Ninjas get away with murder. I mean, obviously, they literally get away with murder - that's pretty much their job - but, in gamey terms, their hooded presence has fooled many of us into giving certain series rather more of our affection than they strictly deserved.
*cough* Tenchu *cough*
What's the appeal? Who knows? Maybe it's because the closest most of us ever get to showing dazzling agility while wearing black silk pyjamas is not spraining something while attempting an erotically adventurous manoeuvre on our wedding anniversary. At least, you know, that's what I assume. And...um...
The slice is right
So, ninjas. Progenitors of the stealth genre, despite starring in precious few decent games, there's still something about their mysterious ways that excites - padding across moonlit rooftops, shimmying through windows and taking out guards with a silent neckslice before fading into shadows again. Killing with impunity is (cover your eyes, Jack Thompson) bloody good fun, even when the surrounding game is often quite obviously not up to snuff. Such was the case with Shinobido's PS2 version, which bedazzled Tom so thoroughly with its stalky-slash charms that, even though he admitted it felt like a 6, ended up sneaking its way to a 7.
However, now it's been ported to the PSP even the ability to slaughter ruddy great bears isn't enough to make up for the title's unavoidable technical shortcomings.
But first, the good news. The game, now redubbed Tales of the Ninja, boasts an impressive amount of features - many unique to this handheld edition. Over thirty unlockable characters, for instance. The option to connect to your PS2 and download custom maps from the console version's level editor. Wireless multiplayer modes. Eighty branching stages, scattered in such a fashion that you have a hefty spread of routes through the story mode. Missions that range from all-out slaughter, to thievery, to escort duty. Yep, Shinobido looks like it should be an embarrassment of riches for ninjitsu aficionados.
And it would be, were it not for the fact that it plays like a dog. A scruffy, ugly dog with a wonky leg.
And one of those lampshade things around its neck.
View to a kill
The utterly useless camera was a recurring complaint in Tom's PS2 review, so you can pretty much guess what the overwhelming problem is with this version, given the PSP's history of struggling to accommodate 3D camera control on its limited buttons. However bad you think the camera might be, believe me, it's even worse.
For huge chunks of the game, you can't even see your character, never mind the numerous foes you're trying to avoid or sneak up on. Instead the game gives you endless shots of walls, of the floor, of the corner of a large box, of the inside of your character's elbow. This isn't just an occasional hiccup when fighting in close quarters, it's all the time. Even creeping round a simple corner becomes a trial to rival Hercules as you have to constantly reposition the camera to prevent yourself moving sideways across the screen, either using the right shoulder button to centre the view somewhere vaguely behind you, or going into first-person view to slowly point yourself back in the right direction before continuing. And as for finding an advantageous vantage point from which to survey enemies below, forget it.
In a game which relies almost entirely on stealth and agility, a perpetual inability to simply see where you are or where you're going proves to be something of a hurdle.
Hip to be square
It's not helped by the fact that the game is ugly. Ugly like a guest on The Jeremy Kyle Show. Levels are made up of big square blocks, shoved together to form crude structures and all apparently floating in an inky black void of nothing. Invisible walls keep you hemmed in to the tiny mission areas, while the same low-polygon character models appear over and over again, hilariously vanishing through solid walls like the cast of Rentaghost. For a console capable of handling PS2 standard visuals, this throwback to the 32-bit generation is unfathomable. I actually loaded some pornography on my Memory Stick so I could swap it over while playing in public, lest the sight of the game caused me social embarrassment.
And while it is still possible to feel a flicker of excitement when you finally do manage to pull off something that resembles ninja-cool, for most of the time the gameplay does nothing to compensate for the shonky presentation. Restrictive controls make stealth a chore, with the right shoulder button once more pressed into service for sneaking, and triangle used for stealth kills once in range. However, press the shoulder button and triangle at the same time, and you throw your enemy up in the air instead - something which kind of alerts them to your presence. Instead you have to sneak up behind them, stop, stand up, and then attack. Thankfully the AI is so appalling that you have to practically climb into their trousers before they'll spot you.
Open combat is just as woeful, no more sophisticated than the old "hit square as many times as you can" routine, and your arsenal of ninja gadgets rarely proves useful. You don't even get to choose what to take with you in each mission, leaving you to wonder just what you're supposed to do with six biscuits during an assassination. Tea break, perhaps?
So, ninjas. They're cool. This game isn't. A barely passable PS2 game made demonstrably worse by the PSP conversion process, it's hard to understand just how Sony hopes to benefit from releasing such low rent clag on a system in desperate need of quality titles. If you can somehow come to terms with the archaic controls and spiteful camera then there's a lot of game to be found. It's just a lot of not very good game.
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