There are certain rules to the universe, certain truths that can never be changed:
Rule 1: Ninjas are cool.
Rule 2: Ninja’s with scarves are cooler.
Rule 3: Shinobi is cooler than 100 ninjas.
So what do you get when Overworks decides to revive the Shinobi lifeblood on the PS2? A scarf-wearing, sleek-looking, all-around master of ninjas is what. If stealth were an aesthetic, Overworks would have it nailed. Too bad they forgot to make it as fun as it looks.
This new tale of Shinobi ousted Joe as the lead role and centers on Hotsuma, new leader of the Oboro and owner of the clan’s sword – the Akujiki. After an earthquake rocks Tokyo, dead members of the Orobo appear, and all seems to be lost. Hotsuma knows what he must do though – as the last member and leader, he will have to kill his own to exact vengeance on those who destroyed and resurrected them. Who did this, and how are they connected to the earthquakes? What is Hotsuma’s background, and why is the Akuji such an important sword? All of these are discovered soon enough, as you traverse Tokyo Shinobi-style.
Players get to control Hotsuma from a third-person view with the worst camera sense in the world, all the while dispatching the opposition in the most appealing gameplay style ever – Tate. As far as action games go, Shinobi is standard fare – you have a sword, shuriken, and different types of ninja magic.
What sets the game apart from the crowd is the dash; using it leaves behind an after-image, which enemies will continue to follow as you are really in another space. Dashing makes it easy to confuse, get behind, or close-in on a foe. Air-dashing is also possible and, when linked with successful attacks, can be chained to go higher in the air. Add to this the Tate system – a method where someone can kill their opponents so fast, that they never even see the sword coming. This translates in-game as a system where Hotsuma can chain together kills, all the while strengthening his sword for the next victim. For example, fighting a tank is a slow, cumbersome process, but if you go through a group of undead ninjas first, the tank goes down in one hit. Oh, and every chain is followed by a short cut scene of Hostuma sheathing his sword, as all enemies in the chain go down as if killed at once. Text doesn’t do the scene justice – it bleeds style in all its gaming glory.
The largest problem with Shinobi is closely connected to the clever dashing and Tate aspects. Overworks' attempt at building a game that is simple to jump into and fast-paced from the get-go is plagued by a bad camera. It will get stuck behind things, move when you want a stable angle, and add an artificial level of challenge that makes some areas harder than they need to be. Getting through wave after wave of combat is very satisfying when it behaves, but if the camera gives trouble the fast pace breaks down, and passing an otherwise tolerable section can be a chore.
At least the music suffers no rough spots, with vibrant techno, traditional Japanese, and various riffs that will leave you yearning for more . . . or at least a soundtrack. On the other hand, the graphics won’t have you in the same amount of awe. It burns along at 60 frames per second and it’s not ugly so to speak, but it smacks of visuals of the early PS2 era. Meaning, it looks almost like a PSX game running on high resolution.
If you can get past the graphics, and think that an intolerable camera is something only pansies whine about, then you’ll find one of the fastest, most challenging action games on PlayStation 2. Measuring against the recent flood of revival titles (Contra, Rygar, et al) though, Shinobi is the most underwhelming. Joe must be pissed by now.
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