One of the most overlooked titles of Vita’s launch library still stands up as an enjoyable stealth-action romp with a great open design, but has a few issues with repetitive objectives and locations.
World-building & Story
Shinobido 2 takes place in Utakata, a fictional Japanese province in which multiple different Daimyo (factions) fight for control of the land. The game will take you through different areas including dense forests, ancient villages and barren cliff-faces, though many of these will be recycled throughout your playthrough. The setting is easily one of the best parts of the game, providing you with a compelling back-drop to conduct your stealthy missions.
The province has three different factions – Amurita; Ichijo and Kazama – during the game you can choose to side with any one of them, or do missions for a combination of different factions. As you take on missions you’ll strengthen whichever Daimyo you side with while simultaneously weakening opposing Daimyo as you’ll sabotage their supply chains or assassinate their key people. This is what keeps things interesting – the war in Utakata is constantly shifting and you can see your progress throughout depending on who you choose to side with.
Shinobido 2 does feature a ‘main’ storyline focusing on Zen, a ninja and Kaede, a reflection of his murdered lover (both of whom are playable in the game), but it’s barebones and doesn’t give you a whole lot of incentive to keep going forward (as you can guess from the title of the game – it’s a revenge plot). None of the characters were particularly likeable and none of them are given any large amount of character development. The story is there and it gets the job done, but I didn’t remember much about it once the credits rolled.
One note I would make, though, is that the game has multiple endings based on choices you make throughout the story. While these choices are linear (i.e. either save your friend or chase down another mirror), it provides a nice bit of variety and incentive to return.
Presentation & Sound
As a Vita launch title, Shinobido 2 is definitely not a visually stunning game. The majority of your time will be spent in missions and the graphics here are PS2-era at best – characters barely move their mouths while talking; textures aren’t the best and things like trees look weird when you get up close to them.
With that said, the game has a very ‘clean’ look – there are few jagged edges across models or environments and it definitely feels like there was an amount of effort put into the presentation – to be honest, the graphics don’t need to be a whole lot better than they are for a title like this.
Character models in particular are well done – Zen and Kaede each have a different set of running; gliding and attack animations which all animate well, even if there is a little bit of jank for certain parts. It’s worth noting that cutscenes also take place using in-game models which is a nice thing to see in a game like this which clearly has a fairly low budget.
Environments fare less well – there’s some variety in there but largely it’s the same kinds of things you’ll be seeing time and time again and none of the designs are massively interesting – though I can’t deny I did get some enjoyment from gliding through a little Japanese village to find my target.
In terms of sounds – the soundtrack is almost non-existent and during missions you will hear little aside from your own footsteps – which is clearly by design, since this is a stealth title where you need to be aware of your surroundings at all times. Voice acting is similarly low-key, although an English dub is provided and characters are fully voiced during cutscenes – outside of this you’ll only hear the odd yell from a guard as they see you coming.
Sound effects are probably the best part of the package – you get a satisfyingly bloody slash when you assassinate a foe; objects in the environments will make noise which will alert guards if you accidentally catch them etc. There’s even an auditory cue to show when you’re about to get a one-shot kill on an enemy which I found was a very nice touch.
Gameplay & Content
Shinobido 2 provides two major gameplay elements – missions and alchemy. The alchemy is a smaller part and is exactly what you’d expect from the name (especially if you’ve ever played an Atelier game) – you combine materials to make potions or other equipment for your missions. There’s a decent amount of depth to this in that you’ll need to find the ingredients during your missions and then you can experiment with mixing them together, but it wasn’t a part of the game that really grabbed me in any major way.
So on to the in-mission gameplay, which is easily the best part of the title. Like many stealth-action games, everything is played from a third-person perspective which means you’ll keep a close eye on where your player character is at all times. You can freely run or sneak around the maps – depending on how much you press the analogue stick. Your character can stick to walls with the push of a button and will peek around them when reaching the end; they can grab onto ledges and use it to shimmy beneath an enemy or you can use a grappling hook to run across the rooftops above enemies. There’s no Solid Snake-esque crawling, but there’s plenty of ways to get around.
Later in the game you will unlock ‘Fukuro’, a gliding/flying suit, which adds even more ways to traverse the map and is a feature I had incredible amounts of fun with. It truly changes the way you play – instead of having to plan a route around enemies, quite often you can glide to previously unreachable platforms and use that to reach your objective in much less time – or you can use it to take down your enemies from above.
Combat is fairly simple – you can either sneak up behind your enemies and take them out in one shot with an assassination kill or you can engage in combat with them which involves either defending then attacking with your blade. The hand-to-hand combat is by far the poorer of the two here – your character is weak and easily dispatched if not defending properly, while many enemies have inflated health pools and will often call for backup. In a sense though, it’s an intelligent decision designed to try and keep you playing stealthily, otherwise the odds remained stacked against you.
Of course, some enemies are designed in a way that they can’t be taken down with a single blow – in which case you’ll have to carefully weigh up your options about whether you should try and sneak past them altogether or engage in a fight, which increases variety offered. You do gain a one-hit-kill distance move at one point, but you’ll have to invest some serious points in the game’s skill tree to gain any use from this, making it seem like a novelty rather than a vital part of the game.
Mission design is strong – again, while repetitive, there’s a variety of different contracts to take – ranging from assassinating certain targets; rescuing kidnapped villagers; destroying supply chains or killing all the enemies on a map. Inevitably you’ll grow to like some rather than others, but there’s nearly always a decent choice of objectives.
The maps themselves are also a great part of the game – while you will get sick of running the same places over and over, the actual designs are incredibly solid. Each map is its own mini ‘open-world’ meaning you can usually go anywhere from the start of the mission to decide on the best course of action. Everything is designed vertically as well as horizontally, giving you a lot of different options for how to approach your foes.
Sadly content is an area that the game lacks in – an average playthrough will take around 6-7 hours and that’s including the padding in taking side missions. You’ll be encouraged to replay for different endings, but there’s little to do beyond this.
Just a quick note on Shinobido 2‘s only DLC pack – ‘Mirror Spirits’. This will provide a few brief new missions with a new enemy, however I really didn’t think it was worth the price of admission. The new enemies cannot be killed by stealth – meaning you’ll inevitably get caught in a sword-fight which as previously mentioned is the least impressive part of the combat package. If you’re dying for more from the game you may want to consider it, but otherwise I would steer clear.
As a launch title I feel like Shinobido 2 got lost in the shuffle among more immediately impressive launch titles, but underneath the average presentation and repetitive content lies a game which is just lots of fun to play, making it easy to recommend if you’re looking for a character-action title on the Vita.