Seeing as pirates and ninjas are about the coolest things in the universe, I got excited when I saw the option to customize my ninja in Tenchu Z with an eyepatch. That would be Cap’n Nunchuk to you, sir.
But a couple hours of Tenchu Z later and I was looking for another eyepatch, this one to save my remaining good eye from the horrifying sight of clumsy ninjas and their learning -disabled prey.
Tenchu Z, the third installment of the aging Tenchu series, re-heats the core gameplay of the original stealth/action game - You control a ninja tasked with assassinating key targets in feudal Japan. To accomplish your goal, you sneak through heavily-guarded areas, crawl across rooftops and under floors, peek around corners, and stab unsuspecting enemies in their backs. Back in 1998, that open-platform feeling was a Real Ultimate Power.
But the age shows on this formula, and while games such as Hitman: Blood Money and the Metal Gear franchise have innovated and revolutionized the genre, Tenchu merely fiddles with its clothes. Literally, as one of the game’s major new features is the ability to buy and change your ninja garb. Or, as in the case of Cap’n Nunchuck, wear none at all.
The game proceeds episodically, and once you have chosen and customized your character’s appearance, you will make your way through fifty missions, each with their own map and target. There is a flimsy overarching story, but none of the other characters, besides your own mostly anonymous ninja and his sidekick (yes, you have a computer-controlled sidekick... with an eyepatch), live long enough to flesh out the narrative. You are introduced to a new baddie at the beginning of each mission, and ten to fifteen minutes later he’s lying in a pool of his own poorly-rendered blood.
There’s nothing new in this formula, but nothing wrong either. It’s what happens in those ten to fifteen minutes that expose the game’s shortcomings.
The most damning, most unforgivable, transgressions are the worn scraps of repetitive computer code the game calls “enemies.” The world of feudal Japan, according to Tenchu Z, is populated with obsessive pacers: men and women who walk in little repetitive Zen patterns of infinite futility. Since your ninja must advance through areas without being seen, most of the game devolves into the time-honored videogame practice of noticing and exploiting a pattern.
Walking in tight patterns may be robotic, but even robots would laugh at the utterly unbelievable stupidity of the enemy guards. When your ninja is noticed, the guards will attack, shouting and generally making a racket. But if you pull a secret ninja move, say, crawl under a building or just go around a corner, the guards are lost. The guard sees you. He sees you crawl under a building. He decides that you’ve utterly outsmarted him and goes back to pacing. That darn under-the-building trick again. Never can figure that one out.
But whereas the guards have the reasoning abilities of shrubbery, it’s their Alzheimer’s that really impedes their career as security officers. Even if you’ve been seen murdering several of their friends, the guards will return to their routine of pacing an empty room or gazing thoughtfully into corners. Then you creep up on them and quietly put them out of their brain-dead misery.
Which is ultimately much easier than engaging in the broken combat mechanic. Tenchu Z offers a new customizable combo system, in which you can slot different purchased moves into three or four-button combos. That’s cool, but unnecessary, as the real problems in the combat aren’t in executing new strikes but in staying locked on an enemy. There is a “lock-on” button, but it only seems to affect the first strike. Combat is usually awkward, and both your ninja and the moronic guards seem embarrassed to be caught in such comic displays of swordfighting.
Fortunately, the stealth killing itself works fine. The kill animations are varied, and you also have the option of dragging the body, even though the guards rarely notice the corpses that they pace over. The blood, however, is stylized in a way that doesn’t make sense. Enemies may look like regular humans, but they’ve got the brains of a stack of tires and blood that spurts in fizzing geometrical patterns.
The new stealth moves are also more style than substance. One, for example, allows you to dip under water and breathe through a reed. Do not mind the suspicious moving reed in the water, guard. These are not the droids you are looking for.
The graphics are, like the best ninjas, deceptive. At first, the maps look lush and colorful—leaves float in the air and naked Cap’n Nunchuck lithely slips from ledge to ledge. But a little more detail shows the whole package as a facade. Your foot animation doesn’t change when you go up steps, your shadow often wanders off to do its own thing, the textures on the surfaces are strange, and some ledges that you can see, you can’t touch. Assassin’s Creed this ain’t.
Through Xbox Live, you can tackle the missions with up to four ninjas, coordinating your strikes with ninja walkie-talkies. That might be a boon to some, but although there are points boosts for getting the most kills, its emphasis on communication and cooperation (the mission ends if just one of your party dies) leaves out any competitive angle. Cap’n Nunchuck works alone. And nude.
But even stripping down to your skivvies and bathing in blood (yes, blood does stick on your skin in little tan spots) doesn’t deliver the immersive experience that a stealth game thrives on. The enemies are human only in shape. Even though many of your missions are at night, you never catch anyone sleeping in their beds. They don’t have schedules, appetites, conversations, or any of the things normal humans do. Instead, they pace. And pace.
And Tenchu Z is caught merely keeping pace. Repetitive, sloppy and inane, Tenchu Z trots out an old ninja that is more of a nut-kicker than a stealth killer. With so many other ninjas lurking in the shadows — like Ninja Gaiden Sigma, and Assassin’s Creed — Tenchu may be the first one to market, but this clumsy ninja manages to stab itself in the back.