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Games You Should Play if You Haven't: Nightshade

Letís talk about Nightshade for the PS2. Known as Kunoichi in Japan, this puzzlingly titled sequel to the 2002 Shinobi reboot went the way of SHOGO when the much more well known Ninja Gaiden reboot came out and immediately stole its thunder less than a month later. While Nightshade doesnít look nearly as fancy as Ninja Gaiden, itís still a pretty rad game. It goes totally over the top with the super sentai angle. But on top of looking like a rad sentai show, it also has this weird, future Tokyo look that reminds me of Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne.

Itís got some of the difficulty of a Ninja Gaiden, but you can dial the difficulty down to easy and still feel like a badass, giving it a much more broad potential audience as a result. That said, the game can be absolutely punishing if you want it to be. The difficulty doesnít so much come from the enemies as it does the platforming though, as the platforming is intrinsically attached to the combat. Most of the game involves taking out waves of flying and ground-based enemies, arranged in patterns that encourages the player to jump and dash from enemy to enemy. The game is typically either forcing you to complete the chain in order to be able to reach the highest enemy, who is often too high up to reach from the ground, or putting nasty pitfalls for you to fall into if you canít successfully follow the chain to safe ground. Then they start deepening the gap between enemies, necessitating the use of the kick button to do a dive kick to finish closing out that gap, since you only get one air dash at a time unless you land an attack on another enemy.

That added level of leg work in the combat is really where the game starts to shine and where it starts to get frustrating. Even getting around the levels itself involves a greater deal of finesse than most games. Learning to work jumps, dashes and wall running together is key to progressing and finding hidden areas, which are plentiful. The level of involvement in merely taking out an enemy wave begins bordering on Gun Valkyrie levels with each successive strike punctuated by a jump, a dash and a dive kick to get to the next enemy.

The idea is to get a decisive strike on an enemy and move on to the next one. If you can land a decisive blow on each enemy in a wave within a decent amount of time, then you are rewarded with a scene of your character, Hibana, destroying all the enemies in the wave in a blur of light, followed by a snappy one-liner. On the harder difficulties this is exacerbated by the fact that enemies start to block sword attacks so you have to jump in with a kick for an opener and then move to the sword while they are in stun-lock and promptly jump and dash to the next enemy. Timing also becomes an issue as the flying enemies start shooting projectiles, usually at just the worst time.

Now, those finishers are called tates in the game like tah-tay and they figure into the boss battles a little as well, as beating enemies raises your chakra meter and that can be used to do a charge attack which is really helpful on bosses. So you want to use your tate moves to get your chakra meter up for the boss. Now, the game never really tells you anything about this, which is one of the games greater downfalls. The game also never explains that you can actually kill the bosses with tate attacks, as the tate attacks only depend upon putting the enemy into stun-lock and stun-lock only depends on doing enough damage. So you can use your stealth attack, if you have enough chakra, to put them in a tate, which is an instant kill. So while it sort of sucks that the game never explains these things, itís also pretty cool that thereís more than one way to approach the boss fights. You can really blaze through the boss battles if you know what youíre doing, and itís really cool that it takes so much finesse to beat the bosses no matter which way you go about it. It adds to the sense of mastery you get from re-playing the game.

Speaking of re-playability, the game features extra time trial missions and bonus missions, which look similar to the VR missions in Metal Gear Solid or the challenge rooms in Bionic Commando Rearmed. Itís truly fitting for a game that plays so much like a puzzle game to embrace that aspect of itís design and put the mechanics in even greater relief. The whole game runs smooth as butter too, with no noticeable frame rate issues at any point. The controls do take some getting used to though. The button layout is oddly bass-ackwards with jumping going to the circle button and dashing going to the x button. All in all, with Nightshade you trade in more complex combat for more complex platforming, which I think is a fair trade. Though your options are limited in combat, you have to work out all of their various uses to survive. And despite all of that, everything about the game still looks badass. The developers really did do a great job of making everything about the main character look and feel like a crazy, over-the-top Ninja, from her idle animation to the crazy light trails coming off her bandana when she dashes.

And itís the little touches that really make this game stand out above itís own less than stellar level design and voice work. Instead of having Hibana dodge away from or shoot down missiles from attacking planes, the game has her kick them back, much in the vein of Asuraís Wrath. You donít have to worry about any bullshit trifles like momentum when wall running. This isnít Prince of Persia. Hibana can stand stationary on a wall if you so choose, and she can throw shuriken around while sheís standing there. Every aspect of this game is engineered single-mindedly to look and feel absolutely badass. And thatís probably what endears me most to this game. The game not explaining certain key gameplay conceits wasnít the smartest decision and the voice acting only occasionally inspires laughter in itís lack of luster, but if you like the idea of playing a crazy sexy future lady Nina, flying around and tearing up super sentai villains and robot bug monsters with a sword, then you canít do much better than Nightshade.

-Kristopher Osborn

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About stubblemanone of us since 8:53 PM on 05.04.2012

Xbox LIVE:At Junes
PSN ID:oceangrave
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