Although Metal Gear Solid for the original Playstation is often sited as the first game to feature 3D stealth action on a home console, that honor actually belongs to Tenchu: Stealth Assassins, released in 1998 just 2 months before Solid Snake showed his polygonal face. Although the Tenchu franchise has never been as popular as stealth genre staples like Metal Gear or Splinter Cell, the game has maintained a loyal cult following throughout the past decade due to its authentic representation of ninjutsu, the art of remaining unperceived.
Probably the main reason the Tenchu series doesn’t resonate with the majority of gamers is the fact that unlike most ninja games, it basically discourages sword fighting altogether. While there are upgradeable combo moves one can fall back on in dire situations, these moves feel underpowered and clunky compared to the more sophisticated, stealthier components of the game. This emphasis on stealth is historically accurate, as ninjas were no match for skilled samurai warriors in open confrontations, relying instead on patience and timing to strike isolated enemies down with a single, deadly blow. Despite its authenticity, Tenchu Z’s representation of ninjas has a polarizing effect on action game fans; players expecting another action intensive outing in the spirit of Ninja Gaiden will almost certainly be disappointed, but fans of stealth action will find much to enjoy as they learn to master Tenchu Z’s sneaking system and sublime stealth kill mechanics.
Tenchu Z brings some new moves to the series which not only encourage stealth play, they are just plain fun to execute.
Unlike other games in the Tenchu series, Rikimaru and Ayame are not the stars of Tenchu Z. Instead, you will create a male or female ninja and assign points to their agility, strength, and health. You will then create a sidekick, whose gender is the opposite of your own character, but he or she will only appear in cut scenes and is never playable. Seasoned ninja veteran Rikimaru will be your mentor who doles out your assignments and rewards you according to your performance. These 50 missions all involve making your way from one end of the map to the other, usually to kill a villain, deliver a message, or collect some items. Although you are not tasked with a wide variety of assignments, the level design and placement of guards are fairly diverse.
Once again, the story revolves around putting a stop to the nefarious Echigoya clan, who are now trafficking a drug called Shishi with the help of their militaristic Ogawara allies. Although the story is serviceable, it isn’t terribly compelling and lacks coherence. The only thing you really need to know when playing through any given level of Tenchu Z is that there is a town full of bad guys with swords, and you have to go kill all of them. Silently. Although there is no Metal Gear style radar to help detect enemy positions, players will rely on the ki meter which indicates if there are any enemies close to you, their proximity, and weather or not they can perceive you. Sound and light meters further assist players in remaining invisible.
As mentioned earlier, the basic combat engine in Tenchu Z is basic and underwhelming, but then again it was never intended to be a sword fighting game. (In the entire game, there are only 3 mandatory face to face battles.) It’s as though From Software consciously created a gimped fighting system as a means of discouraging head on encounters. Players are further discouraged from engaging alerted enemies via a new game play element: odor. Anytime an alerted enemy is wounded or killed in melee combat, his body produces blood stains on your clothing. Nearby enemies can smell these stains, and will seek out the source of the aroma. This makes it difficult to advance through levels unseen and will likely bring down a swarm of samurai as your ki meter flashes orange. Although this problem can be remedied by taking a dip in a nearby body of water or by using a special cleansing item which removes the bloody scent, it is far better to avoid head on swordfights whenever possible, as a ninja surrounded by angry guys with katanas has little chance of survival.
Wash Up! The orange character indicates that the guard can smell your bloody clothing from an earlier fight.
Stealth kills, on the other hand, produce no such stains, and players who favor these silent takedowns will be rewarded with more gold and a higher ranking at the end of the level. However, it takes patience and timing to kill dense bunches of guards while remaining unseen. Kill a samurai willy-nilly and his buddies will come over and make short work of you. The gold can be used to customize the character as they buy skills and abilities, purchase new equipment, and change their appearance, while high ratings unlock secret levels that give players access to even more special abilities. Some of the items you can purchase or find will help the player in these situations, and so does the new chain kill mechanic, which requires expert timing but effectively takes out an entire room full of samurai. Probably the most compelling reason to be stealthy though is that stealth kills just look really, really cool… arterial flow sprays out like a crimson fountain, and players are treated to one of Tenchu Z’s 16 different fatality animations which vary depending on the player’s position relative to their prey. It can be a lot of fun (and challenging) to try and trigger a favorite stealth kill animation in a particular situation. Without a doubt, the satisfying stealth kill mechanics are the meat and potatoes of Tenchu Z.
‘Can you hear me now?’ Remain undetected and you can kill your enemies with a single strike.
