
You don’t play Nightshade. You volunteer.
The PS2 Shinobi was the kind of game that feels vaguely like an initiation ritual, for some dark and secret gamer cult. You could half-ass your way through it, sure, but it was meant for people who are willing to sit down and live it, mastering every move, killing every monster, finding every item, and unearthing every secret coin. We’re talking full-on, no-look, hands-behind-the-back, jaw-dropping mastery here. Only then will the game give up its secrets (which include three unlockable characters), and those, in turn, will tempt you to go through the game again.
Nightshade (a.k.a. Kuniochi) is Shinobi with a female protagonist: Hibana, shinobi, government operative, and a character who will/should show up on every single “Hottest Characters in Gaming” list from now until the heat death of the universe. Her adventure isn’t as bleak as Hotsuma’s; you will not spend most of your time methodically tracking down and gutting your best friends in the world. Instead, the themes of Nightshade are betrayal and depression, as Hibana works out her serious father issues via the therapeutic murder of every hellspawned demon or cannon-fodder ninja within the Tokyo city limits.
Nightshade isn’t quite as unforgiving as its predecessor, because you no longer wield a sword that’ll turn on you if you go for too long without murdering someone. It’s every bit as demanding, though. It draws you in slowly, with a lot of style and easily mastered tricks, and immediately starts turning up the gain. Something which looks like a purely cosmetic quirk of the engine in the first mission, will become the only thing keeping you alive by the tenth.
Speaking of Hotsuma’s sword, the cursed blade Akujiki, it’s returned. Even broken into eight parts, it’s still a potent force for evil. The Nakatomi Group has hired a team of mercenary shinobi to destroy the seals that keep the demon world in check, and track down the runaway shards of Akujiki. Hibana is ordered to oppose them, and collect the shards before they can. This means going up against Jimushi, her old mentor, which, in turn, allows Hibana to settle an old score.
Hibana’s moveslist isn’t appreciably different from Hotsuma’s. You’re still an ungodly agile, well-equipped ninja, capable of wreaking havoc equally well on the ground or in the air. You’ve got a standard jump that goes so high that landing accurately becomes a slightly doubtful proposition; a double jump; the obligatory ninja magic, which comes in fire, wind, and lightning flavors; a fistful of paralytic throwing knives (I think they’re technically referred to as kunai, but my Ninja Lore™ is not as mighty as it once was); the familiar stealth dash; and a step kick that’s… kind of bizarre, really. You can kick a minor demon all day and you won’t do a damn thing, but one good running punt will shatter armor plate, wreck a small van, or send a gas-disseminating missile flying back towards its point of origin. I believe you must be Japanese to grasp the governing physics here.
This is somewhat hampered by the inclusion of a marginally useful target lock. For mid-air combat, you really need it, but it’s unreliable; it has a habit of targeting the enemy across the room, or the largest monster in the current wave, as opposed to the enemy that you are leaping straight towards. Therefore, when you most need it, it’s not going to work.
Hibana’s long sword, the Utsushiyo, like the Akujiki, gains power by killing enemies. Every monster, ninja, robot, or demon you destroy will raise your hit power for a short period of time, until, after about six kills, the sword could probably knock California into the ocean. Just like Shinobi, if you manage to wipe out all the enemies in a wave within a certain period of time, you’ll get a short cutscene, where Hibana pauses as all her enemies fall dead simultaneously.
This lends itself to a weird dynamic, where your enemies become not so much dangerous opponents, as they are unwitting tools. They can still hurt you, yes, but they are actually your best friends in the world.
Powerful monsters and level bosses are both capable of shrugging off shots from Hibana’s sword, but kill a few smaller demons before you start hacking at their larger buddies, and you’ll get some real results. If you play your cards right, it’s possible to knock out quite a few bosses with one sword combination, by killing their bodyguards before you dash in to attack them.
