Killing me softly.
So you've waited three years to don your grade-school ninja costume and sit in front of your tube for some one-hit stealth killage, yet the $50 drop in the bucket has you here with us reading fervently in an attempt to glean your best course of action. Lucky for you that's our job.
Activision's Tenchu: Wrath of Heaven will sit well with most fans of the original. It's nearly twice as long as the PSX masterpiece (26 total levels), it looks great and the gameplay is straightforward. This iteration also includes a crude yet entertaining multiplayer mode to carve up and heap on some extended playtime and replayability.
But the wrath of a game reviewer can be vicious, and Tenchu's disjointed mission structure, temperamental camera and disappointing enemy AI will leave new gamers looking for something a bit more polished and sophisticated.
The story doesn't lend itself much praise; it's confusing at best. Like in past Tenchu games, you reprise your role as either the strong Rikimaru or the swift Ayame. Each has a specific 10-mission campaign. Unfortunately, there is little variation between each characters' Story mode.
The time is feudal Japan, and Rikimaru and Ayame are hot on the trail of a new set of baddies. I'd tell more if I knew myself. There's a lot to be said for professional storywriters.
Much of the confusion has to do with the disjointed mission structure. You just hop from mission to mission one after the other with very little in between to tie it all together. This is the one area of Tenchu I thought would be a shoo-in for an overhaul, yet it seems like the bland, sequential mission layout has again won the day.
But this isn't a deal breaker, because Riki and sweet little Ayame have quite the repertoire of combos and stealth kills. Much of the game is spent running around dark, expansive maps in search of the one guy who needs to become a kabob on your blade. Crouching and placing your back against the wall are old-hat favorites, though unfortunately don't hold a candle to Sam Fisher's impressive array of sly and sneaky moves. So instead, Tenchu gives the player a wide variety of weapons and gadgets like crude grenades, poison rice balls, spikes and a myriad of magical items.
Tenchu's emphasis is on stealth, which is where the game shines. Catch any NPC unaware, and if you're close enough you can perform a pre-scripted "stealth kill." Both Rikimaru and Ayame have several different stealth kills at their disposal, and most are pretty damn cool. To aid you in this is your 'sixth sense' stealth meter, which changes color depending on your proximity to NPCs and their level of awareness to you. Tread in heavy-footed and all enemies in your immediate area will converge on your location like'well, samurai on a ninja. However, you always have your trusty grappling hook, which can pull you out of a nasty situation in mere seconds. Just point to an edge and let it fly. Tackling more than one guy under the cover of stealth is a long, arduous task.
In addition to its gameplay impact, the grappling hook can get you high above the enemy rabble where you can take in a better lay of the land. While the colors are muted and drab, it fits the atmosphere perfectly for playing it sly and sneaky. The textures hold up very well no matter how close you get to them. Each map is cut up very realistically, featuring houses of various shapes and sizes, small ponds with bridges and house workers and staff going about their daily duties (which is merely to walk a prescribed path back and forth). Rikimaru and Ayame are well modeled and detailed, and many old faces make a welcome return with new costumes designs for the PS2. It's a nice graphical engine and serves the gameplay well.
I just wish the control was as pleasing. It's not terribly difficult, but the camera has a mind of its own, and, yet again, our main characters are not very quick on the 180-degree spin. You do get a few cool back flips and turnaround cartwheels, but how about the ability to just turn around quicker than a Mack truck?
As I mentioned before, taking on a small horde of samurai is an exercise in tedium. But don't sweat it - just toss that trusty grappling hook and get the hell out of Dodge, wait for a few long seconds and then the dummy NPCs will return to their posts and patrols. Now you can try the stealth thing all over again. I'm the hassasin...so why is it these guys have such terrible short term memories? Well, at least they bob around and dodge projectiles appropriately when in the heat of battle.
New to the Tenchu franchise is a welcomed multiplayer mode that pumps some extended life into the game. Via split screen, you can play head-to-head against a friend, which is pretty nifty. Just watch out for NPCs who may join the fray to make things a little more interesting. Alternately, you can play specific, shorter multiplayer missions co-op. Trying to coordinate your stealth and location with a buddy is good fun. The downfall to the multiplayer is that maps and missions are even more disjointed and act as simple one-shot deals as opposed to a full-blown cooperative campaign.
Nonetheless, this addition is met with open arms and shows that someone back at the lab is actually capable of making a move forward instead of a lateral next-gen step, which is really what Tenchu: Wrath of Heaven brings to the table. It's serves up some good ninja fun, yet it doesn't meet the challenge brought forth by the Metal Gears and the Splinter Cells.