Long before Splinter Cell was conceived and just a few weeks before Metal Gear Solid arrived on shelves, PlayStation owners got their first real taste of stealth action gameplay, courtesy of Tenchu: Stealth Assassins. In recent years, Activision's Tenchu series has graced both the PlayStation 2 and the Xbox, and while the visuals have obviously improved a great deal since Ayame and Rikimaru's first outing, it's a testament to the quality of the first Tenchu title that the gameplay remains largely unchanged to this day. Next month, Sega of America will release Tenchu: Fatal Shadows for the PS2, and we recently had an opportunity to put our ninja skills to the test with a work-in-progress version of the game, both as Ayame and as new character Rin--a second kunoichi who will be replacing Rikimaru this time out.
The first time you play Tenchu: Fatal Shadows, you'll be encouraged to play through a brief tutorial, which, if you're a fan of the series, will serve as little more than a refresher course, since very little has changed since August 1998. The tutorial is divided up into sections covering the basic and advanced controls, the use of items, stealth kills, combat, camera positioning, and swimming. The most important controls for you to remember once you complete the tutorial will be your stealth button (allowing you to crouch, lean around corners, and such), the use of the series' trademark grappling hook (with which you can reach new areas both quickly and quietly), how to hide the bodies of enemies that might otherwise arouse suspicion, and the art of the stealth kill.
As in previous Tenchu games, stealth kills are performed by pressing a single button when you manage to get close enough to an enemy who is oblivious to your presence. The system has been refined somewhat for Fatal Shadows, and now offers you an extended kill animation if you hit the button at the precise moment that you get close enough to your enemy to do so--as indicated by a small flashing light on the game's heads-up display. Also new to the series are the different names attributed to each stealth kill, which are displayed at the end of each kill animation. Perhaps the most significant new feature in Fatal Shadows, though, are the double stealth kills, which are every bit as cool as they sound, allowing you to take out two enemies simultaneously, provided they're standing next to each other.
Stealth kills aren't always easy to pull off, of course, and if you're spotted by an enemy at any point you'll invariably find yourself in a combat situation that you can either see through to its inevitable conclusion, or attempt to run away from. Combat is actually handled pretty well in Tenchu: Fatal Shadows, requiring you to employ evasive maneuvers and blocks, as well as a number of different attacks. You'll have the option to lock on to a single enemy, which is definitely useful in a one-on-one situation, or to control everything manually, which is a little harder to do but can be more effective if you're being set upon by a group. If things aren't going your way in a fight, or you'd just rather have another crack at taking out your enemies with stealth kills, escaping the situation rarely requires you to do more than backtrack through the level until you find a place to hide for a few moments. On the default difficulty setting, the enemies are quick to give up searching for you once they've been alerted, and while their range of vision seems to be almost as good as your own (though they rarely look up or down), they seem blissfully unaware of every sound you make, with only one exception--when you splash through shallow water.
You Hear Something?
Thankfully, the enemies are made more difficult to deal with by the fact that, as a ninja, you don't have access to any kind of radar that might allow you to pinpoint their locations. What you will have is a small proximity indicator in the lower left-hand corner of the screen that, when you're not being pursued by enemies who have already been alerted to your presence, uses a number between 1 and 100 to let you know how far you are from the closest hostile. It's a great system that really hasn't changed since Tenchu: Stealth Assassins--it lets you know when you need to tread carefully (the same way that hearing footsteps around a corner might), and since it reacts only to your closest adversary, you won't know how many you have to deal with until you eyeball them and take the time to study their patrol routes. Patience is definitely one of the keys to success in Tenchu: Fatal Shadows, as it should be in any stealth action title.
Ayame and Rin, incidentally, start out with virtually identical skill sets, so switching between the two as you progress through the early stages of the game doesn't really throw up as much in the way of variety as switching between the alternate characters in many other games. Both of the characters will learn special skills as you collect scrolls dropped by stealth-kill victims, though, and these make the pair far more varied. Ayame's first special skill, for example, is a "wall run" ability that allows her to jump toward a wall and continue to run straight up it. The first special skill you'll learn as Rin, on the other hand, is a "fang guard" defense that, with practice, will allow you to parry enemy attacks. Without wishing to give anything anyway, we'll also point out that Ayame and Rin have an interesting and unusual relationship, and that even in the early stages of the story mode that we've played through thus far, their plotlines have become intertwined in a way that's quite intriguing.
At the end of each level, some of which feature battle with boss-style characters, you'll be awarded a ranking based on your performance. The ranking takes into account a number of factors, such as how often you were spotted, how many enemies you killed, how many stealth kills you performed, and whether or not any innocents were harmed as a result of your actions. Being told that you're a "master ninja" is certainly a lot more rewarding than being branded a "thug," but the ranking you receive isn't just about kudos, it's also about unlocking new items that you can then employ in subsequent levels. The selection of items available to you the first time you play Tenchu: Fatal Shadows is limited, to say the least--you'll get a handful of throwing stars, a similar number of caltrops, a couple of healing potions, and some colored rice that can be used to mark your trail. Later on, depending on your performance, you'll add all kinds of cool stuff to your arsenal, including a blowgun, strength potions, poison rice that will paralyze enemies who eat it, fireworks for distracting enemies, mines, smoke bombs, grenades, and exploding arrows.
It's true that Tenchu: Fatal Shadows will do very little that's new to the long-running series, but given the quality of its predecessors, that's certainly not a criticism. Fans will surely not be disappointed to find that the game offers more of same stealth action that made them fans in the first place, and newcomers just might find that the stealth techniques of Ayame and Rin are every bit as rewarding to master as those of gadget dependants like Solid Snake and Sam Fisher. Expect a full review of Tenchu: Fatal Shadows when the game arrives in stores next month.