The way of the ninja?
As a reviewer often the hardest reviews to write are those for average games. It’s easy to critisise flaws and equally as easy to sing praises, but sometimes a game comes along that makes you groan as it’s ok, middle of the road, average, so-so. You get the point. Shinobido 2: Revenge of Zen is one such title that manages to scrape by as a reasonable time waster without ever being much more than that. If you’re new to the series (like me) you don’t have to worry about catching up as despite the game being set six months after the original, the story portrays a civil war that you have key influence over and doesn’t continue immediately where the previous title finished. If you enjoyed the Tenchu series then you can look at this as a sort of spiritual successor but the problem is things haven’t moved on much and so as a result gameplay can feel quite dated.
Upon starting the game you are treated to a tutorial that tells you the basics and as you progress throughout the story you gain more abilities. Being a stealth game, obviously killing undetected is the aim of the game and Shinobido 2 does this fairly well. The right shoulder button allows you to enter stealth mode and the left allows you to lock onto the nearest target. As you approach an enemy undetected you are given a visual and audio cue when near enough and pressing triangle allows you to activate a stealth kill. It pays to get creative as apart from the standard behind/to the side stealth kill, you are also able to grab enemies by the ankles to pull them off cliffs, jump from above to slam their heads into the ground and even stab them through doorways. In this respect the game can actually get quite exciting as you creep about peeking round corners or walking across roofs to trample the unsuspecting foe. The problem is on easy or medium difficulty it’s ridiculously easy to stealth kill foes to the point where creeping isn’t even needed. Things do get harder as the game story progresses but I quickly found I could sprint holding circle to run up behind enemies and they wouldn’t even notice me. I could also run across roofs with the tiles making a complete racket and enemies would just sway their view from left to right, despite the fact that there was no other sound to break the silence. I also found that I could creep almost completely to the front of enemies and they wouldn’t notice me despite being mere feet away from them in their peripheral. Granted enemies do get more astute as things continue and on harder difficulties you have to be a lot more careful, but being able to blitz through much of the game on normal difficulty while rarely having to rely on actual stealth means that for a while the game felt like a complete mess.
To further annoyance is the extra devices at your disposal. The grappling hook is actually quite useful and allows you to aim at enemies to pull them off their posts. You can also use it to reach much higher platforms and while this works well in the main I’m baffled at the fact you cannot easily use the grappling hook to grab a ledge. Instead you do a front flip almost every time landing with a thud on the higher up platform, which will alert enemies to your presence. You can use the rear touch pad to attempt to aim but more often than not you are catapulted onto the surface rather than grabbing the surface to remain undetected. This is annoying as the grappling hook is actually tremendous fun, but using it near enemies above is often frustrating. You can also use down on the d-pad to quickly use the grappling hook and this works somewhat better when attempting to escape the enemy as you can quickly evade the less agile opponents. You also have various tools available to purchase such as your standard Shuriken as well as Caltrops which can be dropped and spike enemies when walked over and lures which can give you perks. The problem is I rarely felt the need to use them at all. It’s neat to have the option but the only point that they felt necessary was during boss fights to stun the enemy and even then their implementation felt rather clunky. On that subject boss battles are terrible. I do not know why they included these as your melee skills are rather pathetic and so you mash the square button then block and repeat over and over in a sort of absurd button mashing ping pong. Granted, you are a ninja and the aim is to remain unseen but it baffles me that they tried to implement these battles without giving seemingly any consideration to your skills outside of stealth. Even worse is the fact that you begin the game with piss-poor attack and defense and don’t realise you need to upgrade these until you first meet a boss and realise that they can kill you in three to four hits but your samurai sword takes about fifteen hits to kill them. I don’t know about you but I think if someone slashed me with a samurai sword three or four times I’d be dead. Not exactly realistic.
