Shinobido 2: Revenge of Zen
Namco Bandai Games
February 22nd, 2012
Acquire brings us Shinobido 2: Revenge of Zen, a sequel to Shinobido: Way of the Ninja for PlayStation 2 and Shinobido: Tales of the Ninja for PSP. As a sequel one would expect previous fans of the series to be thrilled for another entry by Tenchu developer Acquire. Oddly enough Shinobido 2 is actually the first in the series to be released in the US.
Shinobido 2: Revenge of Zen is a story about... revenge. Unfortunately to me that’s really the only clear part. Zen the Spider-lily bears witness to the murder of a kunoichi named San by a man named Shu the Cypress. Before he can avenge her, Shu sets fire to the village and Zen passes out. He awakens under the care of another ninja in the abandoned village of Asuka. This ninja nurses him back to health and helps rehabilitate Zen to his former ninja glory and promises to help Zen in his quest for revenge. As Zen searches for clues to Shu's whereabouts and plans, Zen must also navigate a tumultuous political climate. Zen can choose to lend his support to one of three Daimyos vying for power over the Utakata region and build up his skill in preparation for his final battle.
Where as the plot itself seems easy enough to understand, everything else is not. Being the first Shinobido game to appear stateside I expected the previous games to contain information on Zen, San, Shu, and other central characters. For everything I gather they do not, making the characters in the game some if the most cliché and underdeveloped I have ever encountered in a video game.
On the whole the graphics in Shinobido 2: Revenge of Zen are pretty good. The Vita's OLED screen displays quite a bit of detail and the scenery takes advantage of most of this new technical power. Though textures may not be very diverse (most buildings, roofs, grass etc looks the same no matter what area you're in) they are decent. Not to mention the game's areas are impressively large in scale. The problem is the area's repetition. There are about eight different areas that are used over and over in the games many different missions. While from a gameplay standpoint this became helpful, graphically it became very repetitive, making the world of Shinobido 2 seem small as a result.
Another negative focal point with Revenge of Zen lies with the character animations themselves. Most characters, actually all characters, are rendered very well with a good amount of detail. This goes double for the main cast. Unfortunately when it comes to their actions and movements the problem comes to light. Some, like Daimyo Kazama, have jaws that move at an angle when they speak in cutscenes. In addition, during missions the wacky ragdoll physics undermine the serious tone of the game. One immediately thinks of games like Fallout 3 and how hilariously dead bodies will fly and sprawl out when hit hard enough. Normally it would not be a complaint of mine, but as I said before, it seems to break the mood of the game whenever this happens. Even when not dying the character animations just don't look lifelike at all. More like wind up dolls in ninja costumes.
The music in Shinobido 2 often incorporates traditional sounding Far East instruments and does help the mood. You feel like you are in some Kurosawa film which is actually rather exciting. That is, until you hear the sound effects. The sound effects are probably the worst thing about this game. Most sword clashes, stabbing voices, and running on thatched roofs sound echoey and flat. Think of the cheesiest of Kung Fu movies and that's probably the most accurate descriptor I can find.
Not to be outdone the voice acting can be equally campy. Thankfully the main cast does a decent job of voicing their characters, but the normal ninjas, guards, and samurai all sound so horribly unconvincing. As a whole they do not detract from the experience as much as the sound effects do, but certainly don't do anything to redeem the experience any.
Shinobido 2 at first plays like many other ninja games we've seen so far, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. The game is based entirely around carrying out various missions that are selected from the main menu. The game has two main points that progress the story. The first is the "main story" where you track down Shu the Cypress and gather Tenma mirrors. The second, which I found infinitely more fascinating, is the power struggle between the three Daimyo. As the land of Utakata falls into chaos, three Daimyo, Ichijo, Kihan, and Kazama all fight to control the region. The most interesting part is that none of the Daimyo are really bad, just approach rule differently. Ichijo is a peaceful ruler, Kazama favors military might, and Kihan is a religious leader. Each Daimyo and the citizens they represent, all have three stats that represent their power, military force, provisions, and reputation. Completing missions for any Daimyo will possibly increase one of their stats, decrease an opposing Daimyo's or both. Missions themselves have plenty of different types to keep things interesting too. At the end of the game you have Obliteration, Transport, Assassination, Collection, Robbery, Thievery (different from robbery), Reconnaissance, Rescue, Kidnapping, Guard, Escort, Assault, and Duel. You only start off with a few of these, but as your standing with a Daimyo increases you will see the rest begin to pop up. Completed missions can be will be assigned a letter grade based on the speed of completion, how many enemies were killed (with extra points for those killed in stealth), how many times you were seen, and of course fulfillment of the goal. There are also secondary or "special" conditions on some missions that can award even more rewards. These vary from mission to mission but are well worth it. Successfully completing missions for a single Daimyo will also build up your favor with them. Average very high ratings on missions or build up your favor, and you will find yourself trusted with very rewarding missions. There is nothing that forces you to stick with one Daimyo though, and you can even accept missions from your rivals to subvert them by stealing an item they wanted you to retrieve, or assassinating a VIP you were hired to defend. All these factors left me feeling very impressed by the mission system in this game since you can literally approach an 'end' in this game by any 'means' that strikes your fancy. If nothing else, the missions are a shining example of the kind of fun you can have in a game that allows you to play your way.
