Review by ZeroXcuses

"The Ultimate Ninja Simulation Game"

Once upon several generations ago, a little-known company would precede Metal Gear Solid in introducing the stealth genre to 3D console gaming (In fact, 1998 was a great year for stealth, as the PC would receive Rainbow Six and Thief: The Dark Project that year). Of course, the production values of Tenchu: Stealth Assassins would prove to be negligent compared to a MGS, but its rewarding system of “stealth kill” (SK) animations for not charging through levels haphazardly combined with being able to play as a “real” ninja (I love me some Joe Musashi/Hotsuma and Ryu Hayabusa too, but those characters propel mystery and myths into sheer fantasy) would captivate ninja fans if the melodious soundtrack, numerous stage layouts (three different patterns of item/enemy placement for every one of the ten stages), and provocative repertoire of items did not. This game would see a sequel, Tenchu 2: Birth of the Stealth Assassins, which was met with mixed reactions, more positive than negative. Players gained a slew of stealth kills—from three in the previous game to at least seven—an additional character, an improved story, and a stage builder in exchange for a graphical regression and ambient noise for a “soundtrack.”

After Tenchu 2, Acquire (From Software in Japan) would cease to develop Tenchu and K2 would inherit the franchise. The company produced Tenchu: Wrath of Heaven, Tenchu: Fatal Shadows (and their respective Xbox ports), and Tenchu Z. All but the latter were considered solid sequels with enhanced production values, though none would notably change the formula of the gameplay. The latter, at bare minimum, is considered to be a husk of what the series represents, and is non-canonical.

When it was announced that Acquire would re-Acquire the Tenchu series, the news was met with both ambivalence and disgust. I would prefer not to delve into the discourse of the current generation “console war,” but Acquire would choose the Wii as its primary console platform. Some Tenchu fans would feel “betrayed” based upon the variance between their system of choice and Acquire's. Nevertheless, those who are fortunate to have Wiis will benefit from their decision: Tenchu: Shadow Assassins is the first of a planned trilogy of the series, and many claim that in addition to returning to its original publisher, the series would “return to its roots.”

So what does Acquire offer us?

In terms of the story, Princess Kiku is abducted (again), and Ayame reflexively takes off to save her, as expected because of the relationship that they develop over the course of the entire Tenchu series. On the other hand, Rikimaru is sent on a different mission to investigate rival lords' ambitions to start a war. From there, the game attempts to unravel a rather unsatisfying story of “there's more to things than meets the eye,” which may be a result of this game being the first of a pre-planned trilogy. If gamers are looking for an intense story, they will find it at first predictable, then shocking, then unresolved. In other words, this game's story is less conclusive than even Tenchu: Fatal Shadows, and thus, unfulfilling.

But this is a game is about the experience of playing as a ninja first and foremost, so how does the ninja experience fare?

Basic Gameplay Mechanics

Several things have changed from the original Tenchu games. Most significant is the absence of the grappling hook; no longer will gamers be able to scamper across rooftops or easily escape beyond enemies' field of view. Crouching on command is also gone; now, by standing behind certain objects or bushes, your character automatically duck and fade into the shadows. This gives the impression of having less autonomy over what your character can do. In previous Tenchu games, default walking is actually running, but now, your character walks and you mush press a button on the WiiMote to run at the risk of alerting some of your enemies, though there is a SK animation attached to this feature. You can jump on your own, but jumping is rarely useful except for when you are queued to press the “A” button, which is typically followed by a situational animation such as jumping into the rafters of a building.

Perhaps the most disappointing “feature” in the game is the lack of distinguishing characteristics between protagonists Rikimaru and Ayame—they both handle like how the exoskeleton from the original Terminator movie is animated—ungainly. In previous Tenchu games, Rikimaru is the slower, more powerful of the two, and Ayame is the nimble and weak but quick striker. That is no longer the case. Now, the only differences between them are the number of stages that gamers will play as them, a few SK animation nuances, and their voice actors. This is tragic, because Ayame had always been my favorite character because of her attitude and violent nature. This game forces the player to favor one more than the other. The gesture is a compelling one, but some gamers may not be easily assuaged.

