Nightshade PS2 Review
Roy Rossi / Feb 11th, 2004 No Comments
There have been stories over the years about how playing video games can result in real-world positive benefits such as improved hand-eye coordination or better thinking skills. I usually categorized that information with stuff like “Drinking coffee is actually good for you!” Video game skills were, at least back then, mostly useful for gathering a crowd of kids around the arcade machine and listen to them state “Wow, you’re good!” Whether game play really does improve one’s reflexive and timing skills, single-player action and platform games have since gravitated toward a default difficulty level of about average, and usually below average, in order to keep players from getting frustrated.
Enter Nightshade! (pause for a Dale Gribble ‘shshshaaa!’) A spinoff to Sega’s recent ultra-difficult Shinobi, Nightshade retains the fast-slashing action of its sire. Although it has options for beginning players, Nightshade offers the type of action game challenges liable to leave players shaking out the tenseness in their wrists during the cut scenes or in the [many] pauses after dying. Its fast action is certainly a fun test of gaming skills though. Bigger problem is that the game is marred by a rather poor presentation and camera problems, plus a design that didn’t eliminate all the frustration of its difficulty.
Nightshade involves shinobi agent Hibana, a sleek curvaceous ninja gal who’s having a bad day on the job. She’s assigned to recover the pieces of the demon sword Akujiki, a soul-devouring blade that causes all sorts of havoc. In addition, Hellspawn demons start spouting on the planet, forcing Hibana to combat them. Hibana is a cool character, but the story doesn’t take any particularly interesting turns, leaving the game’s challenge the main incentive for continuing.
Nightshade plays similar to Shinobi with a couple of additional features to the action. What helps it stand out from other games though is its challenging combat system that can lead to smooth n’ lethal combo kills against the demons and enemy agents confronting Hibana. It had been a long time since I played a single-player action game like Nightshade that required a player to execute moves quickly and somewhat elegantly or die trying. Because of this throwback to the days when action games didn’t often avoid chaffing against player frustrations, Nightshade kept me intrigued.
A 3D action game, Nightshade requires the player to guide the incredibly agile Hibana from or around enemy after enemy and slash them in twain. By using the stealth dash and double jump moves, a player can string together combos, usually aerial, which increase her sword’s killing power with each successive kill. Some enemies are armored, forcing Hibana to use a non-lethal kick to shatter their armor before slashing. If she successfully eliminates all the enemies in a group within a time period, the player witnesses a Tate (‘tah-tay’), where the game pauses to show Hibana posing as only ninjas do while the wake of dead enemies erupt into blood clouds.
While Tates are the most keen demonstrations of Hibana’s deadliness, she is also able to flick shuriken, perform three types of ninjitsu magic, and build up a Chakra meter by stringing together combo slices with her sword. The Chakra meter allows her to execute a stealth attack for added damage. Executing Tates increase the player’s score.
With the frame rate consistently steady, Nightshade is a fast game requiring fast reflexes and great timing (Zen or the Force can also be helpful). For the 13 stages of story mode, Hibana moves from one group of enemies to the next executing combos and avoiding fatal falls. Some stages take place on moving planes, trucks, or boats, forcing Hibana to step carefully or fall. Falls are common, particularly in the later stages, giving Nightshade the added dimension as a platform game. Once through the stages, Hibana fights a stage boss and the difficulty ramps up even further. Boss battles often took much longer to finish than the stages themselves, mostly due to an almost cruel design where damage to a boss is increased based on how many combos Hibana can rack up in the Tate time period before striking the boss. As such, it’s possible to be desperately moving and trying to stay alive for ten to fifteen minutes at a time during boss battles before finally delivering the killing blow.
In addition to a beginner and easy difficulty settings, Nightshade’s attempt to avoid total gamer frustration comes in the form of stage checkpoints, a welcome change from the no-mistakes tests required of Shinobi levels. It doesn’t quite go far enough though, as dying in a checkpoint requires the player to start from the beginning of that checkpoint, some of which have insidious platform placement or hordes of difficult enemies that the player must get through again. The repetition would have been less annoying had the game allowed the player to save at each checkpoint or boss battle, instead of forcing a restart of the entire stage if the PS2 is turned off. The game’s speed also causes problems for the camera, which will occasionally get out of position. In later stages where there’s often only a split second to react, an errant camera angle usually means death for Hibana.
Even so, the controls are so tight and well-designed that the game’s difficulty is solely by design and not by clumsy controls or poor level design. The gaming skill required to pull off Tates and whittle down a boss kept me playing and dying, and then dying again, and then fighting a boss for eight minutes before dying, and then finally beating a boss and announcing to the house “Wow, I’m good!” For hardcore gamers looking to flex their finger muscles, it’s an exciting challenge. For casual gamers or kids, the default difficulty will probably leave them frustrated.
Since Nightshade moves so fast and fluidly, the graphics are easy to overlook which is a good thing since they’re not terribly impressive. A few stages have some nice looking areas, but more rely on dull colors and repetitive designs. The humanoid enemies look strange and almost abstract, their lack of detail or much animation makes them only a few steps removed from being big bullseyes. The Hellspawn look a little better, but not good enough to be convincingly frightening monsters – most just look like bugs, big or small. Hibana and stage bosses get a little more graphic gloss, with Hibana’s headdress tails wafting smoothly through the trail of carnage.
The story has its cliché moments, but Nightshade features effective voice acting for all the characters. Fast-paced electronic music plays through most stages, but like the graphics, it’s easy to ignore given that one’s concentration will be focused on keeping Hibana alive and cutting. Sound effects are well done overall, but play a bigger role than atmosphere. Sometimes it’s possible to determine what attack a boss is unleashing based on the sounds.
Nightshade includes a number of unlockable features, including a Time Attack, Survival and Mission modes for players who want more Tate after completing the story. There’s also a Hard difficulty mode, and the mere thought of that is making my wrist cramp up. Additional characters can be unlocked and played as well. Most of the incentive for playing and replaying, however, comes from improving one’s stage rating. This leaves Nightshade’s appeal divided pretty evenly between those who will play at it, improve, and get better, and those who will quickly dismiss it as too hard. For those who stick with it to get high ratings in the stages, there’s a lot of value.