Let's be honest. Tenchu: Return From Darkness is not the only ninja game in town. For one thing, it's mostly just a straight port of Tenchu: Wrath of Heaven, a great PlayStation 2 stealth action game that's been available for a year. For another thing, the release of this game arrives in the wake of the superb Ninja Gaiden, which rightfully has many Xbox owners overjoyed and very busy. There goes the first and last gratuitous Ninja Gaiden reference, anyway. The fact is, Tenchu: Return From Darkness is a very different type of game--sort of a "ninja simulation"--insofar as its gameplay involves staying out of sight and moving in for the kill rather than taking on armies head-on. This new Xbox version of the third Tenchu game includes a few new features and enhancements not found in the original PS2 version (most notably an online multiplayer mode), but the game hasn't aged all that well, so it's not like it was worth waiting around for this version. In fact, the PS2 version is still available for a fraction of the price of this new release. Still, if you've never played the PS2 version, don't have a PS2, and have a hankering for some more ninja action, then Tenchu: Return From Darkness will do you right.
As in previous Tenchu games, the main characters in this one are a young male and female pair of ninjas from the Azuma clan, the strong and disciplined Rikimaru, and the lithe and lightning-fast Ayame. A number of other old characters make returning appearances, and while the plot doesn't necessarily expect you to be familiar with them, it won't make a whole lot of sense either way. Actually, this Xbox version of the game attempts to elaborate on the story a bit more with some additional cutscenes, but the additions don't succeed in making the plot any more coherent. The connection from one mission to the next is vague, and the story introduces a lot of details that aren't really fleshed-out. Suffice it to say that both Ayame and Rikimaru are on the trail of a couple of bad guys, and what other excuse do you really need to step into their shoes to try to silently slay everything from lecherous samurai, to renegade ninjas, to potbellied demons, to festering zombies, to weird automatons, to evil monks? This isn't lighthearted stuff, since both Rikimaru and Ayame are equipped with a good variety of moves designed to deal swift, painful death to their enemies. Like in previous Tenchu games, Rikimaru and Ayame can kill any foe with a single attack if either can sneak up on that foe. If detected, though, each can still hold his or her own in a head-on fight.
The game's story mode initially lets you choose either Rikimaru or Ayame, each of whom has a good-sized campaign for you to fight through. A handful of new single-player missions are available exclusively in the Xbox version of the game, and they seamlessly fit in with the others. It's a nice bonus, but it's not enough to justify revisiting the experience for any but the most hardcore fans of Wrath of Heaven. Once you finish the two primary campaigns, a third not-so-secret character--a martial artist doctor named Tesshu--also becomes available and has his own slightly shorter campaign. As a ninja, Tesshu isn't quite as conventional as the other two and fights bare-handed. He generally hits his enemies' pressure points or dislocates and breaks their limbs as necessary--with plenty of dramatic flair, of course.
Each character's campaign has some replay value due to the game's multiple difficulty settings and because there are three variations on each level that change around the layout of enemy guard patrols. The campaigns are all somewhat similar, meaning you'll revisit mostly the same locations from one campaign to the next, though your objectives in them and your path through them will be different. Nevertheless, while Tenchu: Return From Darkness does have a lot of missions and a lot of variations on these missions, you'll get to know the game's relative few locations--from a bizarre castle filled with traps, to a ronin village, to a cemetery--very well by the time you've gone through all three campaigns.
The settings and objectives of each mission do vary, but each one plays out roughly the same way. You control your ninja from a third-person perspective and must work your way through each large, sometimes mazelike, level while dispatching enemy guards when their backs are turned. Your ninja can see farther than your enemies can, and moving about while crouched often allows you to remain completely invisible to your enemies even when you'd expect them to be able to see you. Your character is virtually silent too, so it's possible to run right up and murder an enemy who's looking the other way. An indicator representing your ninja's heightened senses informs you of when enemies are nearby and of which stage of alert they're in so that you know when to tread carefully or when to actively stalk for prey.
