Still in the dark…
The most important element of playing Tenchu-Z can be summed up in a single word: Patience.
Any fan of the series can tell you what Tenchu’s about; sneaking around, probably killing some people in the process, accomplishing a certain objective (often a specific kill) or set of objectives. The fine details vary, but the basic rules and mechanics of the game never break that mold. The Tenchu series has been around quite a while and has something of a cult following. Its makers know what the players want, and provide it with great specificity. That’s both a good and bad thing.
Players begin Tenchu-Z by creating their own ninja from a palette of existing face and clothing choices (gender, interestingly, is also variable). From there a brief tutorial ensues, familiarizing new players with the basics. Sadly there’s a bit left out, some of which may be learned by reading the manual, but you’ll complete the training mission with at least a nominal grasp of the game’s mechanics. (All missions, including said training run, are immediately repeatable on completion to earn more money and a higher rating.) After getting approval from series poster-boy Rikimaru, the player starts on a series of 50+ missions. For the most part your primary task will be killing a particular target, though sometimes the objective is just to reach a certain location or
person, or even gather a type of object. As aforesaid though, what you’re basically doing is sneaking around and killingn people. The missions are only semi-linear, in that certain specific ones advance the plot while others are just to gain items, skills and cash. Money’s used to purchase more of the first two loot types, resulting in a quasi-RPG-ish experience of upgrading one’s ninja as time goes on. The storyline serves as a loose backdrop for all this bloodshed; it’s marginally interesting in that it paints the player’s ninja clan as heroes upholding their country’s honor rather than mere mercenary assassins.
Tenchu does do some things right. There’s a bit of a learning curve to successful stealth killing, especially in indoor areas; once the player has this in hand, a sense of accomplishment can be enjoyed – for a time. Unfortunately, on all but the hardest level, the AI enemies are really rather dumb, which robs kills of their joy after a while. Hard mode does bring a sense of urgency back into most of the missions, simply because the enemies’ sight cones are larger and longer; they also react more rapidly. Even still some glaring flaws are visible; enemies may see you clearly as you leap into a hedge or behind a handy building, yet they’ll then run up to said obstacle and peer around in confusion for a moment or two (you can almost see the “Where did he go?” thought bubble over their head), give up and walk back towards their regular patrol area. In a nice touch, guards on intersecting routes verbally
greet each other, and may even engage in set-piece conversations which keep them both static (and less attentive) for a while. However, roaming guards who greeted static guards in this manner show no suspicion (or any reaction) when the standing guard vanishes between their patrol sweeps.
Yet, whatever its woes, there’s still fun to be had in Tenchu. Most of the kill animations are fairly gruesome. Some are pedestrian, some brutally inventive and anime-influenced. Finding multiple ways to approach a target can be entertaining. Players might take out nearly all the guards on the way to a boss on their first run-through; on a subsequent try, they may take to the rooftops and steal into the victim’s quarters in a fraction of the time, killing only the single main enemy to successfully end the mission. Players who want a more Sho Kosugi influenced style of ninja adventure will be able to upgrade their stealth warrior with a fair variety of normal (non-stealthy) attack animations and combos, including juggles and guard-breaks. Though it can make missions more challenging, using the more combat-oriented upgrades really helps to break up Tenchu’s native monotony. Exploring backgrounds is also sometimes engaging; oubliettes fall open in odd places (perfect drop spots for the inconvenient corpse), and there are plenty of opportunities to land near-soundlessly behind a potential victim as you drop from above. Doing so incautiously may lead to a little adrenaline, as an unseen enemy sounds the alarm. Yet for all that being detected is supposedly a bad thing, most players will probably find it more fun to just fight openly on occasion. Attempting all the missions from the perspective of pure stealth can lead to very long, sometimes boring sorties, as the player may have to wait several patrol cycles for the safest kill opportunities.
Several issues do drag Tenchu-Z down in any final analysis. Graphically, this is a slightly-improved PS2 or XBox game. Nothing here truly shows the XBox 360’s capabilties, save perhaps the base draw-distance on scenery and the nicely-done shadowing effects. Even those aspects are underutilized, as enemies visibly “pop” in as the player approaches, and those same enemies are remarkably oblivious to moving human-shaped shadows blatantly within their visual cone. Load times are also surprisingly long, especially given the modest graphic quality. Finally there are some game design concerns. AI definitely needs work for a future generation, as does environment interaction. It’s all well and good for ninjas to be hiding in bushes (and be good at it),
but those bushes shouldn’t be ugly, visibly-verticed polygons with all the movement-hindering effects of thin fog. For all that it may seem a nitpick, I also found it rather annoying that a player must manually re-equip their inventory before leaving on each mission. Certainly the option to tweak should be there, but being forced to start from the ground up each time is just a waste.
So, Tenchu-Z. Not an unsalvageable game, merely an underambitious one. Earlier in the XBox 360’s life, Tenchu-Z’s slightly-smoothed last gen graphics would have earned complaints, but not necessarily a dismissal. More time should have been spent redeveloping the title for 360, especially given its exclusive status. Better graphics and more voice-sampling (what’s there is well-recorded, but far too repetitive) would have done wonders to improve the immersion factor. Greater world interactivity and sharper enemy AI would further deepen the experience. Finally, further differentiation between the need for utter stealth and the greater variety (read: fun) of open combat – mission design geared for both, primarily – would help seal the deal. The bones of a solid game are here, but Tenchu needs to move squarely into the next generation to be a really worthwhile contribution. With some regret (as someone not typically fond of stealth games I found a surprising amount of enjoyment in this one), I have to recommend that nonfans of the genre pass Tenchu-Z by, and even fans might want to rent first. Nevertheless I find myself hoping developer From puts in a renaissance effort for the series’ next edition. With some effort there could be something really special here.