Review by Pinchie McPinch

"The way of the Ninja."

It is the late 16th Century, and in the province of Utakata the wide-spreading effects of the recent civil unrest in neighbouring areas are being deeply felt. The ruling House of Ichijo, strengthened with the protection of the esteemed Asuka Ninja Clan, seeks to maintain peace despite the chaos escalating in surrounding provinces. This ongoing partnership between Ichijo and the Asuka comes to a swift and sudden end when the Asuka Clan's village is attacked and obliterated in a single night with no survivors accounted for. With the Asuka village and Ichijo's alliance in ruins, rival feudal lords quickly take the opportunity to try to seize power in Utakata. Following close behind them are other ninja clans, hoping to fill the void left in the wake of the Asuka's destruction and take their part in the creation of a new order.

The darkness conceals a ninja racing his way across the rooftops of the town. This ninja is Goh, often referred to as Crow by those who don't know him closely. The ironic twist to this is that he doesn't know himself - he awoke a few hours ago near a ruined village with no memory of whom or where he was. He has been informed that Lord Ichijo of Utakata is his master, and so he races to confront him and discover the truth about his past.

So begins Shinobido: Way of the Ninja, without a doubt one of the finest stealth action games ever to have graced the Playstation 2. The premise of the game is simple: three rival factions - Ichijo, Akame and Sadame - are attempting to seize total control of Utakata. By enlisting the paid help of the local ninja clans they each hope to eliminate their rivals and emerge the victor, but the ninja don't necessarily have to follow one lord or lady - they go where they will for their own reasons.

As Goh you choose which tasks you will accept from a faction leader; these range from completely eliminating the enemy from an area, stealing valuable items from a rival faction, assassinating a strong foe or even hunting bears. In between you will find other missions such as assaulting armoured carts or rescuing kidnapped girls. Which missions you choose to accept and which you refuse are entirely up to you. Will you ignore all of Lady Akame's missions in favour of Lord Ichijo's and Lord Akame's? Will you attempt to play the faction leaders off against each other as you continue your foremost task of discovering your past? Will you simply take whichever mission pays best at the time? You decide.

The structure of the game is effectively simple. You choose which mission you'd like to attempt from a selection of requests sent by the faction leaders. If you succeed in your selected mission their trust in you - given as a percentage - increases, and you are awarded an amount of gold for your efforts. However, if you fail in your task, your trust goes up only a tiny amount, and you receive no monetary reward as well as losing some objects from your inventory. Of course, if you are caught attacking a faction leader's troops or assets then their trust in you will drop significantly, and this is why a ninja must be stealthy at all times.

Stealth is the skill that allows the ninja to appear to be a fleeting shadow on a moonless night. With your stealth you can sneak up on an enemy, slit their throat and dispose of their limp body without alerting their allies. You can steal a valuable object from an enemy stronghold without them knowing who to blame, which is vitally important if you want to maintain a level of trust with each faction. If you oppose a rival lord or lady's troops and none of them survive to tell the tale then you cannot be blamed for the deed. You must work well to achieve your tasks undetected though, as enemy soldiers have a habit of sending one of their number to raise the alarm, and this spells doom for the idea of working silently. The enemy usually doesn't miss too much unless their food supply's been cut off or stolen by a mystery ninja in a previous mission, so you must take every step with care because you never know what might lie over the next rooftop.

That's the real beauty of this game. It really doesn't play the same way twice unless you make a real effort for it to do so and don't fail any missions while attempting to do so. By stealing a few huge boxes of rice from one faction you will find they're pretty hungry and not too focussed in later missions. Factions can even gain new weaponry, and you have some control over which factions gain these upgrades. Will you help transport the bow and arrow plans for Lady Sadame or will you help Lord Akame steal them from right under her nose? The real question becomes 'Who do you want to be shooting bows at you in later missions?' and it's this control over the evolution of the story that adds such immense beauty to Shinobido: Way of the Ninja.

Control over the character isn't always so beautiful. The main trick to effectively working with the controls of Shinobido is two use both analog sticks. The player runs towards the camera, so it's far more precise to rotate the camera with the right analog stick and run forward with the left analog stick. Using the left analog to rotate the player is far too clunky and makes movement extremely frustrating. When approaching enemies you can use L1 to lock onto and cycle through nearby targets, freeing up your right hand to use the attack buttons. I found this dual-analog control method to be a lot more precise, and that oversensitivity and clunkiness of the left analog for player rotation is really this game's only downside in terms of controls.

