Old-school gamers complain that the games of today are lacking in challenge. These ?gnew-fangled?h games can be beaten in one sitting, and are too pretty with no substance! Where are the games of yesterday, with tough-as-nails levels that had to be memorized and repeated ad nauseum, or the games that taunted you in your sleep, teasing you until you mastered the play mechanics to wipe the smirk off its face? They survive in games like Sega?fs Nightshade.
Nightshade is the side story to 2002?fs overlooked Shinobi. The long-running Shinobi series drips with ninja-style coolness, fast-paced game play, and white-knuckle action. The updated Shinobi introduced the series to three-dimensions, and Nightshade builds upon its predecessor?fs formula while creating a unique personality of its own. The great storyline, solid visuals, and challenging game play are still present, with a stylish and dramatic flair rarely seen today.
The story of Nightshade starts off where Shinobi ended. The shards of the Akujiki blade are scattered across Tokyo. The mysterious Nakatomi Corporation is collecting the remains of the cursed sword for reasons unknown. You assume the role of Hibana, a female ninja working for the Japanese government to track down the fragments. Along the way, you learn of those working alongside Nakatomi, including several from Hibana?fs past.
Graphically, Nightshade is similar to its big brother. The visuals are more than competent. The character models are rendered nicely, with solid textures and bright colors highlighting slightly jaggy builds. Hibana?fs feminine form appears agile and realistic, differing from the bulky enemies populating the game. Shadowing and other lighting effects are nicely done in some places, and are used effectively. The shadows Hibana leaves in her wake not only look good, but also trick foes as you sneak around them. The animation is smooth and fast. Hibana?fs attacks flow like silk and she glides with grace. Hibana?fs scarf in particular is wonderfully animated, with a transparent look that trails as she moves. The backgrounds are simple in appearance, but accommodate the fast game play at 60 frames-per-second. Other touches, such as transparencies and boss attacks, look great.
Nightshade is no slouch in the audio department, either. Unlike the traditional music of Shinobi, Nightshade leans heavily towards an electronica based soundtrack. The thumping beats coincide nicely with the onscreen action. There are hints of past games in a few tracks, but the techno sounds accentuate the futuristic vibe. The sound effects are equally great. The swish of blades cutting through the air, metal colliding with metal, and stealthy footsteps along the ground resonate well.
The English voice acting could be better, though. Some voices don?ft mesh with the characters, and more than a few lines are laughable. The dialogue doesn?ft synch up with the moving lips, but it?fs a small criticism. An option for Japanese dialogue would have been nice.
Control over Hibana is a deceptive affair. The button layout is clean and easy to learn- at first. There are two buttons dedicated to sword and kick attacks, a jump button, a dash button, and two buttons for targeting (and toggling opponents). Additionally, there are buttons for shruikens (throwing stars) and special attacks. The left analog stick moves your character, but it is highly sensitive. Touching the stick causes Hibana to tiptoe, but putting any weight on it makes her break into a run. An ill-timed movement will lead to your death. The right analog stick rotates the camera 360-degrees around Hibana. This gives you total freedom over your vision, but not without a few burdens. Most of the buttons also have secondary uses. You have two different ways to attack with your sword, and different kick attacks to disable your foes. Some of these secondary moves are tricky to pull off at times with the analog stick, leaving you open for attack. To master Nightshade, you will need to know how to use every button to its fullest advantage. Complex actions require use of several buttons at once, which seems intimidating at first. Extensive practice will have you executing mid-air combos in no time.
The game play of Nightshade separates it from most action games. Like its sibling Shinobi, the play mechanics feel like the teeth-grinding action-platformers of yesteryear with a healthy dose of modern technology. For the most part, the ballet of swordplay and ninjitsu is executed wonderfully.
The game?fs emphasis on hack-and-slash game play is balanced with strategy to dismantle your foes. In this sense, it is a thinking-man?fs action game. Nightshade builds upon its predecessor by placing greater importance on your offensive abilities. There are numerous ways to strategize your assaults for maximum efficiency.
