With a cute ninja outfit and flowing scarf, Hibana sweeps through the night to take our breath away and right the wrongs of Shinobi on PS2.
Ask any old school gaming fan about ninja games and you'll hear a collective cry longing for the glory days of both Sega and Tecmo's classic Shinobi and Ninja Gaiden series.
When Sega and Tecmo announced next-generation updates of their popular ninja franchises, gamers around the world rejoiced. Some of the cheers eventually changed to jeers; many fans watched in horror as some of their most beloved 2D franchises received the 3D treatment. Many questions and concerns arose. How would the great 2D side scrolling gameplay of their predecessors translate into the 3D world? Could a 3D Shinobi play nearly as well as the original Shinobi, Shadow Dancer, Revenge of Shinobi and Shinobi III did?
While Ninja Gaiden has yet to be released, Sega's Shinobi beat it to the market and answered some of those questions almost with a resounding NO. While a solid game in its own right, there was no question that Shinobi for the PS2 was lacking in a few areas. Sega Wow was certainly aware of the disappointment felt by many long time fans of the series, and has opted to take another crack at the 3D ninja action genre in the form of Kunoichi (to be called Nightshade in the west).
As history would have it, female ninjas were more myth than fact. The Kunoichi were mainly female spies that served as shrine maidens for cover. Speaking of cover, do that to your ears kiddies as it's about to get a tad graphic. These 'shrine maidens' were taught the art of manipulation and helped the ninjas in their battles against the samurai and opposing clans by prostituting themselves and manipulating men high up in the enemy hierarchy in order to obtain information. Using weapons they had concealed they would kill their unsuspecting victims while having sex with them.
Anyways, enough with the history lesson and onto the important stuff! Sega's Kunoichi is here and we've been putting this hot import through its paces and have come away pleased with the improvements made in audio, visual, and gameplay departments.
A year after Hotsuma's disappearance, Hibana, a female ninja with a dark and mysterious past originating from a great ninja organization sets out on a mission to finish Hotsuma's work, by defeating the Shikigami monsters who have made their way back into Tokyo through the gates of hell. Having taken over Tokyo once again, Hibana sets out to destroy them and close the gate for good. As you progress through the game Hibana's story will unfold through some really cool prerendered cut-scenes shown before and after every level to help move the story along.
The game includes a tutorial mode where you can enter the Shinobi Training Facility to learn and practice all of Hibana's moves, along with an extras option, where you can view all of the extras you unlock during play.
Kunoichi controls really well and seems to be even more responsive than Shinobi's controls. Kunoichi features a control scheme that's pretty similar to that of Shinobi and is user configurable. Using her deadly ninja skills, Hibana can run on walls and perform a variety of acrobatic moves like single jumps, double jumps and somersaults.
Her offense consists of standing and jumping kick combos that are great for setting up attacks against well-shielded enemies. While Hibana's kicks are very weak in general and can't be relied on to kill any enemies, they're very useful for breaking through an enemy's defenses and setting them up for combos. She can also foot sweep some of the enemies off their feet and perform other fighting moves including sword slashing combos, stealth dash, shurikens for nailing long range enemies, and ninja magic.
There's also the convenient option of locking onto enemy targets and cycling through them in hope of landing those shots, or using the stealth dash and attack move combo on enemies that appear anywhere throughout the environments, serving as a very convenient means of getting to hard-to-reach platforms, or avoiding fatal falls. I can't even begin to say how much of a lifesaver that move is. Having fallen to my death a few times and ironically getting saved at the last minute by an enemy creature that I've locked in on. You can pretty much remain airborne for a very long period of time just as long as you're locked onto an enemy.
The gameplay is pretty straightforward but incredibly fun. Every time you hit and then kill an enemy, a combo meter is activated and quickly gets depleted until you destroy another enemy. Every time you attack an enemy and actually make contact, the meter refills itself. By chaining together your kills within the allotted time, you'll complete the combo and be rewarded with some pretty cool death sequences showing Hibana striking various cool poses while all of her sliced up enemies fall to pieces for dramatic effect.
Most of the game's levels are divided into sub-sections with their entrances blocked by talismans. They can only be brought down after they've absorbed enough enemy Yin, and once you've smashed all of the mystical floating objects throughout the level. While some of the later levels aren't structured this way, they still maintain the whole 'kill all of the enemies in order to proceed' system.
Once you move onto another section you can't backtrack to a previous one, and each new section serves as checkpoints so if you happen to die in a later section you won't have to start over in an earlier one. As you make your way through each level you'll be able to collect coins, power-up items that replenish your health and shurikens, as well other hidden items for you to find.
You can also collect power-ups that equip Hibana with ninja magic, one of the long time staples of the Shinobi franchise, but Hibana's ninja magic techniques looked quite disappointing and were almost useless throughout the game. Fortunately, unlike in Shinobi where players had to worry about their sword draining energy away the longer they went without killing an enemy, Hibana has no such annoyances to deal with.
What I found most appealing about Kunoichi's level designs were how seamlessly they flow. There are thirteen stages to play through, most of which are longer than the ones from Shinobi and each level leads a direct and sensible path to the next. For example, the first level starts you off on top of a stealth fighter plane cruising through a metropolis as you battle some of the easier enemies like sword wielding ninjas, enemy fighter planes, gun turrets and a boss that seems a little tough for a first stage boss.
The second stage keeps you within the same city but instead of catching a free ride on top of stealth fighter planes, you're making your way across various enemy infested rooftops throughout the city. The action is definitely better than the plane ride and keeps getting better. You find yourself deep within a subway station in the city, as well as running above ground, destroying cars, ninjas and airborne enemies that include demonic creatures hovering in the air and military styled floating guns.