R.I.P. Ki Meter

Gone is the traditional Ki Meter which used to let the player know how close enemies were or if enemies were alerted to the player's presence or otherwise disturbed (such as stumbling upon a corpse, when thereafter an certain amount of time, a soldier would grotesquely ignore the corpse and continue on his path). Now, there is “Mind's Eye,” type of “ninja vision” activated by the Z-button on the nunchuk, allowing to players to see their enemies' field of vision, shadowy areas to hide, and footprints that behave as a “guide” through the stages. Players must navigate their ninja outside this field of vision, which though it can be seen, it is unclear as to how far certain types of enemies can see, from snipers to samurai to enemy ninja. This is an important fact because knowing field of vision will determine how many times players will enter into duel mode.

Dynamics of Stealth

Those shadowy areas seen in Mind's Eye are important, because standing in them makes all the difference in the game. In order to not be seen, players must use them to hide. There is now a “moon indicator” that operates similarly to the old Ki Meter in that indicates how well-shrouded your ninja is. If full moon is visible, you are exposed. If the moon is blocked by cloud cover, you are well-hidden, though the moon meter at this point is superfluous because your character gains a special “cloak” aura followed by a wind-gush sound effect to indicate that your ninja is successfully concealed. A purple moon indicates that enemies are in “search mode,” a mode wherein enemies may still see your ninja in a shadowy crevice when they did not notice you before during their patrols. In this game, search mode is irritatingly long, and it comes with its own music as you cower in the shadows, hoping that you remain unseen and do not enter

Dual Mode.

If you are detected, and are equipped with a sword, woe be unto you, because you will enter into the highly-criticized “mini-game” where you will have to hold the WiiMote at certain angles (horizontal, vertical, or at 10-or-2) to deflect blows from your enemy's katana. It's harder than it sounds not because the WiiMote isn't responsive—it is because more often than not, there is almost no delay from the on-screen prompt and the actual attack. (I turned off the WiiMote prompt and just followed the slash marks because it seemed as though the enemies' animations betrayed the actual direction the slash would come from, and the WiiMote icon also seemed to appear simultaneously with the blow). Once you are seen, you have the chance to parry your opponent's first attack. If successful, you are given the opportunity to attack first, and vice-versa for a failure, though you do not take damage. You will notice that the degree of difficulty during these duels realistically vary depending on the combat skills of the enemy that sees you: ninja are pathetic, but samurai tend to utterly destroy you. And by “you,” I mean “me,” though I write with confidence that “you” too will struggle with them. But more on that soon enough.

After a (rare)successful defense, you are given the opportunity to attack back. This can be accomplished as simply as shaking the WiiMote like a carton of milk or orange juice. If you take your ninja experience seriously, you can use precision “slicing.” On occasion, I have noticed a numerical counter when I use “serious” slashing motions, and theoretically, this suggests the increase in damage per blow. This occurs so infrequently that the feature is negligible, however. After an allotted time that is reduced as you land blows, barring that you do not kill your opponent, it will be his turn to attack and yours to defend again.

These duels are the most critiqued parts of the game; some miss the ability to have a more active role in combat like in the previous Tenchu games, and others complain that these fights are too difficult. While the former is a debatable issue, the latter is accurate in two senses of the word: ninja are assassins, not warriors, so it is necessary that they not get caught. There are more than a few practical reasons why you should lose using a ninja-to versus a katana, and this adds to the realism—a boon if you are looking for a ninja simulation. Consequently, this denigrates elements of fantasy for those who desire to play as an indestructible ninja. Unfortunately for those gamers, Acquire sends the message, “Don't get caught” (though from my experience during the first playthough, that feat is a total quagmire).

If you lose (get hit or break your sword by improper blocking) during a duel with standard enemies (and you will more often than not), then you teleport to the beginning of the stage segment with your ninja looking tattered (Rikimaru's costume makes sense, but Ayame just shows her bra. Fanservice?). In story mode, you get an infinite number of tries, though in the “secret” Shadow Mode, where the difficulty of the enemy layout is exponentially more difficult, you only get two chances to be seen before you pass into the next segment of the stage until you are struck down for a game over, which only means that you must start that segment over if you so desire.

Dualing against bosses is much easier because you get a “three strikes” life bar in addition to the standard health bar for your blade. Bosses also attack MUCH more slowly than all enemies but other ninja, actually giving the player a chance to win. Like some of the revised controls, the duels places a damper on some of the autonomy that gamers had in previous Tenchu games, but neither to the degree of the trial-and-error nature of the stages nor the stage linearity.