A main method of attack is the use of combos. Chaining together several strikes is helpful in dismantling your enemies, but it is not necessary. Rather, striking as many opponents in sight as possible is more useful. Defeating every enemy onscreen while putting together substantial combos takes practice and timing.
The method of achieving this tactic is called a tate. A tate refers to the ability to destroy every opponent onscreen within a certain time. Nightshade relies heavily on tates to slash quickly through foes and earn a higher ranking. In a given area of a stage, Hibana faces off with various amounts of bad guys. When you start a combo, the Tate Meter begins. Before it runs out, Hibana must kill at least four enemies in range. If successful, you get a brief replay of the fallen foes. One cool replay is shown in a grainy, black-and-white movie style.
Accomplishing these maneuvers consistently is not easy. Knowing your environment is important in getting substantial combos and tates. By sizing up your opponents and their locations, as well as the area around you, you can plan a strategy to slice through each enemy. Learning to dash is valuable in sneaking up on foes and assembling tates faster. Using your numerous blade and kick attacks keeps enemies at bay and the Tate Meter running. Knowing how to target enemies puts you near the closest adversary to strike. Relying on shruikens to take out distant baddies is also efficient.
Being able to combine these skills with mid-air fighting is a must. The addition of jumping from foe to foe adds complexity to making tates. Each successful hit grants you another jump and dash towards the next opponent. Combine this with targeting and kicking in mid-air, you can quickly carve open enemies in range. Despite the difficulty in keying several buttons at once, pulling off double-digit tates is ultimately rewarding. Imagine starting a combo on the ground and climbing dozens of feet in the air, slicing open enemies as you soar towards the heavens. To the casual observer, the events onscreen are jaw-dropping. The rush after you realize what you have accomplished is exhilarating. The time spent practicing the controls pay off during these moments.
The straightforward environments left the developers free to create expansive surroundings. Little more than backdrops for the action, they are highly interactive and teeming with secrets. Levels include fighting on top of a stealth jet and platform-hopping on trucks along a highway. You can run along walls, kick missiles at oncoming jets, grab onto speeding trucks, and hang onto buildings tens of feet high. There is real estate aplenty to pull off tates, but only if you know the area well.
There are a few blemishes that keep Nightshade from attaining perfection. The main culprit is a finicky camera system. Having total control over the camera is nice in theory, but tough to manage with swarms of enemies attacking. Pick a bad angle, and you will have to fight off the foes and camera to survive. When executing mid-air combos, the camera is often fixed at an odd viewpoint. Managing the perspective and focusing on chaining combos wears quickly on the nerves.
Another related problem is the targeting system. At times the automatic system will seek out the furthest enemies, even if Hibana is standing next to another foe. This is troublesome if you rely on the automatic targeting system to complete tates. You can manually switch targets, but doing so while in the heat of battle is incredibly difficult.
The challenge of Nightshade comes from the mastery of controlling Hibana in the various stages. While not as mind-numbingly difficult as Shinobi, Nightshade does have its moments. Hoards of enemies appear onscreen at once and won?ft hesitate to kill you unless you beat them to the punch. Later levels require use of every skill in your repertoire to survive. Boss battles will test your mettle. Because of this, the replay value of Nightshade is high. You?fll replay each level until you know it inside-out. You?fll want to memorize each of Hibana?fs attacks and think of new ways to pull off difficult tates. The reward for your hard-earned work is numerous unlockables. Besides earning costumes and characters, you also get the survival and time attack modes. Selectable stages, cinemas and artwork round out an impressive package.
Like the action games of yore, Nightshade will test every ounce of gaming skill in your body. The demanding game play will turn off some, but the reward for your dedication is experiencing a deep game with a great storyline. Solid graphics, a good soundtrack and high replay value are icing on the cake. For those that can appreciate a healthy challenge, Nightshade will not disappoint. You might throw the controller in frustration, but you?fll regroup and play until the credits roll. And those are the games that true gamers love. Those old-schoolers might know what they?fre talking about after all.