Thursday, June 25, 2009

PS2 Look: Shinobi

The jump to 3D marked a difficult transition for most older franchises. The Mario Bros. series has delivered some brilliant 3D platformers like Galaxy, Sunshine, and of course Mario 64. On the other hand you have the Sonic series which...well it hasn't been pretty. While these games have gone through dramatic changes their core concepts remain the same. There were two 3D Shinobi games released on the PS2 and today I'm going to look at Overwork's Shinobi 2002. 

The release of Devil May Cry marked an innovation in the action game genre. So many publishers at the time were keen on grabbing a bit of DMC's success and in doing so put out a number of clones which simply weren't any good. When Shinobi '02 was announced there were some like myself who expected similar results but thankfully it isn't the case. '02 is a 3D action game certainly but it's more of a 3D version of the 2D Shinobi titles we know and love. The concept remains the same though the gameplay and mechanics have still made quite a few changes. 

'02 follows the story of Hotsuma and the Oboro clan. There's a cursed sword called Akujiki and everyone dies. Needless to say it's a bit of a downer even though the peppy techno music would have you think otherwise. The game takes place over 8 stages with two acts apiece. While many of the acts consist of a regular level followed by a bossfight, some are just a bossfight. It's a little odd how this works out but whatever. On average most stages are around 5 to 10 minutes with the bosses taking about 3 to 5 minutes(or if you're skilled...less than a minute). Course it doesn't matter what I say about the length of the stages because it can vary quite wildly. I'll go ahead and put it out there: Shinobi is a pretty hard game.

Hotsuma is about as equipped as you can imagine. It's important to master his moveset as every stage will require these abilities in one way or another. First off we have running, simple enough. There's a jump as well as a double-jump, and then there's dashing. Dashing is useful for quickly moving but most of the time it's going to be for evading attacks. The player can also dash while in mid-air but only once. If they strike an enemy while in mid-air they can mid-air dash again. This is extremely important to remember as a number of battles take place over pits. Hotsuma will also latch onto most walls when the player jumps on them. From here the player can run horizontally across the wall and will only be thrown off if they jump or get hit by an enemy attack. 

While L1 centers the camera behind Hotsuma, R1 activates his lock-on. If he's not currently locked onto an enemy a handy arrow appears around him that points out the nearest foe. While this isn't always 100% it's still amazingly effective. Also when Hotsuma is facing an enemy his dash gains new properties. When dashing to the side he also moves forward so he can arc around and then behind his opponent. Striking anything from behind means double damage. 

Hotsuma's weapons consist of his sword, shuriken, and ninja magic. Since this is a Shinobi game let's eliminate magic from the equation as it's really only good in desperate scenarios. The shuriken however have been changed from killing enemies to only doing a slight bit of damage while paralyzing them for a short time. When surrounded Hotsuma can do a double jump and then fling his shuriken to pull off an impressive throw that hits everything around him(though this costs a lot of shuriken). When pulling back on the analog stick Hotsuma can also perform a kick which is good for breaking through enemy defenses.

Last and most important we have the sword. Mastering the sword is essential to survival and mastery of this game. On the ground Hotsuma can perform a basic multiple strike combo. This can be good for when enemies group together and for a few bosses. Jumping attacks strike vertical in both an upwards and downwards angle making them very useful for mid-air fighting. There are also two flavors of sword-attacks from the walls, one hits forward while another strikes to the side. While the first stage introduces you to the basics of combat and platforming the second stage will introduce you to Akujiki. After attaining this powerful weapon a time limit of sorts is introduced. In order for Hotsuma to avoid getting his life drained he must keep the sword readily replenished with the souls of his enemies. The level designs are very linear and filled with enemies so as long as you keep moving(and killing) it's not much of a hassle. 

The most important tool that Akujiki brings to the table is TATE. Whenever an enemy spawns an orb in the top-right corner appears. When an enemy is killed the orb lights up and Akujiki changes color. When this happen the sword increases in strength. Thus when there are a lot of enemies in the area the sword can become quite powerful. When all of the enemies are defeated the TATE is completed and the player is rewarded with a short cutscene showing all of the monsters splitting to pieces and dying at once. Unfortunately if Hotsuma takes too long to kill enemies the orbs disappear and the power is lost. Obviously the tactic here is to defeat the weak enemies first so the more powerful foes fall in a single hit. In fact most of the bosses can be defeated in a single strike provided you can hit them with a full TATEd weapon(from behind helps as well).

Fans of earlier Shinobi games will note a number of trademarks throughout this game. There's insta-death pits in 3/4s of the stages, items to find like more shuriken, magic, health, and oboro symbols(which unlock extras), and of course the boss at the end of each act. Progression through these acts are a bit different though. Typically as Hotsuma runs through the act enemies will spawn and for the most part Hotsuma can choose to kill them or keep moving. At times progress will be blocked off unless Hotsuma can defeat every foe in the area. There are also some sections where the path is locked by floating devices that must be destroyed with the sword or shuriken(with enemies sure to appear to complicate things). There are also a handful of traps to be wary of and tend to be unique to the stages they're in. 