Furthermore, your ninja can use a wide variety of gadgets and items in each mission, from poisonous rice balls that can distract and paralyze enemy guards, to explosives, to throwing stars, to bear traps, to mind control devices. However, most of these--with the exception of the healing potions that restore you to full health--aren't essential. They can still be a lot of fun to use, though. Potions aside, the other item that often comes into play is the grappling hook, which lets your ninja both scale high walls and grab onto otherwise unreachable ledges. You can use the hook to latch onto most surfaces, and this not only serves to make your ninja seem extremely mobile but also gives the level designers of Tenchu: Return From Darkness license to create big, multistory environments rather than purely flat ones.
The thrill of the hunt in Tenchu: Return From Darkness can be quite thrilling indeed. The characters have different stealth kill moves depending on whether they catch the opponent from behind, from the side, from the front, from above, and more, and all these motion-captured animations look quite good. Certain types of opponents can be quite tough if fought head-on, so there's definitely incentive to get the stealth kill, especially since landing enough stealth kills in one mission unlocks a new special move for your character. Actually, this version of the game features a few new moves not found in the original, but again, these are nice for variety's sake but aren't so significant that Wrath of Heaven players ought to go out of their ways to check them out.
Stealth kills are encouraged but aren't necessary. The campaigns never strictly require you to remain hidden (though you're ranked at the end of each level based on your stealth), and at the default difficulty setting, the combat in Tenchu: Return From Darkness is actually rather easy, for the most part. If that enemy ninja you're sneaking up on happens to notice you, you should still be able to take him down in a one-on-one fight. His attacks won't hurt you too much, and he'll do a pretty poor job of blocking yours. And it's relatively rare to come up against more than one opponent at a time, let alone more than two, though these situations are definitely more dangerous.
Getting ganged up on in Tenchu: Return From Darkness is dangerous partly because the camera perspective can cause you to get blindsided. The right shoulder button allows you to reset the camera behind your character, which works pretty well, but sometimes the camera will do its own thing and leaves you with a less-than-adequate vantage point. For example, the camera automatically tilts downward when you're near a ledge, which is great if you're trying to get the drop on an enemy below, but it's not great if you're trying to time a jump across a bottomless pit. Actually, pitfalls are probably the biggest source of frustration and the biggest source of challenge in Tenchu: Wrath of Heaven because the few stages that include deadly drops are by far the most difficult. Again, this is because of camera issues and because of the relative ease of combat. What an ignoble way for a ninja to die. The gameplay has a few other small flaws. In some situations, the right analog stick lets you conveniently adjust the camera perspective, and at other times it doesn't. During head-on combat, there's a lot of clipping, and you and your foe will often seem to pass right through each other. These aren't major issues, but they may detract from your enjoyment of the game.
Disappointingly, your enemies aren't smart--even when they're not engaged in combat--so they will conduct simple, extremely predictable patrols until they notice you or get killed by you. If it's the former, they'll give chase, sometimes dropping into bottomless pits in the process. And if you manage to get out of their lines of sight, which usually isn't hard, they'll conduct halfhearted searches for a few seconds before foolishly returning to their patrols, thus setting themselves up for stealth kills again. The artificial intelligence has been tweaked a bit for this version, so enemies who notice you will pretty much always whistle for reinforcements. However, these reinforcements tend to never arrive, so this adjustment doesn't benefit the game. There's really never a tangible fear of alarms going off or having reinforcements pour in or anything like that, and surprisingly, the gameplay doesn't involve hiding in shadows. As a result, you only hide around corners, behind obstacles, and on higher ground, like rooftops. And even though this version of the game adds the ability for you to drag bodies around, you also needn't worry about disposing of the corpses of your foes. So for better or worse, Tenchu: Return From Darkness is actually one of the most forgiving stealth games to date, notwithstanding those pesky pitfalls. Actually, another new feature in the Xbox version of the game is that on the easy difficulty setting, you don't have to start over from the beginning of a mission if you die.
