"Ninjas never go out of style"

Ninjas never go out of style. Sure, Michael Dudikoff isn't making “American Ninja” movies these days, but people still dig on stealth assassin lore: dashing silently toward a target with sword drawn, striking before the victim knows what happened, acquiring secret documents, and vanishing in a cloud of smoke—all definitive ninja tactics that make Tenchu Z fun.

Story

The country of Goda, home of the Azuma ninja clan, is on the verge of war with neighboring country Ogawara. As a newly recruited member of the Azuma, players must design their own ninja and assassinate enemies of Goda, which include officials, spies, and mercenaries. Players are also given missions to rescue prisoners, recover items and documents, as well as to eliminate shameful monks and greedy merchants.

The disappointing aspect of the narrative is not the plot, but the manner in which it unfolds. Told through text and a series of brief cutscenes, the who, what and the why are not given enough attention to tell a riveting story. Add to the fact the same maps and target locations are used repeatedly throughout the campaign, and the story becomes even less engaging.

Also, the only connection to previous Tenchu games is the inclusion of Lord Goda and series-long protagonist Rikimaru. This is not to say a series must contain continuity to be interesting, but if a popular franchise is going to change plot direction, the new happenings should be just as appealing. Only a few missions truly demonstrate the player's importance to Goda, especially the last few where the protagonist faces enemy military forces directly, leaving remaining missions to serve as filler or arsenal-building opportunities.

Graphics and Presentation

While not breathtaking, the visuals are relatively clean with a good design scheme and only a few blocky textures, such as the flames. Yes, Tenchu Z has blocky flames. Character animations are well-done at times, giving players a good sense of ninja prowess or civilian fear as seen in the dramatic flailing of “innocents” as they flee from the cloaked stranger skulking about the bushes. Facial expressions, on the other hand, are mask-like and lifeless like those of a marionette. It's true ninja are trained to have no emotion, but at least their lips could move when they talk.

The violence is both gruesome and silly. Slice a guard against the wall and watch blood geyser from his back. Set an enemy on fire and watch them dance like toddlers as they burn. Sound effects range from awesome to passable to muffled. For example, snapping necks always sounds painful. But when an enemy steps on a landmine, the explosion is canned and muffled, redeemed only by the resulting GYAAAAH the victim screams while falling and burning in blocky flame.

The Japanese voice acting is both well-done and cheesy, depending on the situation, but not too shabby overall.

Gameplay and Replayability

Shinobi are known for having uncanny agility. In order to translate this into a video game, the controls must be intuitive. Luckily, Tenchu Z provides a workable control scheme. The steep learning curve mellows after a bit of practice, making maneuvers such as shuriken sniping and ceiling assaults second nature. The amount of stealth kill variation is not as great as in previous Tenchu titles, seeing as there is only one playable character instead of two or three, but assorted enough to last a playthrough.

Enemy A.I., while not horrible, could be better. As with past titles, guards rarely deviate from their patterns. They also have short memories. After discovering a dead comrade, guards will be on alert for a minute or so before resuming patrol patterns as if a dead body isn't rotting yards away. Yes, if the game were more realistic, guard awareness would be heightened indefinitely, which would make sneaking into a castle to murder someone very tedious. Perhaps From Software could add variation in a sequel by including additional guard reactions and patterns depending on the difficulty level. So, for example, if a player is spotted, the entire complex would be alerted over time, making for a more spontaneous experience. Enemies also have a tendency to face walls for no other reason than to allow players to sneak up behind and take them out. While this is good for scoring purposes, it's hard to feel badass when the opponents are dunces.

To reach 100 percent completion, players must finish all 50 missions on easy, normal and hard modes, for a total of 150 missions. Scenarios can become repetitive before half of the missions are finished, so this may not be an appealing short-term goal.

Additional replay comes through character customization. With a variety of hair and facial types, clothing, and accessories to choose from, there are plenty of combinations to explore, some stylish, others outright silly. Hot dog sheath, indeed. Join an online session to see shinobi fashion design from around the world.

Speaking of online, a party of up to four can complete missions together using headsets or in-game hand signals. Major fun if everyone co-operates, but disappointing when, for example, Big Johnny from Tampa decides to fight every guard in the village after the rest of his cell agreed everyone should remain in the shadows.

Final Comments

Tenchu Z is neither the ultimate stealth nor ultimate Tenchu game, but may be fun for those who enjoy sneaking scenarios and ninja tactics. It's one of those games to play for a bit, put away for a few months, and then bring out to relive the magic all over again.


Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 08/16/10

Game Release: Tenchu Z (US, 06/12/07)


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