Review by spek

"Strike silently, slice violently-Tenchu slays 'em on PS1"

Before the rise of Sam Fisher's splinter cell, there was Solid Snake and Rikimaru. Still, they never had to directly compete—while Metal Gear Solid was an espionage-rich thriller, Tenchu: Stealth Assassins served a purpose more animal in nature, almost on the instinctual level. Both exploded onto PS1s in 1998—The Year of the Stealth Game.

Set in feudal Japan, Tenchu had the player controlling Azuma ninjas Rikimaru and Ayame in their never-ending quest for justice, under the watchful eye of Lord Gohda. The thing that set Tenchu apart from the crowd of fast-paced “ninja” games such as Ninja Gaiden (both the NES originals and the Xbox remake) and Eidos' Ninja: Shadow of Darkness was that the player actually assumed a ninja-like role. Foregoing spurious acts of violence for cold, calculated strikes, the player leapt off of rooftops, dove out from behind buildings, and generally dispatched his enemies before they even knew they were dead.

The visceral premise was made all the more pleasing with the introduction of stealth kills. When the player approached an oblivious enemy and pressed the attack button, a cut-scene showing the guard being perforated in a gruesome manner played out; surrendering the player's control for a short cinematic. In a clever way, playing the game became its own reward, as the player would scramble to get into position for the desired stealth kill move.

While this mechanic reinforced the notion that the player was watching a blood-filled ninja flick, the ridiculously awful voice acting and hokey mission plots (such as “Punish the Evil Merchant”) drove the point home. Yet the joke was always funny—since the humor was always unintentional, the player would constantly find amusement in the hilarious dialogue transactions (when you kill a foreign pirate, Rikimaru states “It must be sad to die so far from home”) and overdramatic death animations. The off-kilter humor and varied locales across the 10 missions distracted the player from the simplicity of the game—you sneakily killed foes over and over again, but the settings varied enough to render it a non-issue.

For all the blood-soaked reverie, there were significant trade-offs. Most noticeable is the awkward control set, which became even more of a problem when engaged in a proper fight (for stealth kills gone wrong and unavoidable boss battles). The block mechanism is cheesingly powerful (holding down on the d-pad deflects most attacks), and the ability to turn around in one motion is a technique your ninjas have yet to learn. These control problems, coupled with the spasmodic camera, give the player another incentive not to get caught—actual combat is so awful, you'd better get that stealth kill in.

Environmental pop-up plagues the game as well, but for a late-generation PS1 game, it's par for the course. The game is also inherently difficult, forcing players to complete the entire level from the start if they die in combat or fall down an oddly-placed pit, but this is offset by the largely brainless AI, who have yet to master looking up.

Overall, Tenchu was a ground-breaking stealth affair with its share of problems that would identify itself as a brand name for years to come.

Gameplay: Strike from the shadows and snuff out your enemies. Repeat.
Graphics: 1998-era visuals may cause nausea, but they get the job done.
Sound: Repetitive screams from enemies are drowned out by a sweet soundtrack.
Value: 10 levels with slight differences for the 2 selectable characters. A hidden “debug mode” adds some ghetto replay value for the curious.
Curve: The training is oddly hard, but you're eased into the life of murder adequately.

Final Score: 8

Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 01/05/05

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