Some people may not remember that Tenchu helped start the stealth action craze back on the PlayStation. This took place even a few months before the seminal and more highly regarded Metal Gear Solid exploded onto the scene. The original Tenchu let you choose one of two master ninjas and then embark on a series of important secret missions throughout feudal Japan. In these missions, you used your stealth, guile, and bag of ninja tricks to assassinate important targets, sabotage enemy operations, and gather sensitive information. From Software is now finishing up a new entry in the Tenchu series for the Xbox 360, and we got to try out a nearly finished English version. Some of the particulars have changed in Tenchu Z, but the underlying formula in the series is definitely still here.
There seems to be less focus on the storyline in Z because you won't take control of past named main characters, such as Rikimaru. Instead, there's more emphasis on customization. You'll choose between a male or female lead ninja, whom you can then trick out with the usual custom-character assortment of faces, hairstyles, and types of ninja garb. More important than your appearance is the distribution of your various skills, which you'll tweak before you start the game itself. You'll have a fixed number of points to distribute to your movement speed, health bar, and attacking power, so you can influence your overall ninja ability to an extent. You'll then get to visually spec out and name a partner (whose gender seems by necessity to be the opposite of your own), but after playing a handful of missions, we didn't notice that our partner had an effect on anything but a few end-level cutscenes.
All that customization stuff is relatively new, but the action within the missions is classic Tenchu. You'll begin at a little hub camp in the forest where you can equip a set number of ninja goodies. These include throwing stars, smoke bombs, explosive darts, and so on. Then you'll talk to your master to receive your next mission (of which there are about 50 in total). The game's first few missions proceed in a linear fashion, but they'll soon branch out and allow you to skip around a little bit as you progress through the storyline, which seems fairly thin so far. Our objectives in the first few missions included killing a couple of high-profile bad guys, collecting a number of bombs that had been scattered around a village, and making our way across an occupied town to cross a bridge into enemy territory.
In practical terms, you'll accomplish all of those objectives by sneaking around and cutting throats a whole lot. This is how Z is closest to all the preceding Tenchu games: You've got the same color-based enemy-proximity indicator, along with a Splinter Cell-style meter indicating your relative visibility, to help you remain hidden from the numerous guards that you'll want to neutralize silently. Performing a stealth kill is as easy as getting behind an enemy and hitting the attack button. Additionally, if more than one enemy is nearby and none of them detect you, you can actually kill all of them in a combo kill if you have the right timing. However, we encountered some preternaturally observant enemies in our build, some of whom could see us in places where it seemed like we'd be safely hidden, so pulling off stealth kills will require a lot of patience and care.
Of course, if an enemy spots you, you'll have to fight him head-on, which seems a tad clunky right now but is mostly manageable. You can lock on to an enemy and circle around him or flip over him while throwing sword combos and the occasional ranged attack his way. Luckily, you can escape back into the shadows with relative ease because your character is a lot more nimble than your enemies. Plus, the trademark grappling hook in the series returns, which allows you to take to the rooftops in just a few seconds to evade pursuers.
But you'll suffer other penalties for repeatedly getting noticed because the game grades just about every aspect of your performance in a given mission. Everything from mission duration to number of stealth kills and number of times caught to the manner in which you killed the boss character will contribute to (or deduct from) your final score. Your final rating will be tallied and then converted into the amount of gold you'll receive, which you'll use to buy new ninja items, attack combos, special abilities, and so on. However, there are a lot of things that can heavily impact your income. For instance, getting spotted by a guard deducts a relatively huge amount from your final score. In another example, playing on the easy difficulty will only award you 90 percent of your original total. Before we got the hang of it, we actually managed to receive no money upon successfully completing several missions early in the game. But luckily, you can replay any mission over and over to earn extra gold, which will buff up your character something fierce.
Our build of Tenchu Z was still a little rough around the edges, with some localized text still in need of polish and various cinematic animations missing. But the fundamental gameplay seemed to be on the money for Tenchu fans (aside from a few stealth-related oddities). So the real question will have to do with the amount of variety and replayability that will or won't exist in the whole of the game's dozens of missions. We'll have the final word on that with our full review of the game in June.