Set in a post-apocalyptic Tokyo over-run by demonic forces, Shinobi follows the adventures of Hotsuma as he tries to avenge the death of his Oboro clan at the hands of an evil sorcerer. Staying true to the series' arcade roots, this Shinobi for the new millennium remains an action title at heart, focusing on heart-pounding action, requiring quick reflexes, while making some changes to stay fresh. Shinobi presents most of the action from an above and behind the player perspective, which allows you to see the majority of the action on a single screen. As a ninja, it's no surprise that Hotsuma's main weapons are his incredible speed and powerful Akujiki sword. However, he has some special abilities which allow him to outmaneuver enemies. The most important ability allows you to cling to and walk on walls. It's elegantly implemented with the other controls and is used when you need to jump over gaps, and traps. However, you can only walk for a short time without falling off. Hotsuma's other major trick is the stealth dash. This allows you move very fast over areas and create ghosts which confuse the enemies. You can also use the stealth dash to jump over long gaps in certain sections.
Even though Shinobi is basically a hack and slash arcade game, there are numerous subtleties that need to be mastered in order to succeed. For example, attacking enemies is surprisingly complicated and involves a multi-part process. Your first strike stuns them and your second one finishes them, and the number of enemies in your immediate areas is displayed on the screen, called the Tate indicator. The Tate is a combo gauge that glows when you kill multiple enemies. When you defeat four of them in a limited time, the game pauses to zoom in and you see them fall into bloody heaps. Completing this combo adds to your Tate, giving your sword more Yin energy to increase the power of your attacks. After the first level, your sword glows and you collect the essence of your enemies when they're killed. The sword becomes more powerful when you collect this energy, making your attacks more powerful. This makes the Akukija sword grows stronger with each attack and your attacks become more powerful and accurate when you complete these chains. Hotsuma can also throw Shuriken Knives to stun enemies, which then sets them up for combo attacks. In addition to these attacks, you can use special one of three different Ninjitsu Forces, which are supernatural attacks that devastate anything within close range.
Controlling Hotsuma is a joy thanks to Shinobi's intuitive controls, which allow for a lot of flexibility and rarely get in the way of the action. These are tight and highly responsive, and while it's hard to figure out some methods such as dashing at first, the game quickly becomes much more intuitive. Wall climbing seems difficult at first, but likewise becomes second-nature after a short time. Shinobi's auto-targeting system was the other major technique to learn, while targeting enemies wasn't as easy as one would like, the ability to switch quickly between them was appreciated. One other thing you'll need to get in the habit of is using the camera controls. This is essential, since the default viewpoint isn't always the best angle for every situation, and some gaps can't be judged properly unless you change angles. While these various control systems seem overwhelming, once you get the hang of the techniques, everything comes together nicely, making the early frustration evaporate quickly. Using the Shuriken is the only problem since they're difficult to aim, but overall Shinobi's controls are expertly crafted, giving an excellent, responsive feel to the game.
Even though there are only 8 main areas in Shinobi, the level designs are quite long, and each is divided into several sub-levels. The structure and flow of Shinobi is simple, each level is divided into different areas that are closed in by gates. You have to defeat all the enemies in an area, then destroy the stone Kekkai or pillars that are floating before each gate to move to the next section. This approach keeps thing simple, but since all the areas follow this pattern exactly, it gets a bit predictable after awhile. The disappointingly unimaginative level design is Shinobi's Achilles' Heel and the cool moves and designs are undercut by the cookie-cutter approach. The same elements, enemies and environments are repeated throughout. Most of the game takes place in either square or rectangular environments only minor alterations, making the game feel more repetitive than it should. While the some of the large gaps are challenging, most of the levels are too predictable in design, and it's very disappointing considering all the work that has gone into Shinobi's other design elements.
Shinobi's other major problem might come in it's difficulty, depending on the player's skills and desire to use them. While the standard ninjas and demonic dogs don't offer much resistance (at least early on) this changes at the end of each level. When Shinobi faces a boss character, the real challenge begins. Bosses start out tough and get even harder as you progress through the game, becoming difficult to beat a little over half-way through the game. What you may have heard is correct: this is an incredibly hard game to beat, though with persistence and skill, it's far from impossible. It will probably take even seasoned players a long time to beat Shinobi, so be warned, this isn't geared for the casual gamer. However, the satisfaction you get from beating the later levels more than makes up for any frustration. Making things even harder is the fact that save points are available only after each level is complete. This means you really can't slack off, but it's a nice change of pace from the bevy of titles that dumb-down their gameplay for the mass-audience.
Shinobi's backstory is impressively rendered in a series of cool cinemas. These are great, but make the lesser quality of the game itself a bit of a letdown. Most noticeably, Shinobi suffers from the usual PS2 jaggies, though it doesn't look terrible. The cinemas do a good job of immersing you into the story, gradually unraveling the mystery of Hotsuma's origin and motivation. During the main game, Shinobi's excellent animation and frenetic speed help to give it an satisfying arcade feel and the action moves at a good clip. The onscreen interface is good and the meter displays are easy to understand, thought they can be confusing if you haven't to read the manual. From an aesthetic standpoint, Shinobi's design is cool, offering a good mixture of traditional Japanese Ninja iconography with a dash of contemporary techno-futurism thrown in. A foreboding atmosphere creates a moody appearance that gives the game a much darker feel than it's earlier incarnations. Enemy designs are excellent, with richly detailed characters that feel alive. However, the coolest character is Hotsuma himself. He looks awesome with his stealth-like maneuvers and animation giving a sleek appearance. His trademark red-scarf flows behind him, combining with the ghostly apparitions of the stealth-dash moves to lend the character an appropriate sense of mystery and power. The presentation is decent, though some technical aspects aren't as polished as they could have been.
Given the legendary status of the earlier Shinobi titles, Sega had a lot to prove with this release. Taking a 2D game into 3D is a risky proposition, but Shinobi succeeds because it doesn't try to bring 2D mechanics into virtual space. Instead, the game borrows the feel of the original but adds extra abilities and changes to make a contemporary title that feels fresh, not regurgitated. Visually, the design is excellent but the implementation is a bit rough. Shinobi is a very different, and much more violent, game than you might remember from the Genesis and Master System days. Unfortunately, Shinobi falls a tad short of expectations thanks to its pedantic level designs, which become predictable and monotonous quickly while the difficulty curve is a paradoxically steep. For those with the time and inclination, Shinobi is probably going to appeal more to the gamer looking for a real challenge than those looking for a casual rental. Prepare to spend some time mastering this, but it's well worth the effort. However, even average players will likely love the first few levels and the cool new abilities and techniques, especially the ability to slice enemies frozen by fear.. It's a solid title that's entertaining and challenging, with some cool nods to the past mixing with new elements. and should appeal to fans of the original and those new to the series.
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