The best games in the Tenchu series earned their black belts with engaging stealth action that challenged players to think creatively and use a variety of cool ninja tactics. Although Tenchu: Shadow Assassins mimics the format of its betters reasonably well, it never actually gets it right. The stilted controls and broken stealth logic not only make it hard to feel like a ninja, they also make it hard to have any fun. The solid visuals and stylish music can't mask the fact that Shadow Assassins is an exercise in frustration.
Tenchu: Shadow Assassins takes place in feudal Japan and brings back two protagonists that fans of the series will recognize instantly: Rikimaru and Ayame. The familiar kidnapped princess/kingdom in peril story unfolds twice, once from each ninja's perspective, and dovetails into a bizarre and surprisingly morbid ending. The cutscenes that tell the story are impressive, and you'll enjoy watching the detailed, fluidly animated characters play their parts in the serviceable narrative. There are some weird spots, notably the melodramatic voice acting and the Japanese merchant who speaks with a Cockney accent, but on the whole these cutscenes are a pillar of the generally impressive presentation. Environments are well detailed, and the musical score is an enjoyably modern interpretation of traditional Japanese themes.
Though you play as two different ninja, their abilities are identical. The gameplay consists primarily of sneaking through levels while killing or evading guards. Hiding in the clearly marked shadow areas will totally conceal you from view and let you instantly kill any enemy who comes within your reach. These quick kills, called hissatsu, require you to follow onscreen prompts and perform the corresponding remote motions or button presses. The satisfyingly brutal hissatsu are fun to perform and include such classic kills as snapping an enemy's neck and eviscerating him with his own sword. The cleverly designed stealth meter will help you stay hidden; it's an image of the moon that will shine brightly when you're exposed, cloud over if you're hidden, and is surrounded by stars that represent the positions of your enemies.
Staying in cover is crucial, so it's aggravating when the awkward controls hinder your movements. Both ninja move at a sneaking pace, which means that you'll do a lot of slowly walking between shadows (running will always attract the guards). Unfortunately, it's often unclear which environmental elements you can easily move through and which will impede your progress, which makes for some frustrating hang-ups. If you are close to cover or get spotted, you can shake the remote quickly to roll into cover or away from your enemy. This is usually a helpful move, but sometimes you may end up inadvertently rolling sideways into a fire or backward off of a cliff. You can also jump, which is useful for getting up into the rafters or onto a roof, especially given that the grappling hook from earlier Tenchu games is not available. However, the jumping motion is so jerky that it's best to rely on the onscreen prompts that tell you when there is a ledge overhead. Any attempt to jump around the environment is likely to meet with invisible walls or alerted guards, and the few times you have to jump over gaps are downright treacherous.
You can use your Mind's Eye ability to spot guards, pinpoint shadow areas, and even see the guards' line of sight. If you are discovered and fail to dodge away quickly, you will be forced into a confrontation. If you don't have a sword in your inventory, you will vanish in a cloud of smoke and crow feathers, and then restart at the beginning of the area. If you have a sword, you will switch into a first-person view and fight the guard. You and your opponent switch off attacking and defending. You swing the Wii Remote to attack, and defend by positioning the remote according to the onscreen prompts. If you lose (which you often will), you'll return to the beginning of the area; win, and you'll deliver a death blow and go on your merry way. The remote is not very responsive in these encounters, and blocking enemy attacks is prohibitively difficult. Oddly, Tenchu: Shadow Assassins seems to want you to win swordfights only when it is required, so beating a boss in a duel is much easier than defeating an average foot soldier during the course of a level.
Shadow Assassins begins to reveal its fatal flaws when you vanish back to the beginning of an area. When you disappear, the guards all return to normal status, regardless of the fact that they just watched a ninja murder their buddy. The dead bodies remain on the ground while other guards resume their patrol, walking right by corpses without blinking. You could conceivably kill a guard, get discovered, vanish, and do it all again until no one is left standing, and only your end-of-level ranking would be adversely affected. This fundamentally undermines the stealth gameplay and makes the whole game feel kind of broken.
Other flaws serve only to reinforce this feeling: How is it that a guard wearing an elaborate helmet and mask with two eyeholes has better peripheral vision than an unmasked guard? And then there was the guard that we killed by hitting him into an open flame with a shuriken (admittedly cool). As his dead body lay burning on the ground, another guard came over to investigate, caught fire, and died. This happened on multiple occasions. If only the second guard had been standing a few feet further away, he wouldn't have noticed his screaming, burning compatriot and would have gone about his business unperturbed. These extreme examples are symptomatic of the general shoddiness that plagues Tenchu: Shadow Assassins.
Items provide another example of how Shadow Assassins just doesn't get it right. You can use a throwing knife to outright kill an enemy ninja in hiding, but patrolling guards will shake off the deadly weapon and go into alert mode. There are helpful items, such as two different explosives and a bamboo water container that lets you snuff out fires, but none is more enjoyable (and outright bizarre) than the Shinobi Cat. This adorable fellow can be found standing like a statue around levels, waiting to be picked up. When you use this "item," you actually control the cat. You can pick up other items in his mouth and bring them back to your character, or you can jump all over guards to send them into alert mode. Guards have the same reaction to being attacked by a berserk housecat as to being stuck in the ear with a shuriken: "Huh? Is someone there?"
Tenchu: Shadow Assassins can be called a lot of things, but short isn't one of them. The main campaign will take upwards of ten hours to finish. It's a tough game, and completing missions will give you a sense of satisfaction. Unfortunately, this satisfaction is evenly split between the thrill of victory and the relief of successfully working around the game's various technical hang-ups. If you finish levels with a good ranking, you can unlock extra assignments, which are bonus stand-alone missions with specific challenges that take place in areas that you've already traversed. Acing many levels requires using items only found elsewhere, so you have to revisit a level in order to earn a good ranking just so you can revisit that level again. This would be fine if the levels were fun the first time through, but they usually aren't.
Unfortunately, most of the fun there is to be had in Tenchu: Shadow Assassins is overshadowed by the game's pervasive flaws. You're always struggling against the awkward controls to puzzle your way through the pseudostealth missions. Players who like a stiff challenge and don't mind working through a bevy of gameplay issues might find some enjoyment here, but for most folks, it just isn't worth the hassle.