In other ways, the control system eventually pleasantly surprised me. The first of the 'mini-missions' playable outside of the story mode was three attempts at 'triple jumping' - zigzagging upwards between two close walls with a series of jumps. I spent twenty-five minutes trying to figure out how to do it before I realised that I was over-complicating it. There was no need to be using the left analog stick to control each jump.. I simply had to initially jump into the wall then just keep pressing X to jump. No tricky directional controls required, and it's this sort of simplicity of complicated movement that really adds to the fun of the game as a whole.

Growing wild around Utakata are a plethora of herbs and mushrooms which can be picked, and with the eventual aid of a cooking pot can be combined and boiled up into some extremely powerful concoctions and eventually up to ten cooking pots at a time can be brewing away. Many items can be put in an alchemy mixture, and either extracted into a single (hopefully powerful) item or used to fill a number of spheres to be thrown or bottles to be drunk from. Sushi can also be soaked in your mixture and used to tempt the starving enemy troops. This means that the aspiring ninja alchemist can make a large amount of very, very powerful explosive grenades or health potions on the cheap - much cheaper than buying them through a shop. Other negative effects can be brewed into an alchemy mixture, such as rendering an enemy unconscious or confusing them. Conversely, each negative effect has a positive effect such as speed or strength. The best thing is that you retain your items and alchemy mixtures over subsequent play-throughs of the game, so you can take all the time you need to pick the herbs and mushrooms needed for your perfect sphere of death. Just make sure to stand back when you throw it.

The enemies who survive will take revenge, though. Out in the mountains Goh's shack resides in the middle of his garden, but it's not as hidden as you might hope. Often barbarians or betrayed factions will attack your garden between missions and steal your precious items if you can't prevent them from doing so. Luckily you don't have to run around killing each one by hand, as powerful friends enjoy bestowing you with gifts for yourself and your garden such as pit, spike or fire traps, enraged bears, cannons that shoot enormous spiked balls or even some of their own guardsmen to aid you in your effort. You place these items and characters in your garden and edit the landscape with an intuitive editing system and eventually smile as every barbarian is incinerated, perforated, weakened, crushed and eventually falls to their untimely death at the hands of your evil designs. It's just too fun.

The rich ninja also has a wide selection of combat weapons to choose from. Between missions a variety of offensive and defensive items can be purchased from the shop. Shuriken, land mines, wind-up toy lizards with timed explosives, poisoned sushi. The list goes on, and varies throughout the game. Health potions end up being cheaper to make with alchemy, but it's some time before you have initial access to the cooking pots on your first play through the story so you're forced to either play very well or spend a lot on health potions. Luckily the stealth kills are simple to perform, or you wouldn't last long in a town filled with enemy troops.

Stealth is undoubtedly the primary skill of a ninja. Of course a ninja needs to fight, but before that a ninja needs to be invisible. Combining a ninja's stealth abilities with their combat abilities makes for a swiftly-defeated opponent. As long as an enemy hasn't seen you (handily represented by a small set of icons at the top of the screen showing how many enemies are in range of you and their individual alert status) you can sneak up on them and wait for the metallic noise of stealth joy and small on-screen reflective glint to announce the fact that you're in killing range of them. By pressing triangle you'll perform a deadly stealth kill - how you kill them depends on your direction from them. You might jump down and twist their head violently, snapping their neck. You might be able to stab them with your sword through the door that separates you. You might trip them forwards and hold them down; drowning them in the knee-high water they were wading through. You might simply slit their throat. Of course, you can't just leave that body there; it might be discovered. You'd best pick it up and find somewhere more discreet to hide it, like that well. That'll do nicely.

Of course, the opposing ninja clans mean to cause trouble for their competition as well. There are a handful of clans, and their stories intertwine with yours to help fuel the hotpot of unrest in Utakata. You have no choice but to make enemies of the opposing clans as they work for the three factions struggling for control, and a number of duels must be won to advance through the game. However, unlike most of the missions, if you die in a duel the game is over. You don't just lose money, you lose the game. Luckily these risky missions come with an extra warning letting you know of the danger, so you have ample opportunity to save beforehand.

When - more like if - you tire of playing through the story chasing the four endings, unlocking all hundred and twenty of the separately-viewable theatre sequences as well as the multiple additional costumes and the ability to play with the appearance of any in-game character - simply by carrying their body off the map - there's a mission editor. It's a pretty fully-featured one, too. It's a similar style to the garden editor, but with a full choice of items and characters to place over the map. You choose the mission type and set the goals, and save it to your memory card. You can even send it to your PSP to play on the PSP Shinobido game. Another level to the fun and longevity of Shinobido: Way of the Ninja.

There's so much to do. There's so much to achieve. There are so many people to kill. There are so many reasons you must have this game.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Originally Posted: 08/03/06, Updated 08/04/06

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