The Tenchu series started way back when on the beloved Playstation and at the time was a direct competitor for stealth supremacy against the likes of Metal Gear Solid. Whilst both games had their fare share of fans Tenchu was always seen as the underdog. However with unmatched stealth gameplay, great music and some fiddly controls Tenchu became a firm favourite for a number of gamers. The later games didn’t really expand the series other than offering multiplayer options and some tweaks here and there. Well it’s 2007 and with new hardware and several games under their belts the team at K2 have brought us a new game for ninja wannabes. Tenchu Z or Tenchu Senran as it is known in Japan has been available since last year and now it’s us Westerners chance to get involved in the action. However is Tenchu Z a worthy addition to the series or in this day and age is the game up to par when you have the likes of Hitman, Splinter Cell and Metal Gear Solid games all vying for the stealth gameplay crown?
Tenchu Z offers two modes of play with one being a single player story mode and the other online and system link multiplayer for up to four players. The online mode basically allows you to complete the single player story missions with your friends.
The single player game begins by allowing you to create your very own personal ninja and their behind the scenes partner (who shows up in cut scenes throughout the game). Here you can choose between male and female ninja (with your partner being the opposite sex) and tweak various parts of their clothing. You can’t really go too in depth with the customization options in terms of physical appearance as there are only a handful of templates to use here, but the clothing options offer a fair amount of diversity. Couple this with various accessories and the option to change hair style and hair colour means you can have a fairly unique looking character (more important for online identity rather than offline play). What is good is that by completing missions you unlock more items of clothing and accessories which you can change around as many times as you like between missions.
Once you have the desired look for your character you can then begin the game proper. What Tenchu Z provides gamers are fairly open levels which allow you to move around at will unhindered by pathways and such like. Not only are you able to move around the levels freely but with the aid of a grappling hook and jumping skills you can launch up onto the rooftops for a better view of your surroundings. This is useful for moving around undetected and viewing guard patrol routes before making your move.
Tenchu Z’s gameplay comes in two forms and that is stealth and pure run and gun (or slash should I say) combat. With the choice on what type of ninja you are to be it’s then up to you to put these into practice in how you play – remembering that the game is flexible and means you can tear things up if you so choose or should the brown stuff hit the fan. For stealth purists the game allows you to be as sneaky as you like and with the tools available to you means you can really get into the sneaking role.
Being sneaky has its advantages and by hiding in the shadows, on roof tops or in bushes means that if you can approach an unawares guard you then have the option of grabbing them or performing a stealth kill or both. On screen indicators show you how much noise you are making and also how visible you are and with a keen eye you begin to know what sort of places you can hide in. There is also a KI indicator on screen which shows you the distance of guards and also their status such as alerted, aware, neutral or if you are spotted (indicated by various colours). This is most useful for gauging how near or far guards are especially when your view is limited when in buildings or rooms. Grabbing an opponent allows you to knock them out so that you can move on undetected. They wake up eventually but it does give you enough time to go about your business. The knockout move is certainly most useful when dealing with the civilians who will raise the alarm if they spot you and of course lose you points should you feel the need to take them down too. When performing a stealth kill it will leave you vulnerable for a short time whilst the game performs a canned one hit kill animation. The animations are cool and there are several of them but if you play the game as it is intended you are going to be seeing them over and over again. The general idea here is to sneak up on a guard and make sure you can perform the kill without being seen. There are several moves you can perform once a guard has been grabbed and one of my favourites is to slam them into the ground and breaking their necks.
The missions themselves, of which there are 50, come in a few guises with assassination types where it’s your job to take out a specific target such as a corrupt official or undercover agent. Here you have the choice of hunting down the target and killing them only or killing the patrolling guards before moving in on the target. It’s this freeform level of play that is enjoyable about the game. Other assassination missions require you to kill every guard in the level and again it’s up to you how you go about this.
