Shinobi has been around for close to two decades. Starting out as an arcade game ported to the Sega Master System, Shinobi started to grow and evolve into one of the most respected old-school franchises. The ninja protagonist, Joe Musashi, has had a number of titles appear on the 16-bit Sega Genesis and has been recycled in several compilations featuring many classic Sega hits. Shinobi's also accompanied the Game Gear but has long since been scene again, especially in a brand new title. Now that Sega has become a third-party developer thanks to the unfortunate demise of the Dreamcast, the PlayStation 2 will see the newest incarnation of Shinobi courtesy of Overworks. Not only will Shinobi return after so many years, this new title will also completely change the way we play this franchise of everyone's favorite ninja assassin.
For those who think that this Shinobi makeover only pertains to a three-dimensional aesthetic level, they will be in for quite a shock, as they will find just about every facet of the game reworked and revamped. For one, the story is much deeper than any other that featured the adventures of Joe Musashi. The ninja clan Oboro was completely annihilated, expect for Hotsuma, who is this installment of Shinobi's protagonist. Of course, one does not just sit there and do nothing when his clan is slaughtered to near extinction. So, Hotsuma begins to investigate some mysteriously strange occurrences in Tokyo. During his investigation, he finds that there are some evil forces behind these strange events, which are reanimating deceased members of his clan and turning them against Hotsuma. As it turns out, his sword is cursed, and he quickly learns that it drains his life. The only way to keep himself alive is to feed the sword the energy of slain enemies, very similar to the Soul Reaver found in Silicon Knights' Legacy of Kain series.
Although the game so far may sound like it's straying too far from the known series, the gameplay will pretty much remain true. Playing through the themed levels will be a linear experience, similar to the old games, as the stages are split up in a minimum of two smaller segments. They are separated by barriers that disappear once you've cleared the area of enemies. You'll also have to confront and defeat boss characters at the end of each level if you wish to progress to the next. Once again keeping in touch with the Shinobi franchise, you will find such items as shurikens, health power-ups and energy for your sword leave from fallen enemies, as well as magic scrolls and Oboro clan coins, which unlock game extras.
This isn't a simple side-scroller; it's a full, 3D-action title. The original Shinobi titles were known for their simple and easy controls, and this Shinobi shouldn't be much different. Hotsuma will feature several different skills, which will enable him to dispatch undead baddies in the third dimension with ease and finesse. The left analog stick will be used to move the ninja, while the O button will be used to jump. You can lock on to your enemies with the R1 button, and your movement will be relative to them so long as the lock remains active. Once locked on, you can cycle through targets by pressing R2. The two main attacks in the game are slashing with Hotsuma's sword by pressing square and throwing razor-sharp shurikens at enemies by hitting the triangle button. As with the other Shinobi games, you'll be able to execute a double jump and spray an arc of deadly shurikens at all that are unfortunate enough to be in your way. The spells Hotsuma will currently have selected can be utilized with a press of the L2 button, and you can use the D-pad to cycle through the spells you've collected. There will be a new dash move, utilized with the X button, added to the classic Shinobi-style gameplay.
It appears that the dash move has many very handy purposes. You can dart forward extremely fast by dashing on the ground, leaving a ghost-like trail behind you. You can also dash in the air, extending your jumping distance if you time it with a double jump. Hotsuma also has the ability to run on walls and ricochet off them to reach new areas or simply just to gain vertigo-inducing altitude. Being outnumbered is no big deal to Hotsuma, who can use the dash move to dance circles around locked-on enemies and also to come at them from different directions to break through their defenses. New to the gameplay is a useful, stylistic attack combo called the tate. There will be a number of Japanese characters that will appear in the upper left-hand corner when several enemies are attacking you. Each character will light up when you dispatch their corresponding enemies. If you happen to light up all the characters by successfully managing to take out least four enemies in time, you'll be rewarded with a cool-looking cinematic sequence.
Shinobi is appearing to be quite an impressive-looking title. The level designs seem pretty much point-to-point, but there will be secret nooks and crannies that conceal goodies for people who take time to stray from the beaten path. The settings for the game's levels are done well, with a great attention to detail. Such things as legible neon signs and subway walls lined with graffiti, will help to give Shinobi a great sense of realism. You can also interact with a variety of breakable objects. A sample of the slew of enemies you'll face will be spectral wolves, flying hell spawn, and reanimated Oboro clan brothers. As with the rest of the graphics, enemy details are done crisp and sharp, reflecting their mystical origins. The design of Hotsuma himself is the aspect of the game that sets itself apart the most from the rest of the Shinobi titles. The costume of Hotsuma is of much greater style and detail in 3D as opposed to Musashi's outfits, and is accentuated with a red scarf, which flows with the ninja's movements. His character is even further stylized with his lush and extravagant spell and tate move effects. The geometry in the game may not be completely perfect, as it is blocky in certain instances, but it's nothing in the least that takes away from the game's visual presentation.
As with every old-school franchise that steps into the next generation, Shinobi's story is now backed with voice acting. Although it was a bit late for Musashi to have a voice, Hotsuma will have plenty to say during the in-game cutscenes and CG movies. However, don't expect him to say much else from the occasional huff or grunt; he'll be busy kicking too much demon ass. The same will be said for his enemies, crying out in pain and terror as Hotsuma's sword tears through their decrepit flesh. The music is a techno-influenced, adrenaline-pumping arrange of classic tunes reminiscent of the earlier Shinobi titles, and the soundtrack fits the action perfectly. As terrific as the music and sound effects are, the same cannot be said for the sup-par voice acting performances. However, this minor problem can be rectified thanks to an option that will allow Japanese voices to be used with English subtitles in place of the English track.
So far, Shinobi is coming along superbly. Not only is it doing the franchise justice with what looks to be an awesome update, it is also retaining much of the original Shinobi feel. Everything from the speed, to the gameplay, to the music, to the ninja atmosphere suggest that this installment is observing the old adage of "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." As with pretty much any 3D-action title, there are some issues with the camera control, especially during the tate sequences, but the ability to center the camera on the fly with the L1 button helps to keep this minor flaw just that: minor. It is so nice to see that Shinobi for the PS2 won't just be some lame attempt to cash in on resurrecting a classic franchise. Shinobi should definitely be one title you should expect to add to your Christmas gift list this year.
10/17/2002 Lucas Stephens