Ninjas -- what are they? Well, according to the online version of the Oxford dictionary, a Ninja is:
• noun a person skilled in ninjutsu.
- ORIGIN Japanese, 'spy'.
Hmm. Not much help, really. I'm beginning to see why so many schoolboys only use dictionaries to look up the rude words. A little bit of further digging reveals this definition, which does help:
• noun the traditional Japanese technique of espionage, characterized by stealth and camouflage.
- ORIGIN Japanese, 'art or science of stealth'.
Right, so a Ninja is a person who is skilled in a traditional Japanese technique of espionage, characterized by stealth and camouflage. Interestingly, the Oxford Online Dictionary has no entry whatsoever for Shinobido, but if, as its subtitle claims, it is the "way" of the Ninja, then it's presumably got something to do with this stealth and camouflage malarkey, and having skills in that area. Keep that in mind, because it'll become important later.
Amnesia is something it's hard to forget about, if you'll excuse the pun, simply because it's such a well-worn path for any kind of fiction -- including the interactive fiction that we like to call "video games" -- to use. Shinobido dips once more into the murky well of amnesia, casting you in the role of Crow, a young Ninja who is wakes up one day with no memories of his past. In case you've forgotten why, that'd be the amnesia, see? Crow's services are quickly taken up by all three of the warring factions, each of which can help Crow in his own personal quest to recover his memories, and along the way his soul. That's soul as in the immortal spiritual element, not as in the popular American black fusion of R&B. But who knows -- perhaps a funky Ninja amnesia game is what the world's been missing all these years.
Shinobido comes to us from the same developers who created the highly successful Tenchu franchise (although those rights are now with other companies), and it shows -- like Tenchu, this is a game of running about on rooftops, sneaking carefully past guards and then dropping silently into your target's area with a big pointy thing designed to remove their breathing privileges, often with extreme prejudice. It's also similar to Tenchu in that it's rather strongly dipped in the action side of the genre, rather than the pure-stress "simulation" side stealth games that have dominated the genre in more recent times. Its final similarity to Tenchu is perhaps the most telling, however, as, aside from the factional struggle aspect of the game, it doesn't really feel like it's progressed much since the early Tenchu days. That doesn't make it a bad game straight off the bat -- but it does make it a very obviously dated one.
The one interesting hook that Shinobido offers is in the way you interact with the game's three factions. Each day, you pick a mission presented to you by each faction, and successful completion of that mission sees your standing with that faction grow. Critically, as you're meant to be a killer ninja, expert in the ways of stealth, it shouldn't be obvious to other factions who you're working for at any one time. Stuff missions up, however -- mostly by being spotted -- and they'll be less fond of you, which keeps you further from your goal of finding out who you really are. It's an interesting mix of the gang rivalry motif seen in games such as Grand Theft Auto 2 and something akin to Hitman: Blood Money's notoriety setup.
Sadly, while the factional interaction -- and the somewhat free-form way it lets you play the game, picking and choosing missions somewhat at will -- is a good idea, it's let down by sloppy implementation. Firstly, there aren't that many different things that Crow will be asked to do. Generally it's either pinch something, kill someone or deliver something to someone. Even with some varied maps, and quite a few cool Ninja toys to give you mission options, Shinobido quickly becomes repetitive and tiresome, especially if you've played a lot of other and better stealth/assassination titles recently.
There are more glaring problems in Shinobido, though. The controls -- especially the camera and jumping controls -- are sluggish and just not up to specification for a modern title, and they're compounded by the level designs. There's absolutely no excuse, for example, for designing levels in this day and age with invisible "walls" -- and no warning that they exist until you just stop running. Typically, this will be when there are guards out searching for you, and you've just made a graceful leap towards a ledge that should afford you some cover -- only to hit an invisible wall that shouldn't be there in the first place, falling dead smack in front of the very guards you were trying to avoid! There's nothing that quite emphasises how much skill you don't have in the ancient arts of stealth and camouflage than running and jumping headfirst into a wall that isn't in fact there.
It should be noted that when you do fail -- and you will fail multiple times, if only for when you're first getting used to the game's controls -- you'll probably roll about laughing at the entirely unsuitable voice acting of the guards who've suddenly spotted you. Time for a quick quiz, methinks.
You're tasked with translating a Japanese game into English, including voice actors. Do you:
A) Choose a variety of actors skilled in dramatic readings, irrespective of accent
B) Hire a bunch of Americans to do it, because it'll never sell in Iowa otherwise?
C) Say, "stuff accuracy", and just cast all the guards as lovable cockneys, even though that's quite patently insane.
Amazingly, Option C) carried the day. Words alone cannot convey quite how daft this is.
Shinobido: Way Of The Ninja might try to emulate the ancient arts of stealth and camouflage, but it's ultimately a title that feels very dated and plays in a very ordinary fashion. It never quite lives up to its own ideals, instead retreading the same old tired Tenchu-like gameplay patterns. This would have made a fine PS2 launch title, but in the console's twilight years, it's a very clear also-ran.
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