Monday, February 23, 2009

Piffman2 Reviews- Tenchu: Shadow Assassins

I'm going back to my old style of embedding images and footage within the text

Tenchu 4- Review

Looking for a stealth game that ends in the number 4 and isn’t 60% cutscenes about how war has changed? Well Ubisoft has your back with their M-rated ninja sim Tenchu: Shadow Assassins, aka Tenchu 4. The once groundbreaking series has floundered lately but with the original developers Acquire back at the helm, Tenchu is looking to regain its throne as the 3rd pillar of stealth action alongside Splinter Cell and of course, Metal Gear

The story of Tenchu may be not a be a scathing commentary of private military corporations but it does get more complex than the standard “rescue the princess” plotline it starts out with. Even though I’ve never played a game in this ten year old series, it was still easy to figure out the personalities of all of the characters and the relationships between them. The two loyal yet jaded protagonists are the abrasive ninja Rikimaru and the cynical kunoichi (lady ninja) Ayame. The two characters are usually at odds with each other and the tension between them is amplified by a conspiracy to discredit them both. The intrigue and deception is what you’d expect from a game about ninjas but the story does presents some poignant points about the justification of murder, what ninjas do best. One problem for a Tenchu virgin like me was the sudden appearance of who I can only assume is the main villain of the series. What should have been a surprising twist did nothing for me. The cinemas themselves are well done although they do have a PS1 era prerendered look to them. Finally, the voice acting, while mostly good, sometimes delves into inappropriate English accents or worse, Batman/ Dr. Claw levels of unnecessary gruffness. Acquire wants to make a Tenchu trilogy on Wii and based on the somber ending of this game, it’s obvious that there is more to come.

The entire stealth genre is relatively new to me which is one of the factors that led me into buying Tenchu. In fact, my only other experience with the genre is the excellent Metal Gear Solid Mobile for Verizon cell phones. Based on my general knowledge however, Tenchu 4 seems like a standard stealth game. You travel across fairly linear environments, staying away from enemies. Using the minds eye technique you can actually see their line of sight. You can’t hide forever though and sometimes enemies must be taken out with a hissatsu, or assassination technique. The motion-controlled kills are fun and varied. Often times they are context sensitive so you’ll get a different animation depending on if you’re in a pond or on top of a building. The controls are responsive which is helpful later on in the game when you encounter enemies who must be killed quickly and without warning. There are also items in the game for killing, like shuriken, and for solving the numerous environmental puzzles. Cats can scope out areas and carry items while bamboo tubes can put out torches, creating shadows. Speaking of shadows, while I keep calling the game Tenchu 4, its full name Is Tenchu: Shadow Assassins for a reason. One of the biggest features Acquire keeps touting is their impressive lighting system. When your ninja is in shadow, like in a bush or pressed against a wall, they are hidden from enemies. A moon icon tells you when you are in shadows or if you have been spotted. Whipping the Wii remote in a specific direction sends you into the nearest shadow. Finally, if you are spotted by guards you’ll enter into a Red Steel style sword fight. Except for the boss fights oddly enough, these duels are cruel in their difficulty. However, I believe this is the game trying to discourage players from being seen. It’s a slow and cerebral experience which might turn off some people. Also, the linear, trial and error gameplay of Tenchu 4 is sometimes frustrating. But I was able to overlook these flaws for several reason: the controls are never at fault, every mistake is due to the player, it probably represents the true ninja experience (unlike Ninja Gaiden), and the payoff of successfully killing a string enemies and instantly dashing into a safe shadow zone you created yourself by blowing out a candle is immensely satisfying. This is a complex and hardcore game that grows on your and rewards you for getting better at it and learning its intricacies (like Ninja Gaiden).

Typically games released on Wii and PSP aren’t known for their fantastic visuals. However, Tenchu 4 creates an impressive, realistic look at feudal Japan. Since lighting is so crucial to the gameplay it’s also the star of the graphics engine. It’s always fun to see a lightning bolt light up the whole level only to realize that you are no longer in shadow. I’m not entirely sold on Rikimaru’s character design what with him being a young ninja with white hair and cloth over his mouth covered with fangs Bowser Jr. style. But overall the characters models, like the armored samurai, are well detailed. The backgrounds however are similar, often repeat and are just a little bland visually. Building look like Wii quality textures on PSP quality geometry along with some Sega CD quality bushes thrown in for good measure. The game runs in widescreen but apparently not in 480p. One level did look somewhat blurry but that also might have been the heat distortion coming from the burning building I was trapped in.

Adding tremendously to the experience is the amazing soundtrack by Noriyuki Asakara. The brooding, melancholy and thoroughly Japanese tone along with the erratic tempo perfectly complement the dark, moody visuals and gameplay where the tide can turn in an instant. As I’m writing this, I’m listening to my favorite track, Ame, which blew me away when I first heard it while killing guards in a thunderstorm. The album is for sale on iTunes. Listen for yourself down below

Tenchu 4 has a substantial amount of features too. There are 10 lengthy missions across two campaigns for about a dozen hours of gameplay. There are also 50 short side mission which is good because the main missions can actually drag sometimes. Every level can be replayed and the game encourages additional playthroughs because your performance is ranked. It’s funny that Tenchu rewards you for killing as many as possible whereas games like Metal Gear discourage it.

The stealth genre is strange and niche. Despite being on Wii, Tenchu: Shadow Assassins won’t do anything to bring more people into the fold. Tenchu 4 is just a well done stealth game but by being of Wii and filling in that genre gap, that’s all is really needs to be.


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