If you're reading this review, chances are you're already familiar with the Tenchu series. In case you're not, Tenchu is stealth action. It's my understanding that Tenchu was one of the first, or first, 3D-stealth-action games to come to market…for what that's worth. Anyway, Fatal Shadows is, to the best of my understanding, a sort of side story in the series, taking place between the timeline of Tenchu 2 and Wrath of Heaven, I think. Either way, it's pretty much a stand-alone story, and probably perfect for a relative newcomer (I've also played Dark Secret) like myself.
Now, my experience with stealth action is also somewhat limited, overall, with MGS: Snake Eater perhaps being the other most relevant game in the genre I've played before Fatal Shadows. That said, this game is much easier for someone like myself to get into. For one, the camera is more akin to the typical, third-person camera system of your average action-adventure game. One of the most difficult things for me to wrap my head around in Snake Eater was the camera system, so Fatal Shadows is more approachable to me.
That said, much of the gameplay is the same (minus the many load screens of Snake Eater). Go from Point A to Point B without detection (in most cases), taking out dudes / dudettes along the way. Using MGS as my sort of comparative model – since it's perhaps the most renowned stealth-action game currently on the market – Fatal Shadows takes almost the opposite approach in terms of its level format. Though the gameplay is similar to MGS in the sense of stealth action, Fatal Shadows has a more straight-forward, arcade-like approach; you will scope the area, but enemy patrols are more obvious and less tedious to navigate. For the guy who really wants to feel like Rambo, this might equate to mindless fun with little immersion. On the other hand, for someone like myself just looking for some arcade action with a more pick-up-and-play format, it's a great game to jump into.
Much of the actual gameplay in Fatal Shadows consists of manipulating the camera system. Unlike MGS, where the camera is either directly above Snake -- or when you're slithering on the ground, the camera being directly in front of you, ala an FPS -- the camera system in Fatal Shadows has more of that behind-the-back, above-the-character's-shoulder view of many great action-adventure games, and it makes navigating levels a lot more fast-paced and, in my opinion, a lot more satisfying and less frustrating. The camera can be controlled in several ways. When you're simply moving about a level, you can freely move the camera around with the R3 (right analog stick) stick. You can also move the camera in a sort of FPS view by holding the L1 button and moving the L3 stick. However, when you're sidled up to a wall, you'll often find yourself using a combination of these two methods, and it will really open things up for you to discover various ways to approach your next step or strategy.
And this game really does offer you many options in how you want to approach a given level. For instance, one level might allow you to choose to move one way, taking out a guard dog who might otherwise alert enemies to your presence, and then move on to take out the actual ronin present; or you can go around an alternate route, bypassing the guard dog, taking you right to the patrolling enemies where you can then attempt a double stealth kill on them – perhaps more dangerous and challenging, but offering more rewards in item and scroll drops. In the same way there are varying routes to take through most levels, there are various ways in which you can take out enemies – poison darts, traps, stealth kills from multiple angles, allowing for a myriad of stealth-kill animations, or you can take out enemies using special skills acquired from collecting scrolls from downed enemies. Of course, should you get noticed and decide to engage an enemy head-on, there is an impressive selection of combos and attacks that both Ayame and Rin (the game's two main, playable characters) possess.
The game has a fun level of difficulty, though some frustration can certainly set in at various points throughout the experience. That mainly comes from the fact that, during your first playthrough, you're not going to know the lay of the levels, and since there are no checkpoints during missions, death – no matter at what point it may occur during a mission – means starting from square one. That said, there's an addictive quality in redoing missions, since it's not only fun to watch yourself do better with successive playthroughs, but you're also rewarded with better items for doing better in missions. Also, depending on the way in which you execute stealth kills, you can earn one or more scrolls from enemies. As you accumulate scrolls for each character, you'll unlock new skills for each, so there's a sort RPG element in place to help build you up should you find a mission too difficult the first or even second time through. As mentioned before, since the gameplay in Fatal Shadows is more arcade-like and less tedious than your typical MGS game, replaying missions is a whole lot of fun – not a chore.
On the production front, it's a tight package, but nothing that will wow players. The character models look quite good for a PS2 game, but the animations aren't terribly fluid; that said, that and other aspects of the game only add to the overall campy vibe Fatal Shadows exhibits. However, some background textures look kind of N64-ish, and though the texture filtering does an ample job of hiding the textures outright, you don't have to look hard to see the building blocks of many of the games backgrounds. Of course, some of the leaves and trees in the game look almost next-gen. Overall, the game's graphics are an oddly mixed bag, but Fatal Shadows is attractive, as a whole. That's mainly because the art style is just so right on the mark. The areas your characters will navigate are very authentic, and you really feel like you're sneaking around some village in feudal-era Japan. There's nothing like zipping up onto a rooftop with your grappling hook and then skulking around with the full moon shining off in the distance, row upon row of village structures visible from your vantage point.
There are also quite a few entertaining cutscenes sprinkled throughout the game, and though the story isn't terribly engrossing, it adds wonderfully to the gameplay experience. The opening for each chapter (mission) is much the same each time, but the way in which it's presented – as a sort of opening to a television series – really works and, again, adds to the game's overall campy flavor. The voice work is good, though it's perhaps more entertaining to set the game to its Japanese option and listen to the acting done in its native tongue. The sound effects…well, you're either going to love them for their 70s, Kung Fu Theatre-quality cheese, like I do, or you're going to take them seriously, in which case you'll find them outdated and silly. No matter, the game's production and gameplay, though no Kojima production, are a professional package and presentation.
There are, however, some minor gripes in this department, as well. For one, when selecting items for each mission, it can be confusing in terms of how to simply navigate the items screen; you'll have to scroll up and around in order to get to an item that's just left of the item you currently have highlighted, and vice versa. Also, while in missions, if you forget what an item does or cannot recognize an item, there's no way to access a description of the item – the items aren't even named during gameplay.
Those are really my only issues with the presentation, though. Otherwise, the game does a really good job of acquainting the player with everything that's offered. There's an in-depth tutorial mode, an encyclopedia, an options menu, a boss-battle-type mode, as well as a theatre to view cutscenes or pictured descriptions of characters within the game. There's plenty of good stuff crammed under the hood.
I don't know that Fatal Shadows is for the "hardcore" stealth-action fan; I'm not even sure I can define what constitutes that type of fan. But if you're up for some arcade-like fun with enough production and story to keep you going on your way, not to mention an addictive design that keeps you coming back for more, you might really dig this game. No, the AI isn't realistic, but it's on par with that of Snake Eater's AI, the main difference being you don't have to hide for a full two minutes or so before the enemies decide to lower their alert status. But Fatal Shadows really does what it sets out to do: offer a fun, over-the-top, campy and violent take on the stealth-action genre – all with a great setting in feudal Japan. Fatal Shadows plays really well, it's fun to keep coming back to, and it looks and sounds the part.