Cruising through the Stages

Yes, the game is very trial-and-error. Some of your enemies, such as the samurai, are fantastic examples of this. Because the game is programmed such that it is impossible to sneak up on a samurai and SK him like most enemies, you may find yourself experimenting as you discover how to get past one without tribulation. For example, you'll waste items throwing shuriken at candle lights, using the Shinobi Cat to go looking for ghostmakers, or rush at one in ABSOLUT RAGE, when you all you actually need is that fishing pole you neglected two enemies ago to drag him into the nearby flame for a cheesy animation SK. Killing him is a necessity, too, because unlike in the previous Tenchu games, it seems to be a “requirement” to kill rather than optional in order to move forward in a stage. This is another gameplay change as a result of the missing grappling hook: enemies are placed in your path and you must eliminate them. This kill-or-be-killed philosophy contributes to the linearity of the game, as if playing the first five stages with Rikimaru then replaying four of them backwards with Ayame were not enough linearity (and repetitiveness)already. Not to say that there is no instance when you can play pacifist in the entire game, but they are rare, and these opportunities are usually as a result of enemies being stowed away in secret areas.

More Items, Please

In terms of the items themselves, they have undergone a tremendous facelift. Tenchu fans know that it used to be possible to clear an entire stage with just one poison rice ball. Those days are over, as the rice ball is no longer an option. In fact, players will find that many of the game's items are not unlocked by grandmastering stages as is done in the previous Tenchu games. Now, gamers must scavenge the stages for items and retain them until the end of a stage. This is yet another huge gripe that I personally have with the game, because if I want to find to find hidden scroll pieces (used to unlock super secrets), accessing one may require a “ghostmaker” bomb (did you detect the irony in the name of the instant-kill item that alerts all nearby enemies upon use?) in a stage where there are no ghostmakers lying around, which means that I have to somehow beat a stage where they are located and figure out how to clear it without using it on the samurai that it was intended. In this sense, acquiring extras in Tenchu: Shadow Assassins becomes an excessively arduous fetch quest. However, do not fear that any stage is unbeatable if you do not come prepared; there are enough in-stage items in every stage to finish the stage that the item is required. Unfortunately, you can only carry three different items at a time, several less than in previous Tenchu games, and I have had to sacrifice more items than I care to admit. “Disconcerting” is an understatement for having to drop an item like a smoke bomb or Shinobi cat in favor of a one-use Kasugai to scale a wall to get to the next part of a stage where the gaping missing slot in your inventory will taunt you because you could have used the item you dropped to make the obstacles that now lay before you easier.

My personal gripes with items aside, their usages are gratifying. Acquire listened to fans, and there are now situations where shuriken (or kunai if you are Ayame) are considered SKs (though the logic of how enemies die—getting hit in the front and falling forward, or a ninja dying just because he is in the shadows, is a topic for debate). The fishing pole can be used both to retrieve items out-of-reach or SK (as previously stated). The Shinobi Cat is used to, as the English translation implies, to spy ahead of your ninja, but it can also retrieve items in areas dense with enemies. Why enemies are not suspicious of a “random” cat in a fortress at times, again, is a logical fallacy. Smoke bombs are now no longer used to confuse enemies in “alert mode” (That's gone, remember? There is only dual mode.), but they are instead used as a preemptive attack to engross enemies in a cloud of confusion and disorder as you sneak up on them for an SK. There are many more items that I leave players to discover and experiment.

SKs = Hissatsu

No review of a Tenchu game is complete without a discussion of the SKs. The game provides us with new terminology: Hissatsu, or “certain kill.” I would suspect that this term is derived from “ichigeki hissatsu,” which means “kill with one hit.” Linguistics aside, the SKs—or Hissatsus—have always been the most rewarding part of Tenchu games. Here, the standard from-behind Hissatsu can be performed in three ways: a flick (up/down motion) of the nunchuck , a flick of the WiiMote, or a swing (side-to-side motion) of the WiiMote while the game slows down to allow time for the input of the command before the enemy can react. If you are too slow, you will enter dual mode. Notwithstanding, each motion hosts a different Hissatsu animation, though as I have stated before, there is little difference between Rikimaru's and Ayame's, a tremendous disappointment. They both steal their enemies' blades to use against them, but their “bone breaking” Hissatus are varied ones. There are plenty of situational Hissatsus, including from above in rafters, under porches, from in water, or from the side of a building (in older Tenchu games, you had to un-pin yourself from the wall and rush the enemy as they approached the edge or let them pass completely before you made your move; now there is a special input these particular situations) to name a few.

