Rob thought he'd seen off Shinobi, but apparently Sega's back for another round...
Let's not beat about the bush here. We didn't like last year's Shinobi remake. Not one bit. While there are certainly a small minority of people who enjoyed the mechanics of the game, we found the gameplay to be repetitive and hackneyed, the presentation to be poor and ultimately, the whole experience was tedious, frustrating and unrewarding - not exactly a compelling package in a videogame.
However, we have a certain level of faith in Sega - and we love ninjas - so somewhere, somehow, we still believed that Sega would make a good ninja game again. When we first heard about Nightshade, with its shuriken-chucking heroine in her skin-tight ninja gear, it sounded like exactly what the doctor ordered. The only question was, would Sega pick up the pace from the hugely disappointing Shinobi, or was this to be more of the same but with added mammaries?
Real Ultimate Power
First impressions certainly suggested that Nightshade had more on offer than its predecessor, with the opening level of the game being set on the back of a stealth bomber as it swoops through the skyscraper lined streets of a city - a far cry from the "identikit boxes connected by identikit corridors" layouts preferred by Shinobi. There are also a number of new moves in the arsenal available to your character, which immediately makes the game more interesting than Shinobi was. While the basic gameplay remains the same, the new types of kick and short-sword based attacks lend sorely needed variety to the combat.
Unfortunately, after the promising first level (which is admittedly marred by some poorly timed enemy spawns that can leave you wandering around aimlessly on top of a speeding jet - not something you expect from a polished game), it's straight back into the Shinobi formula of entering a box, clearing out the enemies, and moving to the next box. Sometimes this happens in indoor levels, with variety added by levels on the rooftops of the city or elsewhere, but with the exception of a few more "set piece" levels like the stealth bomber one, this is all familiar and laboriously repetitive ground.
Reach out and Kill someone
The repetition might be more forgivable if the game consistently overwhelmed you with eye candy - indeed, a recent and similarly repetitive game, Castlevania: Lament of Innocence, managed to wallpaper over its shortcomings in terms of variety extremely well by offering up a cornucopia of graphical and audio delights. Sadly, to describe Nightshade's graphics as underwhelming would be like describing the Atlantic as a bit wet; there has been absolutely no evolution here since the atrocious looking Shinobi, and the outdoor sections only serve to exacerbate the problem, with enemies popping into view en masse only a few feet away from you. It's not that the game is throwing around so many enemies that it can't draw them at once, or that the enemies or scenery is hugely detailed (in fact they're low polygon, badly textured and downright ugly); it's just that the game is appallingly badly written and is an example of the sort of sloppy development work which we really shouldn't be seeing this late in the lifespan of the PS2.
Defenders of the game - and as with Shinobi, we're certain that there are at least a few ardent apologists out there - will probably point to the fact that much of the gameplay is focused not on moving from zone to zone, but on doing so in style. That's a fair comment to some degree, and despatching your enemies rapidly and efficiently will reward you with a "tate" sequence where your character strikes a pose and the bodies around you slide apart simultaneously - exactly as in the first game, but with a few more poses. However, after a few times, this simply grows old and merely serves to interrupt the gameplay, and the sequences themselves aren't very impressive and actually show up the poorly designed, low quality enemy models very badly.
Herein lies the rub. The fact of the matter is that while many games commit the sin of being repetitive and having badly flawed gameplay, those which manage to be great despite this do so by constantly presenting the player with rewards for persevering. Nightshade is an extremely difficult game on the higher difficulty settings, but rather than being a challenge it feels like a chore, and often you find yourself battling against non-intuitive controls and instant death drops off the edge of ledges (wonderful piece of game design there, Sega!) rather than the swarm of badly animated enemies meandering across the screen at you. It's just not fun to play, and there's practically zero reward for continuing, as the gameplay fails to evolve significantly and the plotline and characterisation is so thin and clichéd as to be completely irrelevant.
Certainly, the game improves on Shinobi in a couple of key respects, mostly notably in terms of the variety of combat options open to you and the variety of locations in the game, but it's a minor improvement only - and frankly, Nightshade needed to do a lot better, arriving as it does only a short while before Tecmo's magnificent Ninja Gaiden backflips its way across the pond to land silently as a cat on an Xbox near you. In the face of such opposition, Nightshade, a pretty damn poor game when stacked against PS2 contemporaries like Devil May Cry or Castlevania, simply doesn't have a candle to hold.