Once there were a man . . .
We've all seen badly translated Japanese games. We've gotten so used to them that most people hardly notice anymore. We're used to people looking like squat anime bugs (ie Mystical Ninja), the plots making very little sense, and the translation to be, well, horrible. Never fear gaming fans, the tide has changed. Activision has brought Tenchu: Stealth Assassins across the Pacific, and it is just plain fantastic.
"Kill if you must, but do so quietly, not recklessly."
The main characters in Tenchu are (yup, you guessed it) assassins. However, the point of the game is not to kill everything in sight - then it would just be a third-person Doom clone. Instead, you have to make your way silently across the rooftops and forests of feudal Japan, sneaking up on guards and systematically removing their presence, all the while keeping your main target in the forefront of your mind. Some missions have you killing a specific person, others have you delivering messages, and still others have you rescuing captured Samurai. The settings are towns, forests, caves, and anything else you might imagine appearing in an Akira Kurasawa movie.
"You must be flexible like Silly Putty, yet hard like a frozen bagel."
The gameplay is a combination of patience and action. You must slowly move along, staying in the shadows for the most part; any noise could alert the guards to your position. You have to eliminate them one by one, otherwise you might find yourself on the wrong end of a spear. If you successfully sneak up on the aforementioned bad guy, you can calmly remove his head without any fear of reprisal. If, however, you're a clumsy oaf, you have to fight with the guard or guards in a duel reminiscent of Bushido Blade (minus those pesky rules of honor.) The game rates you on your ninja abilities and the better you do, the higher you're ranked, and the more bonus items you get. Bonuses for cleaner kills? Sounds good to me!
"Death comes but once, unless you continue."
The American version of Tenchu features many additions over the Japanese version. Besides the obvious addition of English, they also added two new levels, magic armor, enhanced enemy AI, bloodier battles (bloodier than Evil Dead 2), and a brand new ending. Also, each scenario has three different setups, each with guards and items in different locations. This makes the game amazingly replayable, and you'll find yourself spending hours trying to get Grandmaster status on some of the harder levels.
"Music is the spice of life, Paprika goes better with lamb."
On top of all this is the fantastic music, perfectly fitting with each level. The music on some levels are reminicent of traditional Japanese music, while others feature lightly plucked Spanish guitar. The music is nice, soft, and mellow . . . perfect tunes to kill by. The sound is also superb. The ninja's footsteps only make a slight noise as you run across the rooftops. Each of the guards has their own little noises they emit occasionally that allow you to know where they are. If they kept quiet, your job would be a lot harder.
"Even the most perfect fish has inedible parts."
Despite the amazing gameplay, there are still some errors in Tenchu. The game seems to have some major clipping errors (ie. characters halfway into the walls, seeing through walls - typical polygonal errors). In playing the game, however, those errors are mildly annoying and don't detract from gameplay at all.
"Walk softly and carry a big sword."
All in all, Tenchu is one the best Japanese ports ever. Kudos to Activision for one of the most realistic gameplay experiences I have ever encountered. Despite some polygonal errors, I found the rest of the game to be flawless. Of all the games that I have reviewed recently, this one takes the cake. I'll be playing it for many hours to come.