Tenchu: Stealth Assassins Review

Tenchu excels in every way that counts.

Acquire's Tenchu can easily be seen as a confluence of Eidos' Tomb Raider and Square's Bushido Blade. There is, thankfully, more originality at work here than just a direct meld of the two titles, and it delivers a better attempt at an action-packed 3D adventure than we've seen to date.

The name of the game is assassination. You play as one of two ninja: the scar-faced, gray clad Rikimaru or the thin La Femme Nikita type, Ayame. As in Kalisto Entertainment's fairly similar title, Nightmare Creatures, each character has his or her own unique plusses and minuses. Ayame is lightning fast and carries two short blades, while Rikimaru isn't as quick, but is very strong and wields a katana.

The goal in Tenchu is easy to comprehend, but difficult to attain. You must sneak through the various environments without being seen, assassinating your targets as they appear. The plot surrounding all of this (you're an honorable ninja, entrusted with the objectives of protecting your master, wiping out his evil enemies, and attempting to rescue his kidnapped daughter from a demon lord and his followers) keeps the game from being completely merciless, but there is, admittedly, a whole lot of killing involved. Invariably, some guard going about his rounds is going to find himself in your way, and you'll have to try to sneak up behind him and execute him. If done correctly, one of several short death animations will play, showing your character reaching around and cutting your enemy's throat, breaking his back, and so on. Without trying to come off too sadistic, this never, ever gets old.

It's the stealth of Tenchu that makes it so original and appealing. Using the R1 button, the player can hide or flatten out against every wall he or she encounters. Approaching a corner in the latter fashion will cause the game camera to swing around to see if anyone's waiting for you there, preferably with his or her back to you. But that's not the only way to set about town. Both characters are well equipped with a grappling hook and a never-ending supply of rope. When the hook is selected, the perspective goes first person and a thin, red target appears in the center of the screen. Once fired, the hook shoots forward and the player is yanked quickly along after it. What's the advantage? Running along the far less populated rooftops is a much faster, if less confrontational way of moving about. And it's extremely cool.

There are also more than a dozen tools other than the grappling hook at the player's disposal. Chosen from a finite stock at the beginning of each mission, there are such items as poison rice treats of which to paralyze dogs and guards, smoke bombs, sleeping potions, explosives, and throwing stars (which use the same targeting system as the hook).There's surprisingly a lot of value within the game, for not being incredibly long. It's made up of ten fairly large and varied environments, which are just difficult enough to be challenging and fun, though shouldn't take too much time to beat. But, as unlikely as it may sound, the game is enjoyable enough that you'll want to play again after beating it, attempting each mission without being seen at all. If accomplished, the player gets a new and different special item per each stage, from a spell that cloaks you in a foe's image to a sleeping potion. Once that's done, you'll be motivated to try it all over again with the other character. However it's not the end result that goads you on - it's the getting there that comprises most of the fun.

While Tenchu excels in motivation and concept, it also scores a lot of points for the mood it sets. There are many little touches in the areas of graphics, sound, and design that add up to make the title really engaging. The soundtrack has undertones of traditional Japanese music, although with a more modern bent, and goes a long way towards establishing the game's old world atmosphere. Incidental cricket chirps and babbling brooks also complement the excellent music. Likewise, the character design and graphics are also very well done, even though there is occasional instance of pop-up. But it's the sum of these parts that makes the game come together as it does. For instance, there's a species of creature you face several levels in that resembles a thin, nearly naked child with brown leather skin. Instead of simply walking around, they shimmy and dance about like anemic marionettes. When one sees you, it lets out a cooing cry straight out of a nightmare, and then begins breathing fire. It's wonderfully creepy, and it's not the only thing in Tenchu that will inspire this emotion.

All of these things, essentially, were present in the Japanese version of the game, but the US release has seen quite a few significant improvements to Tenchu. The graphics have been tightened up so that the textures are sharper and there's no longer any noticeable slowdown when multiple enemies appear on screen at once, and the camera angles appear to have been refined so that these harried battles don't cause "death by perspective." The language translation has also been handled very well, with voice acting that is, at times, superb. The enemy AI is now much more alert (guards will now investigate cat howls or death gurgles, and will pay attention to levels above and below them), making the goal of sneaking through each level unseen much more challenging. As important as these tweaks is the inclusion of two entirely new missions, one requiring the infiltration of an enemy checkpoint and the other the assassination of a corrupt official. Both are far from just being rehashed versions of other levels in the game - they have their own unique environments, enemies, and carry fantastic soundtracks, making them among the best in the title. This remixed version has corrected many flaws in the Tenchu (which could be partially ignored in light of the game's overall coolness, but it's very nice to have them all but gone, all the same), and added an extra degree of depth. Now every aspect of the title is handled well, if not quite perfectly.

Still, if the game's flaws could be largely ignored before, they intrude far less noticeably now. Tenchu excels in every way that counts, provides a lot of fun, and is well worth the price of admission.

The Good

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The Bad

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