Many of you may not have heard of Shinobido before, despite it first appearing nearly seven years ago. The ninja themed stealth, action, and strategy game on the PS2 and PSP never made it outside of Japan. For developers Acquire, this latest PS Vita game sheds some worrying light on the Japanese studio. Originally known for their Tenchu titles, Acquire have spent over a decade supposedly mastering the art of the great ninja game. So much so that when the Tenchu franchise was bought by Activision, Acquire wasted little time in getting stuck into an almost identical clone, Shinobido.
Move on seven years to today, and Acquire have released Shinobido 2: Revenge of Zen for the brand-spanking new PS Vita console. There’s nothing like sticking to your guns, but disturbingly Shinobido 2 feels like a port of their original PS2 game, rather than a proper sequel. The good news is, the original Shinobido was a good game and few people outside of Nippon would have played it. The bad news is, this game feels instantly outdated, especially in the controls department.
Like all ninja movies and as the title suggests, Shinobido 2 is about revenge. You fill the dainty roof-scaling boots of Zen, a ninja with vengeance on his mind after losing his friends and family during brutal civil unrest near his village. Badly wounded, complete with a killer Harry Potter-esque scar across his face, Zen sets out to track down those responsible and restore his honour, one step at a time. In order to reach his goal, he must accept missions from allies and neighbouring warlords (or daimyo) to earn their trust.
These missions make up the gameplay in Shinobido 2 and range from assassinations, prisoner liberations, bodyguard duty, kidnapping, delivery of goods, theft... and occasionally killing some grizzly bears (you are a ninja after all). On their own, each of these missions offers some brief, but exciting gameplay. However when combined the game blends into a repetitive deja-vu experience that often sees you running through the same map, killing the same brain-dead guards over and over.
The terrible AI in Shinobido 2 again reinforces that this game feels old and outdated. Sneaking around a village at night with cat-like reflexes is made a tad redundant when your enemies can’t tell the difference between a ninja and a medium-sized pot-plant. When spotted, guards will simply give up and forget if you run a few meters away and around a corner. Even after you just sliced through three of his friends, he’ll simply wander back to his post and ignore his dead chums in a heap beside him. After a while I simply ran around the map full-tit, knocking stuff over, tripping over hedges and hacking away at anything that moved with the same outcome.
It gets the job done and often, thanks to the frustrating control system, ends up being your default course of action. However Shinobido 2 is one of those games where you get out of it a reflection of what you’re willing to put into it. At the end of each stage, you will be assessed on your performance, taking into consideration time taken, enemies killed, stealth, items found, and more. Those players willing to sneak around and explore every inch of the map while silently taking out foes will be rewarded for it.
The only problem with this is the controls. Moving Zen around the map is functional, with one stick controlling direction and the other stick letting you angle the camera like a typical third-person action game. You’ll be able to sprint, dive, leap great distances and use a mixture of weak and strong attacks. There are moments when Shinobido 2 works beautifully. But most of the time you’ll be shaking your head in frustration as the camera wobbles all over the place and you end up slicing up a brick wall instead of two enemies standing directly behind you.
This is because the targeting system is seriously broken. Even with the game using both the left shoulder button and the touch-screen to supposedly locate and lock onto enemies, it will seldom work in practice. Usually you’ll spend five minutes cleverly stalking prey from shadowy roof-tops like a pro, dropping down next to them with fluid expertise... and then start carving up EVERYTHING OTHER THAN YOUR TARGET in a retarded frenzy. Of course, the guard won’t notice anyway because he’s too busy concentrating on what’s directly in front of his face.
Considering these negative aspects you’ll be wondering why this review still got a decent score. It’s because there are moments where this game hits the spot. Shinobido 2 packs in a lot of ninja goodness into its antiquated frame. For starters, the grappling hook is beautifully implemented, allowing players to aim using the Vita’s rear touch-pad to latch onto high-up ledges and scale them with ease. Later on, Zen will also try his luck at gliding from roof-tops and be armed with smoke bombs, explosive traps, shurikens and distractions to lure enemies.
Although some of these distractions are a bit odd and include the likes of paper origami animals and home-made sushi. There’s nothing quite like watching a guard eat some raw fish you’ve chucked in the dirt before running him through with your samurai sword from behind. HA! That sushi wasn’t even fresh sucker!!
They sure are stupid, but at least the terrible AI does improve as the game gets harder. Later on you’ll be facing slightly-less brain dead guards who wear wolf masks and yell out terrifying ultimatums like “I will never give up my dream... of taking the world by force!!” Not exactly quote of the year. After a few hours you’ll encounter rival ninjas who can be a handful as they move like Zen and use similar traps and projectiles. Their difficulty is probably compounded by the fact that you’ll also be half-battling the camera angle just to see what’s going on.
The scope of the missions and the rival warlords also makes Shinobido 2 surprisingly lengthy, with dozens of possible play-throughs that affect the storyline and Zen’s final outcome. If you can stick with it, there is easily 10+ hours here, complete with hidden challenges and bonus items to unlock.
But ultimately Shinobido 2: Revenge of Zen feels like a PS2 game. It lacks that level of polish that the Vita deserves and the game blatantly recycles the same character models and maps over and over. The controls are bordering on useful, while the targeting system just feels broken. While the in-game graphics hold up with decent frame-rates and animations, there are clunky cut-scenes that are disjointed and seriously lacking in imagination. The saving grace is probably the game’s highly textured soundtrack and orchestral score.
After playing, I still felt that Shinobido 2 was worth the time I spent on it. But if I had to shell out money for the game at full price first, I probably would think differently. For Tenchu fans, it’s certainly worth a go, but long after you’ve had your fill with the other worthy Vita launch titles and when Shinobido 2 drops in price.