Enemies come in many designs but they tend to fall under categories. Flying foes tend to have a charge attack and/or spit fire, also they're the weakest. Ground-based minions can be anything from ninjas to dogs to even ninja dogs. Bigger guys take quite a few hits to go down(unless you're TATE is exceptional) but leave behind a bit of health when defeated. These three categories of enemies can appear in a variety of combinations over the course of each stage. 

The bosses are similar to what you'd find in most action games. They have a variety of attacks as well as times when their defenses are exposed(most likely before or after a major attack). However the trick to defeating these guys effectively is to take advantage of the mid-air enemies that regularly spawn. The environments of these fights change quite a bit and rarely will you face a boss on a completely flat surface. Some take place over pits while others require the use of walls, still others can only be hit when Hotsuma is at the peak of his jump+dash. Thankfully if the player dies at a boss-fight they go straight to the boss instead of having to play through the act again.

Death is a constant in this game. All of Hotsuma's friends and foes die, enemies of all three categories die all the time, and well...Hotsuma himself dies often as well. While he has a fairly lengthy health meter being knocked into a pit will take him out instantly. Also unlike prior Shinobi games that offered a brief period of invincibility between hits, Hotsuma can get beat to death quite quickly if he isn't always moving. If that wasn't enough some enemy attacks can paralyze him for a second or two, enough time to get killed. 

Thus it's imperative to master the camera and pay attention to every sight and sound. Enemies will regularly attack from out of view and most tend to give away audio cues when they're about to attack. The sound design is quite exceptional in this game as the player will be able to easily distinguish between an enemy attack, an enemy teleporting, and whatever other indicators that tell something is happening.

The mechanics of this game are as expected quite excellent. Dodging is effortless and once the player gets the controls down they will have no problems looking like a ninja master as constant enemy fire misses them by a foot or two. The sword takes a bit of effort to get used to however as learning what strike to use can mean the difference between destroying a minor foe and missing them completely. Unlike some action games most attacks can be canceled out of by jumping or dashing. Thus if the effort looks futile as long as your reflexes are sound you're not stuck watching your character miss and get bombarded. 

Like other Shinobi titles at the end of each act you're graded on multiple aspects. Sure there's the expected stuff like getting points for doing TATEs but there's also one for not taking any damage. Obviously this is something that will take massive amounts of skill to attain and with three difficulties it'll be a long time before anyone can master this game.

Is it worth putting forth the effort? I definitely think so. In fact I'll go ahead and say that this is one of the best action games I've ever played. While it doesn't have the stylish combos of a Devil May Cry or the enemy design of a Ninja Gaiden, Shinobi offers fantastic level design and boss-fights. Each act throws the right combination of enemies and environments to keep the player challenged throughout and offers quite a few areas that are optional but usually carry a heavy risk. In longer stages there might be an oboro symbol or some fights nearby but they also contain massive pits. Every completed act is easily accessible by a stage select so the player can always go back to stages they had trouble with before but want to acquire missing symbols & a higher rank. There's even a separate ranking for players who go through the entire game, for when they want a serious challenge. The stages also maintain the same style and design throughout so the player isn't thrown a curveball and has to navigate something entirely new that throws off the gameplay. It's probably a little repetitive sure but even if you make it to an area that looks the same it'll be filled with more enemies or stronger ones which keeps things fresh. The acts are all of perfect length and aside from the pits the instances where you can get killed because of a couple mistakes are quite rare. Even if you die numerous times in a single act it never really becomes frustrating because you're aware of your mistakes and can correct them next time around. One other thing that's great is that the level designs are angular and use a lot of edges. Sure it doesn't do much for the game graphically but it makes the camera much easier to wield. 

The boss fights aren't great simply because of the bosses themselves. The environments you fight them in, the enemies they summon, and their mechanics take on different properties. It's very much a total package here and makes every fight memorable and challenging. The use of audio and visual cues is just remarkable as even when you can't see the enemies you are still more than able to deal with whatever they throw out. 

Another important aspect of this game is that despite the myriad of changes in graphics, level design, and gameplay the spirit and core concepts of Shinobi remain. The enemy attacks are easy to follow and don't involve a punch of spinning around and causing random crap to flood the area. They're direct and easy to dodge even if the player isn't quite prepared. The enemies have no qualms about appearing nearby pits or in places where they can trouble Hotsuma the most. Sure Joe Musashi of the prior games could only dream of having Hotsuma's maneuvers but they still sure a lot in common overall. Not only is the identity of Shinobi maintained even in a sea of clones but it also shows impressive growth and adaptation to future action games.

Like most other PS2 games this can be had for less than $10 and I give it my highest recommendation. It's a very challenging game but plays it fair and balanced while featuring immaculate level design. Though this game is nearly eight years old it's still one of the best action games the genre has to offer.

Shame the sequel didn't turn out so hot. But I'll save that for another time.

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