Getting combos like this (referred to in-game as Tate), or picking up purple gemstones will fill Hibana’s Chakra Meter. That, in turn, allows you to perform a devastating Stealth Attack, where Hibana uses the shadow duplicates she creates during her stealth dash as homing projectiles. It takes a fairly long time to set up the Stealth Attack, which makes it difficult to work into combos, but if it goes off, suckas go down. There is nothing in this game that you cannot kill disturbingly quickly, from cyborg ninjas to ancient demons the size of a subway train, if you’re able to wind up a long Tate combo with a successful Stealth Attack.
Nightshade is built from the ground up to reward the successful implementation of the Tate system. A Tate combo looks cool, it does tons of damage if you do it right, and it’s very useful during platforming sequences.
Hitting an enemy in mid-air resets Hibana’s double jump and stealth dash, so you can theoretically stay in the air forever as long as you don’t run out of flying enemies to kill. There are a few times over the course of the game where you have to get over a bottomless pit by the simple expedient of killing everything that’s flying above it, careening madly from dead monster to dead monster like a sword-waving ninja pinball. It’s kind of like playing hopscotch… in mid-air… with demons … except everybody dies at the end.
Okay, I guess it’s not like hopscotch at all, unless my kindergarten teacher was drastically misinformed.
All this takes a while to master, and can be a lot of fun. The early levels of Nightshade are ridiculously entertaining, as you run around the levels looking frantically for the next monster in the wave, so you can get another Tate combo. (As a friend pointed out, this is one of the few games on the planet where it’ll reward you for finding a secret room by hitting you with a big crowd of thirty lesser demons.) There aren’t any puzzles to get in the way of the action, and the game rewards exploration by letting you find more demons to kill, more objects to destroy, or more items which translate directly into more destruction and/or killing.
That being said, Nightshade is unapologetically difficult, and as it moves into its later stages, becomes drastically unbalanced. The game is set up so that the things Hibana is the worst at—accurate jumping, aerial combat, her target lock—become the features you absolutely must master if you expect to do well in the last five stages.
I’ve died more times than I care to admit on the final couple of levels, not because I suck, because I got caught in an aerial crossfire (something which Hibana has absolutely no defense against, and besides, having to effectively “fly” by way of murdering airborne enemies is hard enough when they aren’t shooting at you), by messing up the button sequence you need to stay in the air (Circle, Circle, hold R1, X, Triangle, Square, X, Triangle, Square, etc.; repeat the last three up to fifteen times). Less often, Hibana would fall to her death because I was winding up an aerial Tate combo, and she wasn’t able to get back to solid ground in time, either because I’d been taken too far away by the inscrutable vagaries of target-lock, or, after all the rapid dashing and the Tate movie, I had no bloody idea where I was in relation to the ground.
Essentially, the biggest problem Nightshade has is that it has some of the fastest-paced, most fun gameplay you can find on store shelves these days, and offers more of a sense of accomplishment by beating and mastering it than most games ever think of having, but it torpedoes itself in the end. The last five stages are no damned fun at all, largely because each of them is like a giant neon sign pointing to the parts of Nightshade’s gameplay that suck the most.
If you were a big fan of Shinobi and you’re looking for fresh challenges, then you’ve got Nightshade already and you don’t need me to tell you about it. As for the rest of you, it’s a question of what you look for in a game.
If you’re hardcore – if you take an almost unseemly satisfaction in pitting your own skill and reflexes against a game, and coming up the winner – then Nightshade is a great game for you. Like Shinobi, it offers a gauntlet of insane challenges and unlockable characters, along with the satisfaction of beating a game that would break lesser players. It’s like boot camp for gamers.
If you’re more casual, regarding video games as a fun hobby but not necessarily a lifestyle, then Nightshade should entertain you for a while. It’s got flashy combat, an undeniably well-designed lead character, and a lot of ninja action. It’s just that the further you go, the less fun the game becomes, so you’d do better to rent this one.
Score : 8.2/10
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