Japanese game developer Acquire has always done one thing really, really well: ninja games. The company’s Tenchu series should need no introduction for fans of the legendary silent assassins. Shinobido isn’t as well known, but the studio’s two games for PlayStation 2 and PlayStation Portable, respectively, took the groundwork laid in the Tenchu games and expanded on it in some welcome ways. Now, the Namco Bandai-published Shinobido 2: Revenge of Zen arrives as one of the PlayStation Vita launch titles, bringing stealthy ninja action to the portable twin-stick platform.
Revenge of Zen is a proper sequel to 2006′s Shinobido: Tales of the Ninja for PSP. The story unfolds using a mix of CG cinematics, cutscenes using the in-game engine, and still images with on-screen text. The region of Utakata is held in the grip of a nasty civil war, a conflict that plays out in the background as the titular ninja Zen sets out on a mission of vengeance. After all, what is a ninja without some good, old-fashioned bloody revenge?
The entirety of the game spills out from a hub menu where players are able to read messages, buy/sell tools at the local shop, equip items for coming missions, check stats and accept missions from a list. The actual tasks you can take on vary pretty widely, from assassinations (kill one target) and obliterations (kill everything), to more mundane tasks like package delivery (carry a box from point A to point B without breaking it) and item collection (wander around a map collecting items).
Each mission you accept is tied to a particular Daimyo, one of three warring factions. The more you side with a particular leader and complete their missions, the greater that leader’s influence becomes. You’ll also earn letter grade rankings across multiple categories with each successful mission; the better you do, the more experience you earn. This, in turn, unlocks points which can be spent on improving stats like stamina, offense/defense, grapple line length, and the size of your Zankoku meter.
Zankoku is a special attack that lets you finish off any visible enemy, no matter how great a distance lies between you. It’s a silent insta-kill, and you have the option (with a button press) of either automatically transporting back to your starting point or returning to the site of the murder. The more your meter can fill up, the greater the enemy threats you’ll be able to use Zankoku on.
All of this is fine enough, though Revenge of Zen doesn’t quite strike swiftly enough to be a real threat to your wallet as the Vita launches. The graphics are extremely sub-standard compared to some of the higher-profile launch titles, even download-only releases like Super Stardust Delta and Escape Plan. The quality of the textures might remind you of a PSP game, though the image shown on the OLED screen is definitely sharper than anything you’ll see when playing a PSP title on your Vita.
The enemy AI is also ludicrously dim-witted… most of the time. The challenge gets tougher later on in the game, but standard-fare street-walking guards stick to set patterns and offer easy targets for you to kill with ninja-like grace. Assassination targets offer more of a challenge, especially since Zen is pretty weak when it comes to actual combat.
Slashing out blindly with a sword combo often accomplishes very little, since the game does nothing to help keep Zen’s strikes on target. You can hold down the left trigger to both block and lock his focus onto the closest enemy, but that severely cuts down on Zen’s movement speed. Enemies, even street patrol guards, are also absurdly hardy. It may not be challenging to trade blows with them, but they take awhile to kill once they’ve been alerted. The message is pretty clear: stick to the shadows and confine yourself to stealth kills whenever possible, or risk failure.
The game also fails to put the Vita’s unique hardware features to any real use. There’s just one notable touch option, allowing you to use the rear touchpad to aim your grappling hook instead of an analog stick. This does not work very well at all and may even result in a painful hand cramp if you’re not careful. Fortunately, there’s no requirement that you use this feature and the game offers the option of turning it off.
That’s Shinobido 2. It’s not must-own material for the PlayStation Vita, but it definitely fills a niche for a type of game that we just don’t see often enough anymore. There are some technical shortcomings and a disappointing use of the Vita’s unique features overall, but the game itself delivers what it’s supposed to. It’s not always perfect, but it’s great fun if you like to play ninja.
Score: 7.5 out of 10
(This game was reviewed on the PlayStation Vita on a copy provided by Namco Bandai)