Circus Reviews - Nightshade (Hyakka Hyakurou Sengoku Ninpou-chou)

Author's note: The game's full title is Hyakka Hyakurou Sengoku Ninpou-chou. That is a long title and I usually don't remember how to spell it, so throughout this review I will be referring to it by its English title, Nightshade.

Despite being a fast and voracious reader, my attention span is not the greatest, and so the thought of playing a visual novel like, say, Clannad or Little a bit intimidating, to be honest. Perhaps I'm a bit odd in this thinking. But either way, I went into Nightshade with the general sense that I might be biting off more than I can chew. Did that in fact turn out to be the case? The answer is...yeah, probably, but it was fun nonetheless.

Nightshade is a historical romance otome game that takes place seventeen years after the Tenshou Iga war in Japan. The village of Koga has achieved a state of peace partially through the unification of the formerly warring Iga and Koga clans. The product of this alliance, Enju Ueno, is our protagonist—the daughter of the clan's leader, Kando Ueno, and a shinobi in training who still has a lot to learn. Anxious to prove herself worthy and give back to her village, Enju is elated to be chosen to go on her first mission with childhood friends Kyara and Ennosuke, cousin and mentor Chojiro, and bodyguard Gekkamaru. The group travels to Kyo; along the way they meet Kuroyuki, Gekkamaru's older brother, who is on his way back to Koga after an eight-year mission but decides to join his friends instead. As the mission in Kyo begins, Enju is drawn into a political conflict that is destined to end in tragedy...and a dangerous game that threatens not only her life, but the world she's always known.

If I can briefly break my politically correct reviewer persona, I normally try to divide my attention between each component of a game as equally as I can, although story and characters do get a lot of the focus since I review visual novels almost exclusively these days. However, in the case of Nightshade, almost all of what I actually want to talk about is related to either the story or the characters, so I'm going to do something different and quickly cover the other aspects of the game, positive and negative:

- The art is consistently gorgeous, sprites and CGs alike.

- This being a game about ninjas, there are frequent battle animations, and they're all done very well. I do sort of wish they were quicker to skip through; the skip function in general makes short work of the text but gets tripped up on animations, although I suppose that's to be expected.

- The big complaint I have about the voice acting is that Enju herself is not voiced, while most other characters are. I'm going to be honest...I don't understand why you would have a game with voice acting and not voice the protagonist, and I don't understand why having the protagonist be voiceless in a game where every other character is voiced would be appealing on its own merit. Realistically I guess it's probably related to budgeting or the desire to create a sense of immersion, but to me it breaks the flow to an almost obnoxious level. This is of course remedied by just turning the voice acting off altogether, but then I just feel like I'm insulting the developer's hard work, not to mention all those voice actors who presumably spent a lot of time recording their lines. From what I can tell with my admittedly limited experience, having an unvoiced protagonist is not exactly an uncommon thing, though, so maybe I'm just not getting it. Other than that issue, however, all the voice acting is done very well.

- The music sounds very nice; there's nothing in the soundtrack that I'd go out of my way to listen to again, but it does its job.

- The CG gallery and extras both have some nice touches to them, like extra scenarios for each character and unlockable movie clips.

- The translation isn't bad, but there are a number of typos, enough that I noticed it repeatedly. I will admit I'm kind of a grammar Nazi and I know that probably every work in the world has at least one typo hiding in it somewhere, but this one was pushing it.

Okay, now that I'm done with all the technical stuff, let's get into the meat of things.

Enju, the protagonist, turns out very differently depending on which route you take, but starts off as being sweet and polite but crippled by self-doubt and desperate to prove herself. Her character development throughout the game varies greatly, with one route in particular (which I'll get to later) receiving the majority of it; it's disappointing, as Enju is a compelling character and I would have liked to have seen her grow more in the other routes. The funny thing is, though, that even when Enju's character development is regressing, she somehow manages to remain likeable, so she must be doing something right.

The plot itself is mostly the same throughout the routes, although there are of course variations and some routes focus more on the love interest's backstory than on the route itself. Overall, I tended to be more interested in how the relationships developed than in the plot itself. Which is not to say that the story is bad, necessarily...It could be that with a few spoilery exceptions, the main conflict itself is fairly linear. While the good and bad endings of each respective route vary greatly, at their core the way the main storyline resolves in each group is mostly the same.

Thankfully, though, Nightshade does have some great romanceable characters, a couple of whom in particular contribute a lot to the game's appeal. The five love interests range pretty drastically in their route quality. Keeping it as brief as I can, I'll go over each one.

Chojiro: Enju's childhood friend and mentor who ends up developing a sense of dissonance between his duty as a shinobi and his own desires. Enju has always admired him. In his route, he and Enju are physically separated for a decent portion of it, and unfortunately the development of their relationship suffers as a result. Also, the way that the story goes, I actually feel like the bad ending of his route fits them a lot better than the good ending. Still, though, he's a sweetheart deep down and I do think he and Enju are cute together.

Gekkamaru: Enju's bodyguard and adopted sibling, and possibly the most devoted human being in the universe, to the point that it worries me at times. I get that it's literally his job to be overprotective of Enju, and I really enjoy that Enju recognizes from the beginning of the game that his attitude is a contributing factor in her own lack of development. But the lengths this guy will go to for Enju are astonishing. In literally every single route, he will risk his life to save Enju's without a second thought. Even if you're off gallivanting with another guy, he will still continue to do this. Now that said, the game does go out of its way to show you why he would be so devoted to Enju, and he does respect her autonomy and choices in a way that characters like these don't always respect, which is something I really appreciate. And him and Enju do actually have a pretty sweet relationship, whether it becomes romantic or not.

