Nightshade

Gamestyle Archive Intro: Tom takes us back to a classic potential reviving of a Sega franchise that didn’t exactly take off. Better luck next time. This review dates from 2004.

Nightshade_(PS2)_Coverart

Sega have been slow to take advantage of their illustrious back catalogue, with many well-loved characters skipping entire hardware generations before re-entering the fray. One such classic was Shinobi – arcade and console hit of the ’80s and early ’90s – who in 2003 made a welcome return to Sony’s Playstation 2 and is now graced with a sequel: Nightshade.

In a potential marketing blunder, Sega have opted to strip Nightshade of its historic pedigree and remove any direct reference to Shinobi. Only by reading the blurb on the backside of the box will those familiar with the story of Hotsuma and the destruction of Hakujiki realise that it is in fact a sequel; Nightshade is set a few short months after the final battle of Shinobi. Naming conventions aside, Nightshade plays and feels exactly like its forebear. At its simplest, Kunoichi’s adventure is a straight-up arcade hack ‘n’ slash fest complete with enormous and challenging boss encounters. A smattering of moves are all that’s required to slice and shuriken your way through the challenges ahead. Despite the addition of special moves and a kick, Kunoichi’s female ninja maintains the modest approach of Hotsuma who came before: the challenge and also the bulk of the enjoyment comes from a need for style – not just to compete but to excel. Lifting Kunoichi, literally, above the standard fare is her ability to seamlessly, flowingly, and downright beautifully dispose of every enemy on screen.

Airborne attacks and stealth dashes allow Kunoichi to combo her way through all demons on screen, and the player is treated to a ‘Tate’ scene showing the simultaneous demise of her foes. Flowing from one enemy to the next, without breaking pattern and accompanied by a sometimes surreal soundtrack, is where this game excels. An almost dreamlike quality takes over – a trance of stylised killing – where one is mesmerised by the dancing scarf of the ninja avatar and the drum ‘n’ bass beats. End-of-level boss encounters, in keeping with the arcade styling, are huge and challenging. Often preceded by an introductory cut-scene, these gargantuan foes make up for the shortcomings of the smaller demons encountered throughout the levels. Careful use of the smaller demons is in fact the key to defeating their towering brethren.

Powering up her Tate ability on the underlings, Kunoichi increases the amount of damage she can do to the main adversary – throwing a welcome element of strategy into the mix. At the level’s end the player is graded alphabetically for performance: tate killings are high-scoring, as is the tactical use of special moves (retries and taking damage subtract points). Dependent on your score are the prizes you will unlock. In an improvement over Shinobi, Nightshade offers quite a range of alternate modes and unlockable extras to keep you coming back for more. In terms of difficulty, Nightshade has the potential to offend the hardcore fraternity. Whereas death in Shinobi would place you right back at the beginning of a level, Nightshade offers a mid-point resurrection (depending on where you’d saved throughout the levels). The ability to wall-walk has also been extended to include almost all surfaces, making those bottomless chasm leaps just a bit more user-friendly. Gone too is the hunger of ‘Akujiki’ – meaning that players can quite happily neglect to kill all enemies on screen and progress to the next area. Of course, a certain quota must be met to open up the next portion, but it’s not nearly the same as having the compulsion to engage the evil sword. It is as challenging as ever, though, to achieve ‘A’ grades throughout and the three difficulty levels should provide enough tweaking for the masochist. Unfortunately, the praise must end there.

Overworks has not improved on the graphical shortcomings of Shinobi by one iota. The visuals would not have turned heads on the Dreamcast and certainly deserve to be noticed on Sony’s more powerful machine. Character models lurch around unconvincingly and do little to excite the imagination; the player-model particularly annoys as she is unable to respond to further commands until the current animation has been completed. Indeed, after swinging her trusty katana, Kunoichi is left prone for just long enough to receive punishment from her opportunistic enemies – most frustrating. And not aided at all by lacklustre environments which so often default to generic passageways and streets – only underground do the levels hold together with something approaching cohesion; the shimmering Tokyo of the cut-scenes is nowhere to be seen once into the game.

Amputating the retro-cool tunes of Shinobi and grafting on a mixed bag of dance and ambient ditties was not an entirely successful operation, and has left much of the game limping as a result. The occasional track does get it right, and as previously mentioned contributes greatly to the on-screen synergy, but sadly this is all too rare. The largely acceptable voice-acting is also marred by the irritating Americanised whine of the schoolgirl heroine; when subtitles are provided throughout it is something of a mystery as to why the original Japanese audio was not retained. Perhaps this is yet another example of how the atmosphere of Shinobi has been tweaked and ever so slightly spoiled.

Neither an outright improvement nor a disappointment (when compared with Shinobi), it comes down to this: if you are satisfied with a ‘C’ grade for completion, it will be hard to look beyond Nightshade’s extremely modest presentation in order to unlock the scintillating challenge that lies beneath. If you have the yearning, however, it may be advisable to seek out another of Sega’s recent offerings – the lavishly-presented, highly-atmospheric originality of Otogi.

Gamestyle Score: 6/10

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