It's a well-known fact that ninjas are cool. Yet these enigmatic, highly trained, highly disciplined, emotionless Japanese assassins probably have a pretty difficult life, what with all the skulking and assassinating and running around. And in the case of Shinobi, Sega's latest 3D action game, the main character, Hotsuma, has it even tougher than usual--he'll be constantly fighting off the demonic remains of his former clansmen. So if you're expecting a challenge from Shinobi, then at least you know what you're in for. The game, inspired by Sega's classic ninja action series, is notable both for its extreme level of difficulty and also for its highly responsive control mechanics. The combination of these elements makes for a game that can be very satisfying when it isn't frustrating, though in any event, Shinobi could have used more time in development so that its action could have stood out better from the game's assorted shortcomings.
Other than the fact that its main character is a ninja, Shinobi actually has very little in common with other games in the series, such as the original arcade game and the Sega Genesis classic, Revenge of Shinobi. Unlike those games, this Shinobi is a fully 3D game that has much more of an emphasis on close-quarters hack-and-slash combat than on ranged shooting. However, this Shinobi does have a thematic similarity to its predecessors, insofar as this is not a game involving stealth--you won't be spending any time sneaking in shadows here, but instead you'll be busy chopping up and chopping down droves of otherworldly foes. There's definitely no shortage of pure action in this game.
The mechanics of Shinobi are the best thing about the game, though you won't realize this at first. Hotsuma, clad in his futuristic black armor and bearing a long red scarf (which make him look awfully similar to Hanzo from the Samurai Shodown fighting games), has a lot of interesting techniques at his disposal. He can swiftly run about, jump in any direction, jump a second time for additional height and distance in midair, and perform a "stealth dash," a faster-than-the-eye dodge maneuver that leaves a ghostly image of him standing there for a moment. He can dash around like this nonstop while on the ground, traveling quickly from place to place or easily maneuvering behind a foe for the kill. Or he can dash once in mid-jump to gain even more distance in midair. He can even latch onto and run along many completely vertical surfaces. Some of Shinobi's most enjoyable, most challenging sequences involve having to run through enemy infested levels--along the sides of skyscrapers. You'll make desperate leaps from one side of a building to another, and certain death awaits if you fall short.
To do his dirty work, Hotsuma fights with a cursed ninja sword, which he can use to execute a few slashing combos or midair strikes. The curse manifests itself relatively early on in the game and creates both advantages and disadvantages in combat. On the one hand, the sword has a constant need to drink souls--you'll see a red meter onscreen that gradually drains down but fills back up as red energy from slain foes gets absorbed into the blade. If the meter runs all the way out, Hotsuma's sword begins absorbing Hotsuma's own life energy and will eventually kill him if he doesn't do some killing of his own, fast. On the other hand, the sword's curse empowers it as Hotsuma kills opponents in rapid succession. The more foes you slay in a row, the stronger the sword becomes, and empowering the sword in this fashion will be a necessary tactic for defeating many of the tough boss monsters in Shinobi--they'll conveniently spawn in a number of smaller, weaker foes, and you'll quickly kill them one by one, then land a deathblow on their master. The fact that Shinobi essentially requires you to move and fight quickly definitely works in its favor and makes for some fast-paced and intense fighting sequences. Also, besides his blade, Hotsuma has a limited number of throwing knives whose primary purpose is to stun targets, immobilizing them for a short while so that Hotsuma can cut them down.
As mentioned, Shinobi is a very hard game. Soon into it, Hotsuma will often find himself taking on numerous powerful foes that can cause lots of damage quickly. Though the early stages of the game are mindless hack-and-slash affairs, to defeat many of the later opponents, Hotsuma will need to quickly dash around behind them and strike at where they're vulnerable--a matter that's complicated when so many foes are around. He'll also take on nimble flying opponents, all while having to avoid instant death from falling. Shinobi's levels can be quite long, lasting 10 or 15 minutes, and they tend to get even harder toward the end of any given level; and dying during the course of the level always requires you to start that level over from the beginning. The result is a game that's certainly not short but that will invariably require you to attempt each level multiple times. That's not inherently a bad thing, but considering how Shinobi's levels can be pretty monotonous to begin with--they all seem thrown together, with lots of flat surfaces, sharp angles, and repetitive textures and scenery--the game can definitely make you feel as though it's actively trying to get you to stop playing.
The challenge of Shinobi isn't unwelcome, but it's made to seem rather unfair at times due to artificial constraints: one, that there's never a midlevel checkpoint and there's almost always some really tough battle or jumping sequence right at the end of every stage, and two, that the game's camera perspective can cause some serious headaches. Though the camera does a decent job of sticking to Hotsuma's back, can be manually rotated or tilted using the right analog stick, and can even be recentered easily using one of the shoulder buttons, it still wigs out when Hotsuma gets close to walls--and he'll be close to walls often. He'll also be running around a lot, which means you'll often become disoriented as to where all the foes in the vicinity are. Shinobi's high degree of difficulty may be considered a throwback to the classic games of yesteryear, which were often very punishing and forced you to replay levels numerous times until you got them just right--but those old games didn't have these sorts of camera issues, either.
With that said, it's certainly possible to get past the bland level design and camera problems and enjoy Shinobi for what it has to offer. The game's controls are tight and responsive, and making Hotsuma execute long leaps from rooftop to rooftop and devastating combos against multiple opponents can be quite a thrill. Also, the game is loaded with challenging boss battles--good ones where figuring out the foe's pattern of attack is only half the problem. It helps matters a lot that, by and large, the game runs fast and very smooth. The game's levels and enemies look simple, but Hotsuma looks terrific, with his stylish flowing cloak and nimble, good-looking animations. You'll see his cloak clip straight through his body when he stands still, but luckily for you, there's not much standing still in Shinobi. Another awkward graphical effect is that whenever you kill every opponent in an area in sequence, you'll see them all split apart simultaneously in a brief real-time cutscene. Some of these can look cool, but as you get better at the game, you'll see these scenes happen way too often, and sometimes the camera angles can look really bad. At any rate, though Shinobi's visuals aren't all great, it's a good-looking game overall.
Of further note, the game features a surprising number of impressively produced prerendered cinematic cutscenes, which further the story in between levels. The game also offers you the choice of either Japanese or English voices, and either option sounds very good. Shinobi's musical score consists of lots of Japanese flutes and percussion accompanied by synthesizers, making for an original sound and an old-school kind of feel. The actual sound effects of battle are well done, with lots of anime-style sword clangs and slashing noises.
Shinobi will take you a good while to finish, and it's got some unlockable extras thrown in for good measure, which you can access by finding hidden tokens in most of the levels. On top of that, because the game encourages skillful play--you're rewarded for quickly eliminating all your foes at once--there's some inherent replay value and a steady learning curve. The game's levels may all look the same, but you'll find that Shinobi gradually gets tougher and tougher, forcing you to hone all your skills until you can use them all in perfect harmony. This isn't a game that everyone will like, and you can tell it would have been even better if it had spent more time in development, but those looking for a game with lots of challenge and a distinct sense of style would do well to check out Shinobi.