Goemon: An infamous thief who's basically Robin Hood if he'd grown up in feudal Japan. You meet him fairly early in the game using a false name, which is immediately spoiled if you look at one of several menus in the game, but it's still treated as a plot twist by the story, which does kind of irritate me...Like, if you're not going to hide it then don't hide it. Commit, you know? Anyway. Goemon's route is a lot more lighthearted than most of the others, and depending on what order you take the routes in it could be just the relief you needed. It also pays a bit less attention to the main conflict than some of the other routes in order to focus on Goemon's own past. All that said...I didn't dislike his route, necessarily, but I also didn't feel it was particularly standout. It's cute, and that's about all I can really say about it.

Kuroyuki: Hoo boy, here's a controversial one. Kuroyuki is Gekkamaru's brother, who was sent on a mission at the age of eight and has only just finished up; he reunites with the group as they're heading for their mission. Playful and flirtatious and oh dear God does he have some hidden depths. I'm torn, because I love the development of Kuroyuki's character and I really identify with a lot of the stuff he struggles with. But at the same time...Remember how I said earlier that Enju's character development varies by route? It's at its absolute worst in Kuroyuki's route. I frankly loathe the choices they made with her story here. She doesn't really develop so much as she becomes completely dependent on Kuroyuki in a really unhealthy way. The funny thing is, multiple characters call her out on it, with very valid reasons, and she just kind of shrugs and ignores it. If I'm being honest, I can also identify with that, but as a reader, it's frustrating and kind of sad to have to watch. So...I don't really know how to give a ruling on this route, as I love one character's development, hate the other's, and am kind of neutral to the relationship as a whole.

Hanzo: Based on the real Hanzo Hattori, he is the head of the Tokugawa shinobi and is incredibly devoted to this job. He shares a lot of traits with Chojiro—quiet, stoic, self-assured, very insistent on what a shinobi is—but has a lot more skill and experience to back it up. If you've been reading any other reviews of this game, you've probably already heard that Hanzo-sama is best guy. And yeah, I have to agree. Hanzo-sama is far and away best guy. I think the major thing that sets him apart is that he treats Enju like a fellow shinobi (albeit not an overly skilled one at the start) and as a result, Enju realizes that she can't rely on other people to protect her when her life is in danger, and that she has to depend on her own strength in order to survive. To that end, she begins training, first on her own and then with Hanzo, and noticeably improves over time. There's also a good amount of backstory about Enju's mother that isn't explored in any other route, which helps give a lot of context about Enju's childhood and why exactly she wants to make her father proud of her so badly. (Have I had a chance to mention that Enju's father is an asshole? Enju's father is an asshole.) There are so many other little things that I could gush about, like the fact that Hanzo and Enju have a scene where they're snuggling in their underwear for survival purposes (it makes sense in context), or the fact that Hanzo, being the kind of person he is, never really beats around the bush with how he feels about Enju...But I've rambled long enough, so let's just conclude with this: Hanzo has one of the best visual novel routes I've read in a long time and he almost makes the game worth the purchase price on his own.

There are some side characters as well, most prominently Kyara and Ennosuke, Enju's childhood friends and fellow shinobi. Kyara and Ennosuke are initially just there for comic relief and never quite make it to fully developed characters, but I suppose that's to be expected in a game where the main focus is protagonist plus love interest equals sunshine love, and don't get me wrong: they're both still quite likeable. I'm actually surprised that they don't end up together, but then again, there's fanfiction for that. Additionally, there's Kasumi, a younger shinobi girl who ends up joining the mission late to cook for the group (which makes no logical sense whatsoever, but eh) and gets dragged into the main conflict as a result. I don't necessarily mind her as a character, but I don't think she serves a ton of purpose, either. Hanzo's master, Ieyasu Tokugawa, is another historical character in the game, and I'm honestly a bit surprised that he doesn't have a route of his own, but either way, he serves his purpose in the game fine, and his interactions with Hanzo are both heartwarming and fun to read.

Oh yeah, and Enju's father is an asshole. This is not a spoiler because all you have to do is have a conversation with him and you'll figure it out for yourself.

You know, I've rambled on this game for a very long time now, and I still haven't said if I actually like it. So do I actually like it? Well, yes, quite a lot. I do feel like Hanzo's route is a big selling point, and Kuroyuki is a wonderfully well-written character even if his relationship with Enju frustrates me for what it does to her character. It makes me wonder if each route had a different writer, as was the case with Katawa Shoujo, because the pull just varies so much. In a way, I'm kind of glad that I didn't end up starting with Hanzo's route, as I feel that playing it first might have gotten my expectations a bit too high.

It's funny...I've found countless things to complain about here, but when I ask myself if I liked Nightshade, I always say “yes” without hesitation. It's a very well-made game with a few average love interests, one great love interest, and one extremely amazing love interest that I want to marry myself. And you know what? That's enough for me. I enjoyed myself and I find myself replaying it (okay, replaying Hanzo's route...) and so I'm recommending it. I'm hopeful that there will be more works set and/or translated in this universe, because I really enjoyed myself.

(Okay...I really just want more Hanzo-sama. Cause like come on. Look at him.)

Nightshade is available on Steam.

Final verdict: Despite some production missteps and inconsistent route quality, Nightshade is a well-designed game, and its best and most redeeming feature is the inclusion of a couple of amazing love interests that will draw you back for more.

Nightshade is developed by Red Entertainment and Lantern Rooms and published by D3 Publisher. The opinions expressed in this review are my own. I was given a free copy of this game in exchange for my review. This review was originally written for Anime Backgrounds.

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