The ninja career path is only for the chosen few. Mercenaries for hire, using stealth and the edge of their blades to cut out their living — life is hard for these hidden warriors. Those with enough skill can even turn the tides of war, and in Shinobido 2: Revenge of Zen, each contract taken has a long-lasting impact; your blade holds not only political power, but also bloodlust for revenge.
After losing the rights to the Tenchu series — the first ninja stealth title to sneak its way into the third dimension — Acquire set out to bring the stealth action back with its Shinobido series. Sadly, the games never saw the light of day on North American shores and had only a limited release in Europe. Not to be defeated, they’ve set their sights on PlayStation Vita and slipped a new Shinobido title into the system’s launch line-up. Bringing decade old mechanics to a new cutting edge handheld might seem like a disaster in the making, but Shinobido 2 packs just enough tricks up its sleeve to find a niche.
Three warring daimyos (warlords) are facing off in a brutal civil war in the Japan-inspired region of Utakata. Two forces going head-to-head would only weaken each army and give the third daimyo the chance to easily come in and finish the two weakened rivals, so each daimyo hires mercenary ninjas to do their dirty work for them. Zen, the game’s protagonist, is just the ninja for hire, but he’s also hell-bent on avenging his partner who was brutally killed upon the journey's onset — and the three daimyos hold the keys to get him the revenge his blade lusts for so deeply.
Accepting contracts from the war-locked daimyos is as easy as choosing them from a list, but choose wisely, because each mission's successes has its consequences too. This is the real highlight of Shinobido 2, because you can choose to singlehandedly empower one daimyo, weakening the others' resources, or simply keep the three forces equal in strength. Befriending a daimyo does come with its rewards though, as they’ll send you letters of praise and powerful items to use along the way.
There're an unlimited amount of these optional missions to play to affect the daimyo forces and gain experience towards levelling Zen’s skills, but they are also cleverly crafted into the main campaign missions to forward the story along seamlessly. While some will breeze through the game in seven to ten hours, those wanting to make a massive impact to the daimyos’ forces and strengthen Zen into the ultimate mercenary ninja he’s destined to be can expect to easily double this playtime.
Mission contracts offer a wide variety of tasks to complete: assassination, obliteration (kill all enemies), kidnap, escort and transport. The majority of the contracts are assassination and obliteration, which is a good thing because that’s where the game plays the best. A decade-old artificial intelligence system has enemies mindlessly wandering around on pre-set trajectories; stealthily slipping up behind them in the maps for blood-spewing kills is nothing new, but it’s nevertheless still fun. While the graphics are dated, the bright colours used to bring the trees and Japanese buildings' decor to life in the maps contrast wonderfully with the dark alleyways and corners used for sneaking.
The ambient sounds and soft orchestral tracks really help set the mood perfectly. When the orchestra throws the excitement into high gear when an enemy is alerted to Zen’s presence, though, things fall apart; fighting enemies is never an option here, because an inaccurate hack-and-slash fighting style is used and the enemies constantly block by default. Further into the game the enemies' awareness and strengths are significantly increased; being spotted is a sure-fire way to find the retry screen, so stealth is paramount to mission completion here. Sadly, the intense boss battles are severely marred by this dated fighting system and result in frustrating battles where you’ll repetitiously rush in for a few quick attacks and then run away to heal yourself back to fighting strength.
Other mission types, such as escort, occasionally have to be played to progress the storyline. Here Shinobido 2 truly stumbles: enemies attack each other, allies attack the escort, the lock-on detection is poor; the list goes on. Thankfully, the majority of these missions are optional; they should be avoided at all costs when possible. It’s a shame when things go bad here, because when Shinobido does something well, it does it really well.
What’s a ninja without his toys? Zen comes equipped with a grab bag of basic ninja toys — shurikens, smoke bombs, etc. — but there’s a deep alchemy system that allows you to craft extremely powerful items. Mushrooms, weeds and geckos are scattered throughout the maps, and these can be combined together in between missions via alchemy jars. This intuitive system has you forging explosive landmines, poisoned sushi and edible weeds with multiple status enhancements in no time. The rarest of items can only be swapped with others by using Near but, like 3DS’ StreetPass, this is limited to local swaps only, making the option pretty much useless.
Zen also gains a few powerful abilities along the way: a grapple hook that can be cleverly aimed with Vita’s back touch pad; Zankoku, a quick time long distance ability that allows Zen to jump in and swiftly kill an enemy before returning to his previous position; the squirrel-like Fukurou suit lets you glide through the multi-tiered levels. Then there's a timing-based counterattack that instantly kills weakened enemies, which helps when combat is unavoidable, and Chimatsuri Sappo gives Zen the ability to slice enemies down instantly with a simple button press when they are approached undetected.
Slipping through the maps feel great and the responsive controls ensure that the blood of the daimyos’ forces will run deeply into Utakata’s soil. Gliding down from a cliff-top into a Chimatsuri Sappo, leaving your unsuspecting foe grasping his neck to stop the spewing blood from leaving his body, is not only gruesome but fun. There’s a real feeling that you’re a mercenary ninja with deadly arsenal of skills at your disposal. That’s exactly what we wanted from Shinobido 2, and Acquire delivers. It’s just a shame that when the game’s caught outside of the shadows, it trips and stumbles so badly.
Shinobido 2: Revenge of Zen stealthily slips its unique action into the starting line of Vita’s launch titles. As the most powerful gaming handheld yet seen, low budget titles don’t fully do Vita justice, though, and Shinobido 2 is no different. However, Shinobido 2 does enough that, when we look back to Vita’s launch years from now, there's a chance that Zen will continue to be enjoyed in his niche, stuffed deep inside the pockets and hearts of select gamers.