Version tested: PlayStation Vita
There was a time when 'ninja games' referred to an indomitable force of shuriken chucking momentum that was less about hiding silently in the shadows while waiting for an opportune moment to strike, and more with slicing through monstrous demons and T-800-style car wreckers.
But with the release of Acquire's stealth-based Tenchu: Stealth Assassins way back in 1998, the greatest backstabbers in history were portrayed in a darker light that was more befitting of their ethereal reputation.
Tenchu holds the distinction of being the first 3D stealth game, with a feudal Japan setting that beat both Snake and Garrett to the blackjacking punch by a matter of months. Although in more recent years the pioneering sneak 'em up has fallen from grace, that hasn't stopped Acquire from supplying ninjutsu fans with a slew of shuriken shovelling sequels - including the Shinobido conceptual spinoff series. Shinobido 2: Revenge of Zen is the third Shinobido and while it doesn't push the Vita too hard, it does offer an engaging slice of old-school shadow-dancing action.
Following on from Shinobido: Tales of the Ninja - a largely ignored PSP sequel that saw a limited release in Europe while skipping the US altogether - Shinobido 2 stars Zen, a ninja of the Asuka village who is betrayed by his former clansmen and forced to watch as San, his female ninja buddy, is burned alive by the main antagonist, Shu. As you'd expect, Zen isn't too pleased about this two-finger salute, and so after joining Zaji the Black Hawk - a master ninja who appeared in the previous games - he starts working on the titular revenge.
But rather than catching the next rickshaw to a takeout point with katana in hand and a satchel full of smoke bombs, Zen follows in the footsteps of Goh the Crow by accepting missions from three competing warlords. These are Ichijo; a level-headed strategist with an honourable ethic, Kihan; the female leader of fanatical religious sect and Kazama; a warmongering tyrant who won't accept anything less than world domination. All three have Military Force and Provisions ratings that are affected by your actions, and by siding with one more than the other two, you can gain their trust while searching for Shu.
The espionage ranges from standard Assassinations and Obliterations where you have to dispatch a single target or a whole force, to Assault and Escort missions where you have to destroy or defend an oxcart. The missions also cycle between a handful of condensed maps that take in everything from quiet towns to small forests populated by angry bears.
The enemy AI is perhaps best described as 'classically competent', with a reliance on patrolling scripted routes, and we encountered a couple of instances where the challenge fell apart. Daunting tasks can be shrugged off due to gaping holes in the level design, undermining some of the game's better mechanics.
Exploitable loopholes are the exception rather than the rule, but it's fair to say that Shinobido 2 is a little rough around the edges. Thankfully, the controls are tight and responsive with a blend of somersaulting jumps, simple combos and onscreen awareness icons that show your proximity to nearby opponents. These icons can be touched to achieve a lock-on, and thanks to the extra precision afforded by the second analogue stick, adjusting the camera to get a better view of your target is never an issue.
The familiar grappling hook also makes a welcome return, only this time you can aim your shot with the rear touchpad. I personally found this a little awkward as I kept triggering the touchpad by accident, but mercifully, there's an option to revert to a button-based method. Your Stamina, Offence, Defence, grappling hook Range and Zankoku can also be improved at the level-up screen, with the latter being a new shadow skill that lets you stealth kill an enemy with a long-range QTE teleport.
Other techniques are unlocked as you work your way through the missions and include the Fukurou flying-squirrel suit that lets you glide between vantage points on the more vertical maps, as well as the Mikiri instant-kill counter that makes fighting rival ninja - including the armoured Taraba, nimble Kenobi and all-female Mosu clans - far easier. A wide variety of ninja tools like throwing stars and poisoned sushi can also be purchased in preparation for more tactical missions, although on the standard difficulty, you rarely seem to need them.
Those who want to get creative, however, will find the Alchemy lab has returned with a wide selection of mushrooms, plants and geckos that can be brewed together for a variety of effects - ranging from grenades that cause enemies to attack their allies, to elixirs that increase Zen's movement speed. There's even a new Network Jar that lets you use the Vita's Near application (which is similar to StreetPass on the 3DS) to increase your item reserves when passing other Vita owners. It's a gimmick, but it's one that's unobtrusive and ever so slightly useful.
As a launch title - and one that's up against Ninja Gaiden Sigma Plus for the honour of best dressed ninja - Shinobido 2 is an honest stealth-action game that sticks rigidly to the ninja code set by its predecessors, but in a way that offers well over 10 hours of sabotage missions, assassination attempts and general sneaking. It's only shortcomings are its dated design, repetitive nature and visuals that could pass for a re-mastered PS2 game, but if you're looking for a hardcore experience with solid shinobi substance, this ranks as a viable christening for your shiny new Vita.
7 / 10