The two skills that you will end up using (aside from the grappling hook) are Fukurou which allows you to glide from higher points and is reminiscent of Batman’s cape and Zankoku which is a focused attack that you can activate that allows you to instantly kill enemies that are further away. This works via a quick time event and can be upgraded as you progress to allow to you kill stronger and more distant enemies. Another neat little trick is the enemy indicator that appears on the right hand side of the screen. The icon tells you what state the enemy is in and whether they are alerted to your presence. It also visibly shows stronger foes and touching the icon immediately points the camera in the direction of your foe. This is a valuable tool which becomes essential in later stages and is well implemented, despite sometimes trapping the camera behind scenery.
These tools help to make things more enjoyable and soften some of the flaws so that occasionally things come together and you actually have fun. Completing a mission without being detected feels rewarding, especially on higher difficulties and mixing up your stealth kills can actually feel quite cool. Unfortunately if the enemy is on a slope sometimes the game struggles to register that you are near enough for a stealth kill but it ends up not mattering that much. Many of the missions take place in the same locations and while they’re not exactly huge, enemies seem to often be placed in ways that just beg for inventive kills. Despite the generic patterns and behaviour they display (sometimes you’d swear that they have complete blindness) it can be fun approaching levels in different ways. The mission based structure is fairly open ended and each mission has a brief narrative that essentially has you working for one of three main factions. Who you choose to side with is up to you but it is more sensible to pair with one particular faction as each mission you complete gradually destroys the opposing forces. To their credit Acquire have put together a fairly varied set of missions to try and mix up the standard kill everyone missions. Some missions have you gathering a particular resource that are scattered throughout levels, others have you finding and killing a heavily protected character of importance and others have you transporting goods or kidnapping enemies. Missions have difficulty ratings and pay out cash too, and as far as I can tell certain missions push the story forward so should you choose to do some grinding for extra money and experience you are able to repeat less important missions.
Another aspect of Shinobido 2 is the alchemy system. What this boils down to (no pun intended) is gathering materials in missions, sticking them in a pot via the menu system and blending them together for different effects. Again this is a feature that isn’t really needed on easier missions but as things get harder developing bombs that put the enemy to sleep become more important as significant figures are well protected. The open ended mission structure also allows you to progress the story in the way you choose and multiple endings are on offer. Whether you will have the patience to stick around however remains to be seen. The graphical engine in play here is actually fairly good and the framerate is consistent throughout, with textures being fairly detailed but where the game falls back is on the polygon count which is painfully low and makes the environment and characters angular to the point where you could sometimes be forgiven for thinking you were looking at a PS2 title. Lip synching is also none existent (a huge bug bear for me) and the characters mouths move like they are chewing beef rather than speaking the narrative. Voice acting on the other hand isn’t too bad and so the story while not massively deep is engaging enough to keep you playing. You are sent letters with updates and tips that sometimes reward you with gifts and while these try to engage you into the story further it means there’s a fair bit of reading which ultimately became a bore instead of being enjoyable. Background music is also fairly good and sets the tone well, but enemy screams and sentences repeat too often giving them a generic feel; you often feel like you’re facing the same foe over and over again as they also look identical much of the time.
The bottom line is this: if you still love old school ninja titles and enjoyed Tenchu, you will enjoy this. There isn’t any competition on the Vita as Ninja Gaiden Sigma Plus is all about action whereas Shinobido 2 is much more about planning, stealth and being inventive. There are flaws all over the place but the core gameplay and story remains engaging enough to make things passable, for most of the time at least. Acquire have tried to make things as varied as possible but ultimately things can become repetitive as locations are repeated too often and there are only so many times you can stab someone in the back and enjoy it (though Big Brother contestants would beg to differ). With multiple endings and multiple difficulties (with non-stackable trophies) there’s a lot of content on offer here but unless you’re a pretty hardcore fan of this genre you’re probably going to focus on the flaws instead of the merits. You can pick it up for half the price it was released at originally now but even so eventually I just got bored and so it’s difficult to recommend Shinobido 2 to anyone other than stealth disciples.