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The PlayStation Vita may have the most ninja-centric launch of all time. Where other new systems are content to offer one or even zero ninja-themed games out the gate, the Vita has two. Of those two, this is the one that most people have probably never heard of before.
Where Ninja Gaiden Sigma Plus offers a tough-as-nails action experience, Shinobido 2: Revenge of Zen presents a more “realistic” take on ninjutsu. There’s plenty of swordplay, sure, but the greater emphasis is on sneaking, backstabbing, setting traps, ziplining onto roofs and using tools to misdirect and otherwise destroy your enemies. It’s a bit like the Tenchu series, which isn't that surprising, as it's by Tenchu’s original developer, Acquire.
Where NGSP is a port of a nearly eight-year-old game, however, Shinobido 2 just kind of feels like one. The visuals and level design look like crisper, smoother versions of what you’d find in a PSP game, with sparse detail and a handful of small maps that you’ll revisit repeatedly over the course of the game’s dozens of short, generic missions. Navigating menus and grinding through repetitive scenarios to level up are key parts of gameplay, the voice-acting is hokey and the characters look just a little too blocky on a handheld that also just gave us a new Uncharted.
If you can forgive (or embrace) its more dated aspects, though, Shinobido 2 does have some interesting things to offer. Focusing on a war-torn feudal Japanese province, Shinobido 2 (sequel to a game that was ported to Europe, but not North America) follows a young ninja named Zen, who’s out for revenge after an old friend murders Zen’s love interest. Payback comes slowly, though, because your real task will be taking on missions for three feuding local lords, which not only earns you money or experience, but also lets you slowly tip the balance of power toward whichever lord you like serving best.
These missions are picked from a “hub” menu screen (through which you can also buy and create items or check for “arrow messages”, and nearly all of them are variations on simple themes: assassinate or protect a VIP, steal or guard an important item, scout an area or just kill everyone you see. They’re simplistic, short and tend to get repetitive. Luckily, you’re not short on ways to make them interesting.
The action seems fairly basic at first, with hacky-slashy fighting (usually a bad idea, as enemies tend to be either tougher than you or able to overwhelm you with superior numbers) and easy stealth that involves timing guards' movements and backstabbing them when they’re not looking. And while that’s enjoyable enough, there’s actually quite a bit more that Zen can do.
As you progress through the game, for example, you’ll learn a skill that lets you target multiple enemies from a distance and, through a brief quick time event, slaughter them without anyone noticing and return to your original position. You’ll also get a squirrel suit that lets you glide down from high places quickly and easily, as well as a wealth of tools that range from bombs and poisons to remote-controlled clockwork toys that can lure enemies away from safe positions. And eventually, you’ll unlock a second character, the female ninja Kaede, although given that she starts out weaker than Zen and has to be leveled up separately, you may end up ignoring her unless you’re seriously invested in the game.
You’ll also have access to a zipline grappling hook, which can either be targeted precisely using the back touchpad (the only use of either of the Vita’s touch-surfaces), or just busted out mid-jump to yank you onto whichever rooftop or high platform you happen to be facing. This isn’t always useful, since most ledges that can be reached by zipline can also be climbed up to by jumping at walls, but that doesn’t keep it from being a fun addition.
As potentially deep as it is, though, Shinobido 2 still feels weirdly antiquated next to the rest of the Vita’s launch lineup – and while we didn’t opt for much grinding, it only took us around seven hours to play it from start to finish. There's some incentive to play through multiple times, as the plot and missions vary somewhat depending on which of the three lords you help the most, and which of several key moral choices you make (get revenge or save the hostage, etc.), although the differences aren't that drastic. Serious (and patient) ninja fans will still find a lot to like, but in a launch lineup as strong as the Vita’s, there are other games that deserve your attention more.