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Nightshade (PlayStation 2) artwork

Nightshade (PlayStation 2) review

"In Nightshade you are Hibana, the deadliest of all kunoichi or female ninjas. As a minor detail, Hibana is also (along with Samus Aran) the only female videogame character I can think of right now who appears fully clothed from her head down to her feet, and doesn’t look like she’s the main investor of a silicone factory. "

In Nightshade you are Hibana, the deadliest of all kunoichi or female ninjas. As a minor detail, Hibana is also (along with Samus Aran) the only female videogame character I can think of right now who appears fully clothed from her head down to her feet, and doesn’t look like she’s the main investor of a silicone factory.

Hibana earns her living as an assassin for the government of a futuristic Japan, eliminating threats the police department can’t handle. Such a threat is the Nakatomi Corporation, which, apart from being formed by Hibana’s former mentor and his new disciples, is also the group responsible for allowing creatures from Hell into Earth. All of this happens before the actual game starts, so by the time you begin to control Hibana everything is quite a mess: the whole Tokyo has been invaded by the Hellspawn, as well as by an assortment of robots and evil ninjas from the Nakatomi Corporation. Hibana is the only one who’s been known to hold her own against both of these dangerous groups of enemies.

That’s because she’s an extremely efficient warrior. She has two weapons, to begin with: a straight sword and two daggers, which are equipped permanently and have no usage restrictions of any kind. Both can be used alternatively at any given time; it’s entirely up to the player to choose which weapon suits the situation better. What’s going to come in handy right now: killing the enemy in one hit with the sword or getting the combo count up with the multiple hits the swift daggers allow you to deliver? Normally it’s going to be the sword, for one particular reason I’ll explain later. When not in close quarters, Hibana can reach the enemy with an electric shuriken or throwing knife, which will temporarily stun enemies that are not armoured or using a shield as cover. If that’s the case, Hibana can kick their armour off with the touch of a button, leaving them wide open to the other attacks mentioned above.

As deadly as this woman is, combat skills are not all there is to see about her. Hibana is also a shockingly proficient acrobat –when compared both to the other characters in the game and to the great majority of other videogame characters, as well. To put it short, when you play Nightshade you will very rarely touch the ground. Yes, Hibana masters that curious skill called “double jump” that is so popular in videogames but not nearly as frequent in real life, but that’s not it. She can also wall-run for an indefinite amount of time, or just cling to the wall and stay there if she so wishes, fending off nearby enemies without letting go of her grab. She can stealth dash, which is the action of running for a couple of yards in such a speed that her image blurs. But most importantly, she can jump off enemies. This might seem trivial at first, but later on it turns out to be the most vital of Hibana’s acrobatic talents: if she can jump off enemies, that means she doesn’t need to touch the ground at all as long as there’s someone else on-screen. Jumping from one enemy to the next, you will find yourself covering huge distances in all three dimensions without necessarily laying your feet on the ground.

Judging solely from this quite impressive array of acrobatic skills, it could be deduced that flying around the stage is as important as fighting in the general gameplay. Two more aspects about this aerial dimension of the gameplay should be enough to demonstrate that said aerial experience is actually the Nightshade experience: the fall damage, and the improved sword.

What I meant by “fall damage” is the damage you take from falling to the ground from high distances, which is zero. With the exception of a few bottomless pits here and there, Hibana will always hit the ground safely. You can throw her off a six-storey building and she’ll land as gracefully as if she simply walked down a particularly tall step. I think this is quite relevant in showing just how much the developers of the game want you to jump around their levels –so much, in fact, that there’s absolutely no punishment for it (once again, with the exception of bottomless pits which are deadly).

What I arbitrarily decided to call “improved sword” is even more relevant to the antigravity acrobatics you’ll pull off in Nightshade. Hibana’s sword, we are told, absorbs the soul of the enemies she kills for a short amount of time. In gameplay terms, this means your sword gets more powerful the more enemies you kill; it will go back to normal as soon as you stop your slaughter, though, so it’s in your best interest to chain one enemy after another as long as you can. The impact this has on your game is quite simple: after finishing off one or two enemies, all the following victims of the chain will fall in just one hit.

Do think about it. If your enemies die in one hit, and you’re encouraged to kill all on-screen enemies in succession so as to temporarily power-up your sword, the gameplay is quickly drifting from beat’em-up to platforms. If a simple blow will kill an enemy, the actual core of the battle moves to timing and positioning, speed and reflexes. If it weren’t for the long and draining boss battles at the end of the level, which most certainly take all possible advantage from Hibana’s fighting abilities, I’d be left wondering why she has such a developed set of attacks in the first place.

Don’t let the apparent platform action fool you, though. Performing all those acrobatics and battle moves is easy. Playing Nightshade is not. Bosses are very tough, and jumping in the wrong half of a second can and will make the difference between a brilliant chain and death. You will need to learn a boss’ patterns and devise a strategy accordingly if you want to stand the slightest chance against it, and you will need to keep a very cool head while making your way from one skyscraper to the next one without falling to your demise halfway through.

In the end, you will remember this frantic gameplay of flying from one spot to another as a tough but overall pleasant experience. You’ll grow accustomed to the bittersweet feeling of taking a life or death decision in a fraction of a second. You’ll learn to envision any given scenery as a three-dimensional area you can explore completely, rather than a two-dimensional field you can only walk across. But what you’ll enjoy the most about Nightshade and remember with most affection is its style.

During any session of Nightshade, you will most likely end up performing radically more unbelievable stunts per minute than you’re used to. Hibana kicks an enemy off a building, and dives in herself immediately after, jumping off floating surveillance robots right after cutting them in half. She falls to the ground, where she slashes three different enemy ninjas and dashes behind a fourth one while he stabs the empty air she had been occupying a millisecond ago. She kills him too and inattentively comments “So slow…” while the men collapse and pieces of broken robots fall all around them. As if mildly disappointed by how the world fails to be a challenge anymore.

That literally happened to me yesterday. This morning, I saw Hibana kill an enemy, kick a projectile of some sort back at another enemy who had fired it, run all along a nearby wall and kill said enemy without ever touching the ground, only to jump off the wall and use her daggers to repeatedly stab a dog-sized moth which was just beginning to fly in her general direction. All enemies collapse while Hibana’s still in the air, and the only reason she doesn’t deign comment on their incompetence is because she’s holding her blade in her mouth.

That’s just two remarkable situations in two Nightshade games. If you start your own one, you’re in for a difficult and often frustrating challenge; but you’ll just as often create your own outstanding coolness moments. And then, when you manage to beat the first boss, you’ll find out it’s worth putting in the effort it requires, and that it feels quite good to beat a level knowing it’s only because of your hard work, not because of the game’s leniency or lack of challenge. Nightshade is a game that will always reward your effort.

MartinG's avatar
Community review by MartinG (August 24, 2007)

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