"There's a good mix of political intrigue, descriptive action sequences, character growth, plot development, and, of course, romance as the narrative progresses."
Ninja are always a topic of fascination in stories, as is the subject of love. So, naturally, putting them together should make for a great combination, right? Well, if the outcome happens to be anything like the otome visual novel Nightshade, that assumption is correct!
Set in the aftermath of Japan's Sengoku Period, specifically sixteen years after the Tensho Iga War when the survivors of the defeated ninja clan Iga have merged with the victorious Koga clan, players take on the role of Enju Ueno, the daughter of the Koga clan's leader and his wife, the sister Iga's former leader. Because she was seen as a symbol of the two clans' potential future for peace, Enju grew up sheltered and protected from the realities of being a shinobi. That is, until she gets assigned her first mission at the start of Nightshade. Suddenly Enju's life is forever and irrevocably turned around by the mission's events, becoming a sacrificial pawn for the political machinations of those with a stake in ruling Japan.
Enju's fugitive life could have been a very lonely one, if not for the five potential suitors who may or may not come to her aid over the course of her journey. Players are given several opportunities to ensure that Enju's story could end with love, happiness, or ultimately sadness through carefully placed decision points along the way, though those eventually tend to peeter out to only about one per very lengthy chapter once a suitor's route is cemented.
Nightshade's storyline and characters are its strongest selling points, as the plot is compelling and balances itself nicely. There's a good mix of political intrigue, descriptive action sequences, character growth, plot development, and, of course, romance as the narrative progresses. In fact, the main focus of the story is Enju's personal growth as both a shinobi and person, with the romance developing naturally as a result. I found that element to be quite refreshing and unique for an otome game.
The characters are all likable and continue to grow throughout the course of the game. The potential bachelors such as Gekkamaru and his little brother Kuroyuki show development even in routes other than their own, so their character growth isn't relegated to whether or not they're Enju's chosen suitor. Side characters such as Enju's friends Ennosuke and Kyara, who are in their own side-story romance of sorts, also have quite a lot of things to say and do no matter which route you go for. Enju herself is a capable, kind-hearted character who learns to stand on her own two feet the more the plot progresses, and I found myself thoroughly engrossed in her journey and what happened to not only her but the other characters as I played Nightshade.
The romance, while more subtly developed than in some other otome titles, is quite well-written and believably evolves over the course of the title. My first route was Hanzo's and I found I quite enjoyed the progression it took as he and Enju went from total strangers to something more over a time period spanning several months in the story.
Players will find a wealth of bonus content when playing Nightshade, as there are extra side-story scenes focusing on a given route available for perusal right from the very beginning, along with extra story scenes you unlock as you play through a specific character route. Given that and just how enjoyable the plot is to experience, replayability is quite high if you wish to experience everything Nightshade has to offer. Unfortunately, the lack of a story map meant I had to create multiple saves to cut through the amount of time I had to replay in the beginning portions of the game, which is definitely one of its biggest weaknesses.
The character artwork is gorgeous and extremely colorful, and I loved their expressive facial features in particular. Unfortunately, there's a bit of oddness with body language and positioning at times, so certain characters are stuck in static poses that seem awkward to hold for too long, or have oddly proportioned appendages in certain art pieces. I kept thinking that poor Gekkamaru's arm must have been sore and tired from having to hold it in such an uncomfortable position for a majority of the game! However, I did truly love how the character art moved about the screen to try and illustrate character movement during action scenes and conversations.
Special mention I feel should also be made of Nightshade's music, as I adored the more intense tracks that played during dramatic fight scenes and chases. They were quite memorable, and Goemon Ishikawa's theme song was quite playful and catchy whenever he showed up as "Goro-san"! The voice acting was excellent as well, with every voice seeming to match the specific character and scene wonderfully.
A slight negative was that the English translation wasn't quite as flawless as I've seen others be, with some noticeable grammatical or spelling errors at times and a "looser" translation of the original Japanese in some cases. But, I found myself overlooking that more often than not simply because I was so engaged in the plot and trying to figure out the next plot beat. While Nightshade is only available digitally in Western markets, the physical Japanese Switch cartridge does contain the English language version of the game for those who are avid physical game collectors. In fact, I actually used an imported version of Nightshade for this review.
Nightshade is a text-heavy otome visual novel with a whole lot of plot to uncover, and I enjoyed my time with it immensely! Enju's journey to find her true self and love is something both otome and ninja fans might find worthwhile if given a chance. Like Hakuoki, I'd even recommend Nightshade to those who aren't sure if otome is for them, as the plot has a lot more to offer than just the romance angle.