Shinobido: Way of the Ninja is game that you've pretty much played before. Its ninja-based hijinks will be familiar to anyone who's played a Tenchu game in the last few years, while its stealth components won't be a shock to any Splinter Cell veterans. Shinobido to its credit does offer a unique progression tree which gives you branching story possibilities, but its so-so controls and repetitive missions make it a game only for those with patience and perseverance.
The similarities with Tenchu aren't surprising, considering the team behind Shinobido, Acquire, were the original developers behind the Tenchu series (the rights of which have now switched to FROM Software). Just like earlier Tenchu games, Shinobido is set in ancient Japan and follows the adventures of a lone ninja. You first see the game's hero, Crow, waking up alone on the banks of a river. Crow, who has no memory of who he is, stumbles onto a dilapidated shack nearby. There he finds a glowing red stone, which floods him with some of his memories when he first touches it. Confused, Crow finds a note attached to an arrow on the side of the shack. The note is penned by an unseen stranger named Onji, who explains that Crow's soul has been trapped into numerous stones scattered throughout the land of Utakata.
Like a thief in the night...
Utakata is in a state of war, with three feudal lords battling for final supremacy. Onji explains that these three feudal lords can help Crow regain the lost soul stones -- Crow now has the choice of working with the lords, or against them, in order to get back his soul.
The three-pronged story approach is one of Shinobido's highlights. Crow's shack acts as a game hub of sorts, and is where players choose missions, buy equipment and train their skills. Each of the three feudal lords will offer Crow missions to complete -- choosing and successfully completing a lord's mission will raise Crow's level of respect in that lord's eyes, while diminishing it in the others. Your actions have a direct impact on the greater power play happening in Utakata -- the power of the three feudal lords will grow or wane depending on whose missions you choose to accept.
While there are plenty of missions of offer, there's actually little variety in the type of missions you'll be asked to do. Missions fall under the broad objectives of assassination, total destruction (kill all enemies on the map), thievery (steal an object and escape), courier (deliver a document) or reconnaissance. Annoyingly, some of the maps are repeated for the same type of missions. For example, you'll often come across the same village in assassination missions, while the same walled compound will pop up time and again for thievery quests.
In a mission, Crow sports all of the usual ninja tricks, including having the ability to grapple to roofs and other high places, run along walls and generally be sneaky and quiet. As opposed to the numbers-based awareness system guards in the Tenchu series have, Shinobido features a colour-coded system which tells you how aware guards are of your presence. White means they're unaware, purple means they're on the lookout, red means they've spotted Crow while Orange means they're in pursuit but have lost sight of the player.
Mastering the stealth kill is crucial in Shinobido. If players can sneak up to an enemy undetected, Crow will perform a one-hit kill. Not that Crow is hopeless at combat -- as a ninja, he sports some cool moves and attacks. But alert guards usually call for back-up, meaning multiple enemies to deal with at once.
Trust us, you do not want to get into this situation in Shinobido.
Thankfully, guards for the most part aren't that smart in Shinobido. Most won't notice you if you're not at the same eye level as them -- making travelling by rooftops an absolute necessity. Some are also more sensitive to sounds more than others, particularly the samurai guards players will encounter in the more difficult stages.
Sadly, Crow controls pretty poorly for a ninja. Running and jumping with Crow feels fairly loose -- you never feel like you're in full control as the character often skids and turns quite poorly. We'd often run at a wall and jump to try and hang on to a ledge, only to end up doing a wall run directly into some enemies. Fleeing can also be problematic -- when Crow runs, he's susceptible to inexplicably falling after running into objects. Hardly graceful for a ninja of his calibre. Attacks don't fare much better. Crow sports some decent combos, but they tend to move him quite far in one direction. Miss a combo and enemies will often end up behind you with a free hit.
The poor in-game camera exacerbates the situation. Tapping R1 will quickly centre the camera back behind Crow, but with his movements being so floaty and imprecise it's often difficult to gain your bearings quickly. We found ourselves accidentally falling off ledges time after time simply because the camera was stuck at strange angles.
The poor controls mean stealth is even more vital to success in Shinobido. Being found by a guard usually results in quickly being surrounded. Players will find themselves undergoing plenty of trial and error runs in this game, probably more so than other stealth titles. You'll need to be patient and persevere if you want to get the most out of Shinobido.