It is worth mentioning that Tenchu Z has a hefty learning curve. While trying the demo, I had no idea what I was doing, and this clueless feeling carried over to the first hour and a half I spent with the retail version. This is largely due to the fact that the manual and tutorial mission both lack a surprising amount of information. In fact, I was totally unaware of many of the more useful moves and abilities until I read about them on community forums. (i.e. You can peek through paper doors by clicking the right stick, and choked enemies can be pushed up against a wall or on the ground with the A button or right trigger, respectively.) Furthermore, the system for assigning purchased abilities to the controller is never explained, and takes some experimentation to figure out how to use your new skills. It’s as though the person in charge of localizing the manual had only a cursory understanding of Tenchu Z’s game mechanics, and this is inexcusable… especially for a game published by Microsoft. It wouldn’t surprise me if a lot of players become discouraged and abandoned the game early on. And that’s a real shame, because once the learning curve is crested Tenchu Z makes players feel like total bad-asses. At the very least, the controls are remappable, which is always nice.
Tecnhu Z fixes many of the problems which have plagued earlier games in the Tenchu series. For example, the improved draw distance allows players to look out over an entire map and see enemies well before they are a threat, significantly improving ones ability to remain hidden. In addition, the frustrating camera controls found in previous Tenchu games have been completely fixed and are finally on par with other third person action games. And instead of just relying on the tiny stealth kill lamp to assist players with timing their stealth kills, Tenchu Z adds the Seal of Nine, a circular meter that appears in the center of the screen when an enemy is near. When the ring turns from orange to red, the controller vibrates, and players can execute a perfect kill, earning them more money and improving their level completion rank.
Tenchu Z also features some cool new moves which are extremely helpful in particular situations. Players can now easily stab an approaching guard from around a corner, and enemies located atop watchtowers can be pulled down and killed away from prying eyes with the press of a button. In order to subdue innocents (who are identifiable only by their lack of weaponry,) players can now choke their targets from behind and knock them out. This also helps when fighting hostiles, as players can grab guards located in high-traffic areas and drag them into the shadows for a stealthy execution or knockout. And although the sword fighting isn’t terribly compelling, the new upgradeable combo system does add some degree of depth. Finally, Tenchu Z has included the ability to kill victims on the other side of paper doors, allowing stealth-minded assassins to bypass the majority of boss fights.
The new choke move allows players to move their targets to the safety of the shadows before subduing them.
Tenchu Z’s graphics are clean, but not stunning. All of the models and effects look fairly decent, and the numerous animations flow together in a fluid, realistic manner that effectively conveys the cat-like grace of being a ninja. Levels are consistently well designed and dynamic, offering numerous routes to your target and providing the game with an open ended feel. Unfortunately Tenchu Z is not without its graphical shortcomings. Textures appear slightly muddy at times, diminishing the impact of the high definition visuals. And for game in which shadows play a major role, Tenchu Z’s lighting is not executed nearly as well as it is other games in the stealth genre such as Splinter Cell: Double Agent. As a result, players attempting to discern how well hidden they are will find themselves looking to their light meter rather than simply glancing at their character and the surrounding environment.
Sound design in Tenchu Z is both realistic and immersive. Ambient sounds help convey a sense of tension, as you try to skulk around quietly in the shadows listening for enemies, and the sound effects are appropriate and crisp. The period Japanese music is used minimally, but is well implemented in that it never prevents players from listening to important environmental cues. All of the dialogue is in Japanese with English subtitles, which is new to the series. Although this authentic dialogue does help immerse players in the feudal Japanese locale and helps avoid localization problems, the typically amusing comments made by wandering NPCs are now lamentably incomprehensible to Western ears.
Last, and unfortunately least, we come to Tenchu Z’s online component, which supports up to four players for cooperative play. Sadly, there is so much lag when playing online that any more than two ninjas on a server render the game almost completely unplayable. There is some fun to be had playing with one (and only one) of your friends, though. While there is some lag in a two player game, it’s not impossible to have a bit of stealthy fun. However, join a match with two or three other players, and you will all encounter problems with animations, clipping, and hit detection to such a degree that any thrill of teaming up with others to tackle a mission is entirely negated. At the time of this writing its unknown if From Software is going to ever release a patch for Tenchu Z to address this problem, but if the net code could be cleaned up and the game could be made to run smoothly, it would be an absolute blast. As is, Tenchu Z online feels like a missed opportunity that could have been a major selling point if it had been done right.
Although you can team up with friends on Xbox Live, Tenchu Z’s multiplayer is so laggy it’s practically unplayable.
Despite some of the aforementioned issues, if you’re a fan of stealth games or any of the previous iterations in the Tenchu franchise, Tenchu Z is a must buy. Not only is it the best game in the series, no other game simulates the stealth oriented experience of being a ninja so effectively. The character customization adds a personal flair that is both fresh and addictive, and the gameplay has never been better. However, Tenchu Z is most certainly a niche title that will not appeal to everyone, so if you hate stealth games, Tenchu Z isn’t going to change your mind. Although it takes commitment (and access to the internet!) to learn how to control your character and master the art of the silent kill, Tenchu Z offers patient Xbox 360 owners some of the most satisfying stealth action available on the system.