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Nightshade (PlayStation 2) artwork

Nightshade (PlayStation 2) review

"Think how fun it would feel to ride along trucks moving down a freeway, slashing at ninjas and running along the sides of the vehicles before leaping to another as the previous one bursts into flames behind you. Better yet, envision the crumbling remains of a massive suspension bridge, filled with gaps and flying enemies you must leapfrog across in order to survive. The game is filled with moments like this, and more. Often, they’re every bit as thrilling as they sound."

Hibana is a kunoichi. That means she’s a female ninja, in case you wondered. Nightshade is fond of such fancy words, and weird ninja names, and bottomless pits, and wall running, and sword-based combos and distracting white jumpsuits that cling to every one of Hibana’s many curves. It’s easy to see why. They’re all very good things. Still, there are problems with Sega’s indirect sequel to Shinobi. It can be every bit as unforgiving as its predecessor, it has a problematic camera and sometimes it’ll make you want to scream. The question a person is left asking is the obvious one: does the good outweigh the bad? For the most part, yes.

If you played Sega’s recent Shinobi remake, also for the Playstation 2, a lot of what you’ll find in Nightshade won’t surprise you at all. The first game featured a brutal difficulty level and a ninja named Hotsuma who could run along walls and slice throats as a red scarf trailed behind him like a banner. Perhaps most important to that game’s identity was its protagonist’s dash, which has returned for the sequel.

As Hibana flits about a given battlefield, staying in one place often proves fatal. Robots and ninjas quickly corner her if given the chance, anxious to overpower her with their superior numbers. Not only that, but they come at all sorts of elevations. The only way to win is to use the stealth dash. This is so important that it is underscored by the control scheme itself. When you press the ‘X’ button, Hibana won’t jump as you might expect. Instead, she will move forward (or to the side, if preferred) in an on-screen blur. In this manner, she can easily dodge any projectiles or sword strokes from the cybernetic behemoths that frequent this futuristic world. She can also pass over or through some basic objects, and this makes it easier for her to get behind the villain that just a moment before he can strike her fatally.

Hibana can also jump. Then when she’s airborne, she can jump again. This perhaps sounds standard, but it’s only the start of what makes this game so unique. Suppose you’re at the edge of a wide pit in the game’s third or fourth stage. You’ve cleared the ground of most enemies, but there’s still a robot hovering in the air ahead, just over the pit. Looking at the abyss, you realize even a double jump won’t carry you completely across. However, all is not lost. Rushing toward the gap, you leap into the air toward the robot, who is powering up to release a shot. Your first hop takes you just below him, your second to his level. Quickly, you slash twice with your sword. The robot begins to melt out of view. Hanging in mid-air, you press the ‘X’ button and dash forward, then jump again. If an enemy is within range, you can even fly toward it with an armor-disabling kick to keep the airborne chain going. One way or another, you’ll land safely on the other side.

Early in the game, moments like the one I described above don’t occur all that frequently. Sega is still letting you get your feet wet. But you’ll find soon enough that mastery of that move is absolutely required. This is true not only because of the increasing number of bottomless pits you’ll encounter, but also because it is vital if you want to move quickly enough to perform what the game calls a ‘tate.’

As Hibana moves through a given region, she’ll of course encounter groups of monsters known as the Hellspawn. These fiends often attack in mixed combinations of a few different robots. For example, a group might consist of a few simple buffoons on ground level, as well as some hovering gun turrets. When Hibana strikes one fatally, its motion pauses and it turns gray like a silhouette. At the top of the screen, a meter becomes fully charged, then rapidly drains. If Hibana acts quickly enough to take care of another nemesis, the meter will refill, then start to drain yet again. As Hibana melts from one savage blow to another and enemies collect at her feet, the meter will perpetually refill so long as it is not allowed to drain itself completely. Obliterate all of the enemies in an area and as the last one falls, you’ll be treated to a close-up animation of Hibana whirling about with her sword, or sheathing it, or whatever the case may be. Around her, the monsters she has sliced fall apart amidst geysers of blood.

The tate is important not because it looks good (though seeing the animations never really gets old), but because it turns you into a killing machine if you manage to pull one off. After the first kill, subsequent strikes fill your sword’s meter with power, so that it does more damage than normal. Your two offensive spells (one a blast of flames, the other a series of boomerang-shaped beams of light) suddenly kick excessive butt, too. Nowhere is this more vital than in the game’s numerous boss encounters.

Aside from the first boss you face, you should expect nothing but nail-biting intensity from each boss battle. Hibana may be powerful, but she still is only human. Her rivals, unfortunately, often are not (and even if they are, they’ve bulked up so much it’s hardly a relevant distinction). Expect to face demonic masses of muscle, claws, wings and metal. Nearly every opponent seems to have titanium armor, meaning even your most vicious of blows hardly phase their life meter. Meanwhile, Hibana’s meter drops severely if she receives damage at all. Attacks don’t just come from one direction, either. A good example is the boss of the fifth stage. As you first encounter him, he stands at a distance and throws rings of blue magic your way. If you move out of his line of sight, then he calls down bolts of lightning from the sky. They’ll fry you to a crisp if you don’t keep moving (unless you’re using your shield spell, but that only lasts a short period of time before flickering out of sight). Meanwhile, the monster is invulnerable to any attacks. Eventually, he drops to his haunches as additional Hellspawn materialize out of thin air. These guys will try to attack you as well, but a more primary concern is the hulking beast that rampages around the virtual arena. You have to keep all these factors in mind while attempting to mount an attack of your own. A defensive approach simply won’t work.