In addition to the campaigns, Tenchu: Return From Darkness also features a two-player split-screen mode, which includes a handful of missions designed for cooperative play, as well as a versus mode. This Xbox version of the game also lets you take this multiplayer action online. The cooperative missions are definitely the highlight here because they allow you and a friend to execute great-looking double-team stealth kills. The co-op missions are disjointed and aren't part of the main storyline, but each has unique objectives, so these missions can be quite a bit more challenging than those in the campaigns. Meanwhile, the versus mode lets you and a friend choose from the game's main characters and bosses (plus some hidden, unlockable ones) so that you can slug it out against each other and a bunch of enemy grunts. Tenchu's combat system isn't that great and mostly consists of jamming on the attack button to string together attack combos or holding down the block button to defend against similar combos. As a result, the versus mode is a diversion at best. Also, we experienced noticeable lag during some of our online play sessions, though it wasn't unmanageable. Moreover, the cooperative mode, as you might expect, demands a collaborative effort--and it's more than you might get from the average stranger online. In fact, we had more trouble finding cooperative online sessions than versus sessions.
Tenchu: Wrath of Heaven was a pretty impressive-looking PlayStation 2 game a year ago, but today on the Xbox, Tenchu: Return From Darkness looks merely decent. In some ways, the graphics have been touched up, but the game doesn't really live up to the Xbox's high graphical standards. The silky smooth frame rate is still one of the best aspects of the graphics, and the character models for Rikimaru and Ayame, in particular, are also pretty good. Many of the other characters in the game also look nice enough, such as the numerous boss opponents you'll be forced to fight (none of whom are especially tough). Vanquished foes die spectacularly by spraying blood everywhere, though this is more stylish than grisly. The game's presentation has some real shortcomings, though. Textures are blurry and bland. Colors are drab and washed out. Some graphical oversights, such as how the main characters' arms and weapons blatantly stick out when they've got their backs flattened against a wall near a corner--yet somehow the characters remain perfectly invisible to their foes--are rather silly. Most of the game's environments aren't particularly detailed and are often just straightforward corridors or wide-open spaces that provide just enough room to hide behind cover. Also, some of the animations in the game are held over from previous installments of Tenchu and look noticeably worse than the new ones.
Fortunately, the game's audio fares better. The English voice acting is mostly well done, and a good bit of it is provided by some of the most experienced voice actors in the business. Activision has thankfully included the option to play the game with Japanese voices and English subtitles, for an authentic touch. Either way, you'll notice that standard enemy guards repeat the same lines of dialogue far too often, thus adding to the sense that you're picking off one mindless foe after another. Since this is a game about stealth, as you can imagine, there isn't a ton of loud noise in Tenchu: Return From Darkness, but what sound effects there are do sound good. Meanwhile, the music is definitely the highlight of the game's audio and features numerous tracks that mix traditional Japanese instruments and electronic ones for a distinctive sound. Some of the tracks are a bit short and will loop frequently during the course of a long level, and the game's music doesn't change dynamically depending on whether you're skulking around or fleeing for your life. However, it's still well done and adds a lot to the game's atmosphere.
Tenchu: Return From Darkness may not be a huge departure from previous games in the series, but that's mostly to its credit. The series retains its own unique style and very cool main characters. Though the stealth mechanics themselves aren't necessarily as complex as those of other recent stealth games, like Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell and Hitman 2: Silent Assassin, they work well and can make for some highly gratifying sequences. Most of the other aspects of gameplay--like the ninja acrobatics with the grappling hook and having to explore all the large levels, for example--are also solid. And between the different level variations and the multiplayer features, Tenchu: Return From Darkness has good lasting value. If you've already played the PS2 version of the game, then you know all this already and won't find a noticeably different experience in Return From Darkness. However, if you missed out on the original release of this game, it's certainly not too late to appreciate its good qualities.