Tenchu: Shadow Assassins comes from Ubi Soft whom you may also know as the company behind Splinter Cell. I’ll come back to that distinction in a moment.
The thing to remember about Tenchu is that it is essentially a puzzle game. If you haven’t played it before, the game consists of ten levels which you must traverse without being detected by enemy guards who patrol around the area. Each level is divided into smaller sections, and being seen by anyone results in you instantly having to go back to the beginning of the section to try it again. The only exception is if you happen to be carrying a sword as one of your three usable items in which case you’ll fight the enemy. The fights, however, are relatively difficult, and you generally want to avoid them (besides, there are almost always items more useful than a sword to carry around. More on that later).
The best way to resolve each level is to find out the locations of each guard and then figure out the best way to approach them unawares so that you can stealth kill them. This is where the game really starts to resemble a puzzler. There are four basic types of guards. Basic foot soldier guards can be grabbed and disposed of easily as long as you don’t approach them from the front. Armored guards have sharp ears and will hear you approaching which means you have to find a place to lie in waiting for them to walk within range. Ninjas usually don’t patrol and instead hide in unusual places so that you have to seek them out and kill them before they see you first. And finally there are gunmen who have very sharp eyes and can see you from far away. To that end, you have a number of ways to stay out of sight including hiding in bushes, hanging from ledges squeezing into narrow spaces in the walls. If you successfully catch someone unawares, you enter a quicktime event where making the proper movements of your Wiimote and Nunchuk will trigger a cutscene in which you execute your unfortunate victim in a highly satisfying manner (ninjas apparently know two dozen ways to break someone’s neck).
All of this requires a great deal of suspension of disbelief as the behavior of your enemies is rather dense. The guards display all the typical problems that have plagued stealth games since the genre was invented: they give up searching after an unrealistically short period of time, they don’t communicate well with each other (if at all) and they have all the sensory perception of a dog with a stuffy nose. You could be out in the open in the same hallway with them and as long as you are more than thirty feet away or so, they won’t be able to see you. To a certain extent, these are necessary conventions of the stealth genre. If the guards acted like realistic humans, all stealth games would be basically impossible. Tenchu’s advantage in my mind is that unlike Splinter Cell or even Metal Gear Solid, its entire universe is patently unrealistic to begin with. The fact that it plays like a puzzle game rather than an action or adventure game also helps temper your expectations — you think of everybody as moving pieces on a board rather than full-fledged human beings, and so you can get on with enjoying the game. One more advantage Tenchu has over Splinter Cell is it’s not a game of trial and error. If you proceed slowly and carefully, you will be able to see the terrain ahead of you, and once you understand the rules, the game pretty much plays fair. And as I’ve said before, getting caught doesn’t send you too far back in the game.
The game also has a pretty neat collection of items, all of which can be used in at least two ways. Throwing weapons usually don’t kill people unless they are standing near a precarious ledge or something, but they can also be used to put out candles. A sword isn’t just a weapon for fighting. It can also break locks or be jammed into certain walls to serve as a springboard. My personal favorite is the shinobi cat which is pretty much what it sounds like: a small cat that you can send out to scout the territory as well as grab items to bring back to you.
All of this apparently is old hat if you’ve played previous Tenchu games. I guess the original Tenchu also had tank controls for the ninjas. It works, but it definitely feels outdated and more than a little odd. You’re playing a ninja, for crying out loud. But since this is a relatively slow moving game which places more emphasis on strategy, the controls don’t detract too much from the game. If this game gets a sequel, I very much hope the developers will consider updating it. Another point against the game is that unlike the other Tenchu games I’ve tried briefly, this one forces you to use certain ninjas in certain levels. To wit, the first five levels have you playing Rikimaru, the strong but slow moving male ninja, and the last five levels have you playing Ayame, the weaker and quicker female ninja. This is for story reasons, but the ability to choose between the two of them at will would still have been nice. Also, Ayame ends up retreading quite a lot of Rikimaru’s territory, and although she plays sufficiently differently that it doesn’t feel like a cheap length-extending trick, I still wish she could have gotten more of her own original content.
There’s nothing wrong with the production values, though. The graphics are quite good (particularly during cutscenes), and the voice acting is competent although not outstanding since none of the dialogue calls for very demonstrative emotions (Rikimaru in particular is very stoic by nature). The only flaws are a tendency for objects to clip through each other. In general, the game looks like a latter era PS2 game which is not bad at all.
These days, the idea of stealth in games is paradoxically stronger and weaker at the same time. More and more games incorporate stealth into their gameplay, but actual stealth-centric games are growing fewer and far between. Recent Metal Gear Solid games involve so much shooting and destruction that calling them stealth games is frankly ludicrous (tactical espionage is a little better, I suppose), and Splinter Cell games seem to be in a bit of a rut with reviewers generally agreeing that the single-player gameplay hasn’t evolved very much over the years. The only big new stealth game I can think of in recent years is Assassin’s Creed. Tenchu: Shadow Assassins will never be accused of great innovations, either, but I actually find its stealth gameplay much more tolerable than either Splinter Cell or Metal Gear Solid (I recognize this opinion will be controversial). Unlike MGS, Tenchu really will punish you for being discovered and you actually will have an incentive to get through the game without being discovered even once. And unlike Splinter Cell, the gameplay does not consist of trial and error with overly severe punishments for being discovered. Both MGS and Splinter Cell have other features to recommend them, and ultimately they are better games than Tenchu which is a more focused and narrow effort. With some updated controls and new AI routines, it could be totally reinvented (I hear most Tenchu games other than the first one were actually pretty bad).
I can’t really recommend buying Tenchu: Shadow Assassins at full price. It does stealth the way I like it, but that doesn’t change the fact that this feels like a pretty good game from five years ago. I think it’s worth $20 if you find it at that price point in the future, though.
Xantar’s rating: 3 out of 5