Enter the tate. When you have a few disposable enemies to deal with, you’re suddenly in shape to turn the tables. Charge up your sword and victory can be as simple as unleashing a charged attack in the right direction, just before your meter empties. Even the toughest of enemies will fall to this tactic. But if that sounds simple, don’t be fooled. Early on, the level guardians get wise to your tactics and do everything in their power to disrupt your attempt at a tate. There’s little more frustrating than being on your way to the fourth victim after defeating the third, then finding yourself stopped short by a projectile, or spears erupting from the ground beneath you, or any other number of cheap attacks. Expect such moments of exasperation to become the norm as you reach the more advanced stages.

At this point, you may think I’m just complaining about the boss encounters because I’m inept. And while there is some merit to that, you should also know I didn’t just give up on a first attempt. Beginning with the fifth boss, I frequently had to try twenty or thirty times before emerging victorious from each of the many heated battles. As I fought one demon after another, something distressing dawned on me: this game’s camera sucks.

It’s not always a huge flaw. Most of the time, you probably won’t notice the issue at all. If you can’t see a series of ledges properly, just move the right analog stick and you can adjust the camera’s angle. This is often enough to suffice. The problem is that you’re seldom in a position to tinker for long at all, as Hibana is in the middle of avoiding a barrage of missiles or gunfire, or a bunch of soldiers ready to throw their bodies at her in hopes of doing some massive damage before she has a chance to react. The greatest frustration you’ll have with this game comes from those moments where you have to dispose of mass quantities of enemies while hopping around ledges and keeping your eye on bottomless pits. The only way you can possibly hit everyone in time is to use the ‘R’ button to target your foes, which in some ways limits your movement as you’re suddenly forced to strafe whenever your feet touch down. For me, this all culminated at level nine.

As the stage begins, you find yourself riding one of four boats racing across a bay for a meeting with your former trainer, Jimushi. Like you, he wants to recover the sword Akujiki, but his intentions are less than pure. So of course, you’ll get to fight him at the end of that stage. The first problem is getting there. As one of the few stages in the game without in-level checkpoints, level nine presents you with a large variety of instant deaths. Missiles are fired from submarines that breach the surface, gun turrets hover over murky water, and dwarfish soldiers in suits of armor wield broadswords in an attempt to knock you into the drink. The stage quickly becomes a matter of endurance as you make countless jumps where you can barely see safe footing. The camera swirls wildly but you hardly have time to adjust it because doing so means you’ll become riddled with bullets or shrapnel. So you dash wildly about the stage as your energy is slowly but surely depleted.

Then, blessedly, you finally reach the end of the level. Nightshade is kind enough that you at least don’t have to worry about going back to the beginning of the stage, but now you’re in that boss encounter you knew was coming. Jinmushi raises himself onto a ledge high above the arena, then starts summoning spear traps that burst forth from the bricks at your feet. To defeat him, you must not only hit him, but hit him when you’ve managed to power up your sword by striking the pods that hover in the air far beneath him. Here the game forces such concentration and dexterity that I’ve played for several minutes only to watch Hibana die and realize my posture was hurting my legs. That’s how intense things can be. Everything outside the game ceases to exist as you worry only about scaling the heights to reach your opponent. Spears, bullets and beams of light will all attempt to cut short your mission as you rain down on Jinmushi with one powered up blow after another, until finally he sinks to the pavement amidst groans not dissimilar from those you likely uttered yourself just a moment before. Welcome to Nightshade.

But wait. If the game is really this difficult, if the camera makes things that irritating (and to a certain extent, unfair), why should anyone even bother with the game? Because everything in between is pure gold.

Imagine descending a shaft in an abandoned laboratory, dancing along catwalks as robots attempt to knock you to your doom. Picture yourself riding down elevators while laser beams crisscross one another below you and turrets fire at you from above. Think how fun it would feel to ride along trucks moving down a freeway, slashing at ninjas and running along the sides of the vehicles before leaping to another as the previous one bursts into flames behind you. Better yet, envision the crumbling remains of a massive suspension bridge, filled with gaps and flying enemies you must leapfrog across in order to survive. The game is filled with moments like this, and more. Often, they’re every bit as thrilling as they sound.

Visually, the game perhaps doesn’t hold up so well. Bland textures are the order of the day, and there’s not even a huge variety in the enemy populace you’ll face, bosses excluded. The artists mostly seemed concerned with making Hibana look sexy, and in that regard they’ve succeeded admirably. The audio department is equally disappointing, with stiff voice acting between battles and a soundtrack that blends into the background so effortlessly you won’t even really notice it (though the game’s frantic is no doubt at least partially to blame for that). It’s safe to say that if you like this game, it won’t be for the artistic presentation. Nightshade transcends that. Instead, the relationship you share with it is purely the one of gamer and game. You’ll curse it when you’re losing, relish every moment when you’re effortlessly sliding along walls and turning robots to stacks of metal. Ultimately, the only thing that really matters is that you are a kunoichi. Grrr.

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Staff review by Jason Venter (July 08, 2004)

Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.

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