The Tenchu series carries on once again after all these years, this time landing on Nintendo's DS with a new installment that just hit shelves in Japan called Tenchu: Dark Shadow. Astute readers will note that, like many DS games released in the last year or so, the initials of the game's subtitle are, in fact, um...DS. So, for a game called Tenchu DS, the question is, how well does it fit onto and take advantage of the DS hardware? We grabbed a copy of Dark Shadow fresh off the streets of Japan to answer that very question.
At least the basic premise is fully Tenchu. As in most of the past games, you'll take control of his-and-hers ninja pair Rikimaru and Ayame over a variety of missions tasking you with killing bad-guy samurai, rescuing kidnapped maidens, and so forth. There haven't been too many heavy story elements, though you do occasionally get some protracted dialogue between characters accompanied by still 2D artwork. But from what we've seen so far, you'll access all your missions from a select screen, so we're not sure how cohesive the game's storyline will be in the final estimation.
Once you get into those missions, though, you'll be in for a surprise if you were expecting the console versions of Tenchu to be faithfully reproduced on the DS. Though the system is capable of respectable 3D graphics and therefore presumably could have properly represented the Tenchu formula--what with its third-person camera, peeking around walls, grappling hook, first-person aiming, and so forth--Dark Shadow is a somewhat different sort of game. Most noticeably, you play it from an overhead perspective, and with its rudimentary 3D graphics and focus on stealth, it's actually reminiscent of the original Metal Gear Solid on the PlayStation.
Unfortunately, it seems like some of Tenchu's more unique and memorable gameplay aspects have been sacrificed with this change in perspective. You can't go into first-person mode to aim projectile weapons anymore--in fact, we haven't even encountered projectile weapons yet. There's also no grappling hook that we've seen, so you won't be ascending to the rooftops very often. You can at least back up against walls, though the camera will slide over to show you only a little of what's beyond the barrier. But even with all these missing elements, the game does manage to focus on stealth like that of past games, which should be heartening to diehard Tenchu fans.
Each mission that we've played so far has proceeded similarly. You jump in with Rikimaru or Ayame and navigate a small map full of right-angled corners, attempting to kill all the enemies or otherwise reach your objective. You've got a map on the lower screen showing where enemies are and which way they're facing--but the catch is, they only show up when you're very close to them. Since there's no way to look around in first person, you have to creep along slowly to make sure you don't run into anyone. Performing a stealth kill is as easy as sneaking up behind an enemy and hitting the basic melee attack once. You can also block incoming attacks, and you can jump, which we haven't found a lot of use for just yet.
In addition to your basic melee, the most important means of offense in Dark Shadow seems to be a variety of traps you can collect. We've seen a spike trap that will impale unsuspecting enemies when they walk over it, along with a food item that can be thrown down to attract an enemy's attention so you can walk up and dispatch him cleanly. You'll gain points as you complete missions, and then between levels you can access a store where you can buy new traps to use in subsequent missions, along with power-up items for healing and that sort of thing.
Dark Shadow looks to be a pretty basic handheld representation of the ninja action you know and love from past Tenchu games. The action was easy to get a handle on in the included training sequence, but we have to wonder how fresh it will feel after you've played through a bunch of the missions, which so far have been pretty similar. We expect the game's entertainment value will be based largely on the number and variety of traps you can collect as you progress through the game. This is a text-heavy import, so unless you're the world's biggest Tenchu fan, you'd probably be better off waiting for a domestic release (not to mention some English-language reviews). When that will happen is anyone's guess, as nobody has announced a North American release just yet, but we'll bring you the word when they do.