There was a time when I would have thought Shinobido 2: Revenge of Zen was the greatest game ever made -- a very specific time, as a matter of fact. The year was 1998, back when Shinobido 2 was released for the original PlayStation. Of course, back then it was called Tenchu.
That's a bit of snark, but it's also accurate. Developed by Acquire, the same studio behind the Tenchu series, Shinobido 2 bears a strong resemblance to its ninja granddaddy, albeit with a few new wrinkles.
The premise of Shinobido 2 is simple enough. As Zen, the world's most ironically named ninja, you plot to take revenge for a fallen comrade. While Zen unravels clues to lead him to his goal, he can accept missions from three local daimyo. The daimyo are all embroiled in a war for control of the Japanese region of Utakata, leaving Zen in a position to sway the balance of power based on which missions the player selects.
Some missions will reduce a daimyo's military potency, while others will reduce a daimyo's funding, and so on. Eventually, Zen's influence will allow a single daimyo to conquer all of Utakata. It's an interesting idea, though it basically boils down to watching the meters of your favored daimyo go up, while the meters of his opponents go down.
There are several types of missions available, including assassination (kill a specific enemy), elimination (kill all the enemies), item retrieval and parcel delivery. You might be asking yourself why any self-respecting ninja would be delivering packages -- it's a question you can expect to repeat during the actual missions. They involve, quite literally, Zen carrying a heavy box from one end of the map to the other. The challenge is to avoid breaking the box and, ideally, avoid detection. Sneaky.
Assassination, elimination and thievery missions fare a little better, and it's hard to deny the thrill of executing a target while remaining unseen. That said, very little seems to have changed since 1998. Guards walk in a predetermined pattern, have a very limited range of sight -- seriously, it's like ten feet -- and they are all too eager to put their backs to the dark of night, just begging for a quick and silent death.
The best part: Upon seeing the corpse of a fallen friend, a guard is momentarily surprised and simply proceeds to pick up the body like nothing happened. No alarms raised, nothing. Make no mistake, these guys are here for one reason and one reason only: To be murdered. More difficult enemies crop up later in the campaign, thankfully, including crafty ninjas with no compunction about leaping upon Zen from the shadows.
In fact, while the bite-sized missions are well-suited to the Vita's portability, they all start to blend together very quickly. As enjoyable as it is to take down hapless guards, it's hard to ignore the fact that you're repeating familiar objectives on only a handful of maps ad infinitum. I must have killed the same fat merchant hiding in the same castle half a dozen times so far. To be fair, one time the merchant was wearing glasses, so it might have been a different guy.
There are a few other systems to keep players busy, like a tool shop and alchemy. The tool shop sells ninja goodies like smoke bombs and caltrops, though such items have almost never been necessary for the missions I've played. The alchemy system has players mixing ingredients in pots and extracting various items. There are specific recipes to find -- including one that lets you create salmon, somehow -- but actually mixing ingredients in the proper proportions can be a bit puzzling. Again though, most of the time, a sword and grappling hook are the only tools you need anyway.
Oh, one word about the grappling hook. You can aim it using the rear touch pad. Don't do that. Just turn the option off.
In short, enjoyment of Shinobido 2 is directly proportional to how much you like assassinating opponents in a feudal Japanese setting. It's the one trick that Shinobido 2 does particularly well. Outside of daimyo influence, the superfluous systems probably won't keep players coming back for more. Neither will the story, with its stilted cutscenes and laughably bad dialogue. Still, if you're looking for some pick-up-and-play stealth stabbing, Shinobido 2 just might scratch the itch.
This article is based on a retail copy of Shinobido 2: Revenge of Zen, provided by Namco Bandai.