That's the good news. The bad news is Shinobido 2 is plagued by some annoying bugs and glitches that bring the experience down. Thankfully none of them are game breaking, but much like the problems in the graphics category, they bring the game down. The first I encountered is the difficulty moving. Running is not a problem at all, but trying to turn while walking is surprisingly difficult. To simply face another direction requires you to crouch, then tilt the left stick. I also noticed my character would not grab ledges on occasion. I got around this by using the grapple hook exclusively for jumping and climbing, which can be a hassle as you occasionally overshoot narrow roofs. Land mines also seem to confound the AI in a way that does not seem like it was meant to. Sometimes by placing a land mine in front of an enemy would cause it to stay frozen in place. I could even walk around and assassinate them because they would not even turn when this occurred. The last problem I encountered was in using the ninja's flying suit. Many times there would be a considerable delay in unfurling the suit, while other times there would not. These inconsistencies in gameplay do not kill the fun, but they certainly don't allow it to shine to its full potential.
Acquire found many ways to do right by Shinobido 2 in terms of lasting appeal. First off the game's politicking creates several different endings based on which Daimyo you choose to support, each with its own trophy. I found myself doing far more missions than I had to, just to support my Daimyo and eliminate the competition. To keep the fun going you can always bounce between lords, but ultimately you will have to choose one. Thankfully, even by supporting only one you never run out of missions, though they may repeat after awhile. Also, though not a huge factor in the game, you are occasionally presented with the choice between two outcomes in the story mode. Trophies are tied to these choices too, so perfectionists are required to play the game as little as four times to net themselves that coveted platinum trophy. This is mostly due to the fact the game's four difficulty based trophies do not stack, meaning if you beat the game on hard your first time, you will not also unlock the medium and easy difficulty trophies as well.
After a certain part in the main game, due to your choices you even get a second character to use in Shinobido 2. This characters levels separately but once the game is completed you carry over all your character abilities, items, and levels. There is even a trophy for using this second character and you can even go so far as to unlock skins for both characters upon completing the game. It should be noted that there is no difference in the way the second characters plays but you are simply given the chance to focus on different stats without messing with Zen.
Being on the Vita Near functions are always a hot topic with any game. Thankfully Shinobido 2 does not disappoint here. Even from the beginning a "network jar" is available for players to toss items into. After uploading this data to Near you can periodically check back. When you do find an item via Near, if it is the same or similar to your item it can multiply the number of items you put in. Even if the item does not match, you can still receive more than you put in, if you're lucky. I was pleased to see this was a very good use for Near in the course of actual game, being enticing enough to participate in, but not crucial enough to be an integral part of the main game.
The problem most people will have with Shinobido 2: The Revenge of Zen is that it is not new. With other games like Tenchu, Shinobi, Ninja Gaiden, and at times even Metal Gear Solid there are few original ideas in Revenge of Zen. In fact, the only one seems to be the surprising complexity of the mission system. Letting the weight of incredible titles weigh Shinobido 2 down would be wholly unfair however, because as a reviewer we are supposed to remain objective, comparing a game only to itself in most cases. In that case, Shinobido 2 is still not an amazing game but it isn’t a bad one either. It has enough mission types and choices to keep things fresh during the majority of the playthrough, and only the possibility of story confusion, and some fairly wonky controls and physics hold the game back from shining to its potential. More than anything however is the game can be quite fun for those people who enjoy stealth-action games. The game's political war based side missions are surprisingly well planned and rewarding to complete. Becoming invested in the game's main story and characters was hard for me, but if you are some kind of Shinobido super fan and know what the heck is going on you may be more apt to pick this title up. For the rest of us there is still plenty of fun to be had, but some of the larger problems may be enough to keep players away.