Potpourri

Music – Composer Noriyuki Asakura once again delivers a Tenchu-quality soundtrack, though not every selection is worthy of your iPod. Some of them are repetitive like those in Tenchu: Kunerai, if you dig that. Expect the theme of the music to be consistent, sans the piece during the opening animation. Because the previous Tenchu games fused a classic sound with a contemporary one, this pure-opera sound remains incongruous with the Tenchu theme.

Sound – Significantly different from the music, Tenchu games are notorious for the meager number and mediocre assortment of sound effects. The voice acting is bad, too...PS1 Resident Evil bad. Additionally, you will get tired of hearing “Over here!” or “Where are you?” from your enemies. As already stated, search mode is extensive, and I suspect that each enemy type only has three different lines during their search. Prepare to be bombarded with the same line, maybe two, repeatedly until they return to their positions. I wager that you will be conditioned to say “I hate samurai” reflexively to the line “I hate ninja” based upon the number of times that you will hear it.

Graphics - The only console I own this generation is the Wii, and even I have to say that if you're obsessed with graphics, you are playing the wrong system. Besides, Tenchu games are infamous for their “less than current-generation-standard quality. Not this time. Tenchu: Shadow Assassins is one of the better-looking games that I have seen on the Wii. The cutscenes are full of vibrant colors even though the scenes are at night, though the color palette in realtime is as copious as the first MGS (that is to say, you'll be looking at a lot of shades of gray in this game as opposed to MGS blue). Collision detection is mostly consistent, though, again, because of the number of times that you will enter dual mode, you will see that every enemy in the game has the same “sheath sword” animation, including the ninja who are supposed to wear their swords on their backs, not on their sides like samurai.

Assignments - There are a total of fifty mini-missions which can be unlocked by performing well in the story mode missions. Think of them as ninja skills tests, as they are brief and they escalate in difficulty as you earn more missions. interesting feature, but insubstantially augments the content of the game.
Shadow mode – These are the “secret missions” that I alluded to earlier. By flicking the WiiMote on the story mode mission select, you will enter shadow mode, consiting of the story mode missions with more difficult layouts. Nice feature, but again, past Tenchu games offered ten missions with each character (not including Tatsumaru from Birth of the Assassins or Tesshu from Wrath of Heaven) and three different layouts for each of those missions. So this virtual game-extension is weak by comparison.

Time of completion – I've grandmastered every mission and every layout in every Tenchu game mentioned in this review throughout the years, so I consider myself a veteran. However, in this game, I averaged fifty minutes per-mission in my first playthrough, so if you consider yourself “pro,” you're looking at ten hours just to finish story mode at the minimum. Also keep in mind that there are only six unique maps, so if you are critical of recycled material, you may do another calculation for this component of the game.

Conclusion

Around the Tenchu community, some complained that Tenchu was too unrealistic due to the power of the rice ball, rooftop retreating, and the whistle (which, if enemies were in search mode, would make them go into normal patrol mode instantly, no matter what). Well those items are gone, and if you are seen, combat is as difficult as it would be if a real-life ninja came up against a ronin or samurai (think of Ken Watanabe against the ninja in The Last Samurai). Players will have to think on their feet to clear stages, using anything from rocks to a bamboo water sprayer to vanquish foes and gain mobility in the shadows.

If you are a Tenchu fan, then you should already have this game, as the changes from the older Tenchu games are not such that you will feel like you are playing Onishima or something. If you are curious about this game, and looking for a “serious” third party effort, then you too will be pleased. If you are the type of gamer who wants every game to look and play as well as Mario Galaxy, then this is a rental. All things considered, Tenchu: Shadow Assassins is the ultimate ninja simulator.

What's the Score Man?

Ah yes, after writing an essay-length review, I must inflict the violence of an “objective” (read: arbitrary) score upon this game. Nevertheless, based upon the GameFAQs descriptions of the numbers that I can select, 7/10 is the most appropriate, for I am not comfortable with the terminology of “major flaws” in the 8/10 category because a “flaw” is a subjective judgment unless you're reviewing something like the debacle that is the GTAIV PC port (where the game is so unplayable that STEAM offered refunds for the game), and the 6/10 score indicates that “there are many better.” On the contrary, you will not find a better ninja simulator out there than Tenchu: Shadow Assassins.

Enjoy. I'm already anticipating the next in the series.

7/10


Reviewer's Score: 7/10 | Originally Posted: 03/23/09

Game Release: Tenchu: Shadow Assassins (US, 02/05/09)


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