Speaking of cars, some of the more exhilarating parts of the game take place in the later levels where you find yourself leaping to and from military vehicles speeding through a tunnel, jumping from speed boat to speed boat while deflecting missiles back at an enemy sub, and engaging in some of the game's more challenging, frustration filled jumping levels like the broken bridge area and the mountainous levels that follow.
Which brings us to Kunoichi's difficulty level. While Sega Wow had planned to go easier on gamers this time around (due to complaints about Shinobi's notoriously difficult levels), the team has only succeeded halfway in its attempts. While some of the earlier levels are pretty easy once you understand their layout, later levels bump up the challenge at least three-fold, with some gut wrenchingly difficult jumping sections, some of which are even more difficult than Shinobi. You will be tested in the later levels, believe it...
Boss battles further promote this as you're challenged by some pretty tough end bosses at the end of each level that will really put your ninja skills to the test. These boss battles are really cool and contain a host of highly imaginative and challenging foes that will make you work those controllers, especially the fifth stage level boss, amazing. Since Hibana's sword doesn't inflict much damage on the bosses, you'll need to really make use of her combo techniques as well as learning the boss patterns. After defeating the bosses, your total score will be tallied and you'll be awarded a rank as well as unlock various goodies throughout the game.
For the most part the only minor issue I had with Kunoichi's gameplay was its somewhat repetitive nature. As you make your way through each level, enemies will usually appear out of nowhere, most of the time they're the same ones you've encountered in previous levels along with a few new enemies introduced. Fortunately most of the levels aren't long enough for it to be much of an issue.
As far as extras go, Kunoichi is good to go. You can unlock a stage select mode that allows you to select and play through any of the levels you've already cleared in the story mode. Also, the prerendered movies throughout the game can be unlocked and viewed with the same requirements as the stage select mode.
Other cool extra features include a picture gallery that houses 26 stills you can unlock during play, Time Attack and Survival modes, as well as a nifty Mission mode that features VR levels.
While these extras are nice, what some may find to be the coolest part of it all are the hidden characters you can unlock and play as. Hidden characters such as Hotsuma and the female villain from the game so far are just some of characters you can unlock after completing the story mode.
Graphically, Hibana not only fights really well but she looks damn good in the process. I was never impressed by the graphics in the previous Shinobi and felt everything in it looked average at best. So I was very pleased to see Kunoichi bump up the graphical splendor. Running on a modified Shinobi engine, the graphics are definitely better than its predecessor. Character and environment models have a more solid look to them, with some detailed texturing and smooth animations.
The enemies are a mixture of military-oriented machines and some pretty damn ugly demonic creatures. Hibana, I must shamefully admit, is quite a sexy character model in her red and white ninja outfit, she's right up there with Vanessa Schneider from Capcom's P.N. 03. She's sleek, fast and deadly. Her animations rock as she's performing stunt like leaps into the air, somersaults, and other acrobatic moves with her long scarf flowing in the wind, demonstrating impressive 'cloth physics'.
The level designs are certainly improved, sporting a variety of detailed linear and non-linear level designs with locales showcasing some very solid lighting effects, cool environmental fog, mist, rain, and particle effects. Hibana's travels will take her from land, sea, and air and as was promised. The many sprawling urban environments allow you more freedom to run around and destroy lots of objects. Hibana will traverse a multitude of visually great areas that range from the high rooftops overlooking the city to a dimly lit subway station, a well designed warehouse section and even do battle against countless enemies on a broken bridge. All this to an unwavering 60 frames per second with no slowdown or frame rate fluctuations in sight, even while enemies of various sizes are crawling all over the place.
The camera work for the most part worked very well throughout the game. With the exception of 2 boss fights where it was a little hard to see everything that was going on, I had no complaints about the camera. The various prerendered cut-scenes throughout the game were also very well done and showcased some wonderful CG work that do a great job advancing the game's story.
The audio department of Kunoichi also offers significant improvements over its predecessor. Even though Yuzo Koshiro or the 16-bit Shinobi composers didn't score the music, it was all done in a similar style with what sounds to be a solid mixture of upbeat techno with some atmospheric undertones, as well as plenty of synth driven Japanese styled tunes that fit each level quite well.
Although the overall soundtrack is noticeably better than its predecessor, with the exception of the beautiful ending theme I didn't hear anything else that would make me want to run out and buy the game's soundtrack CD. The sound effects featured a host of slashing sounds, enemy grunts, explosions, the pitter patter of Hibana's running footsteps across walls, as well as Japanese voice acting during the cutscenes, all delivered with excellent sonic clarity.
Overall Kunoichi is a highly enjoyable game that's really hard to put down and comes recommended to both Shinobi fans and casual gamers who aren't afraid of a challenge. It's an extremely fun game that looks as good as it plays, chock full of unlockable extras, and a considerable challenge for you to not throw your controller against the wall.
Kunoichi is out now in Japan and hits Europe and North America in March 2004 under its western name, Nightshade.
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New direct feed footage from the game previously known as Kunoichi [480x360, 1164kbps]
Brief but beautiful direct feed widescreen vid, showing some lovely, Shenmue-quality realtime cut-scenes in Kunoichi. [520x300, 1100kbps]
Direwct feed gameplay video, in what seems to be some kind of boss battle with a ninja ending. [480x360, 1228kbps]
Shaky cam video showing an extended promotional trailer, which includes a few different gameplay scenes. [480x360, 1228kbps]
The fantastic teaser trailer from back at this year's E3. [320x240]
Kunoichi: Sega Wow Video Interview (320x240, 385kbps)
Sega Wow's Masahiro Kumono discussed the beautiful-looking sequel to Shinobi.
Kunoichi: Sega Wow Video Interview (240x180, 140kbps)
Sega Wow's Masahiro Kumono discussed the beautiful-looking sequel to Shinobi.