Retrieval missions are slightly different in that it’s your job to hunt down an item hidden in the map. Obviously the item is well guarded and so you either sneak in or kill everyone before hunting down the item. There’s obviously a lot of searching around to do in this mode and with no indication of where the item is means you could be spending some time killing guards that get in your way. Other retrieval missions offer finding bombs across the levels which are highlighted on you map. It’s a case of simply grabbing them all whilst either sneaking around or killing everyone who crosses you.
With 50 missions on offer it sounds like quite a lot and it is but when you look at the core elements of the game it’s basically the same levels and objectives repeated with differences being in the text based back stories prior to the missions, different guard placements and a change of lighting on the maps. The story doesn’t really feel part of the game as there are perhaps too few scenes explaining what where and why and so only during certain missions do you get an idea of the general picture. I felt detached from the story as the game for me was simply about completing missions rather than caring why I was doing them.
After mission complete you are awarded cash to spend on new clothing, special moves, abilities, and mission essential items. The amount you earn depends on a number of factors which affect the outcome such as a deduction for each time you are spotted or if you use items or get injured. The most money is gained by performing stealth kills which then encourages you to go for as many kills as possible. This is a great idea on paper and is very fun but with objective based missions such as the assassinations and bomb collecting means you aren’t rewarded for simply carrying out the objectives. So what the game boils down to is performing stealth kill after stealth kill throughout 50 missions and then again on other difficulties if you are to unlock all of the extra purchasable items. Again this is a choice for the player with no one forcing you to play in this way but considering most of the achievements are based around stealth kills it’s a shame that no reward is given to those who choose to be true ninjas rather than the Hollywood inspired offerings we have in this game.
Other gripes I have with the game are the controls which are a little fiddly and I’m sure will annoy newcomers. The Tenchu games have always had awkward controls and it’s a shame the developers have not cracked it fully yet. Saying that, they are an improvement and with a better camera as well this time means that once I had gotten used to the general control method I was able to get on with the killing without worrying about pressing the wrong buttons.
Stealth games immerse the player into the sneaking role and to be successful there has to be a comprehensive risk and reward process in place; the risk being the level of threat offered in these games. Being a stealth ninja game Tenchu places you into the shoes of a remarkable killing machine who sadly fears no man which in turn means there is no risk. In trying to accommodate action players and stealth players into one game has made both elements suffer as you certainly don’t get the best of both worlds here. Being spotted by guards in Tenchu isn’t a heart stopping moment where you are a few slices away from death and is more like an encounter from which you can easily escape or just ride by dishing out your own punishment. The guards are pretty stupid in terms of AI routines and are functional at best but when you take away the fear of what it means to be busted you are left under whelmed and unthreatened. The same goes for if you are looking for Ninja Gaiden type action combat where you are left with awkward and stifled moves instead of fluid and engrossing fighting.
Tenchu Z offers graphics that I would say are bordering on last generation with a slight touch up here and there to create the illusion of a next generation make over. When we compare the graphics to the older Tenchu games then there is massive improvement not only in the environments but the character models too so this is a plus for fans of the series. However there is something missing from the graphics and with expectations high for Xbox 360 and other games showcasing excellent details; it just feels like there’s a general lack of polish throughout. If you are a gamer who likes graphics as much or more than the gameplay then you are probably going to be somewhat disappointed but that’s not to say the game is ugly because it isn’t.
The game runs smoothly and not once did I encounter any slowdowns or dreaded screen tearing issues. Sadly the game has some poor draw distance which means enemies will magically disappear when out of range however due to the nature of some levels and of course the close quarters gameplay means this isn’t so much of a problem. The animations are still very dated and whilst your character moves reasonably well and the stealth kills are nice again you feel that these could have been better especially where combat is concerned.
Tenchu games have always featured a decent soundtrack and with previous games offering some inspiring tunes Tenchu Z continues this flavour. The music is very Japanese and remains non intrusive until you alert the guards or engage in combat. The Voices are all in Japanese and so us westerners have to make do with subtitles during cut scenes and intuition when it comes to guards talking during game play. Whilst it is authentic to have Japanese voices for game set in Japan I think not having English voice overs as an option at least is a shame.
With 50 missions, three levels of difficulty and plenty of items to mess around with there’s certainly a lot to do here which will take some time especially if you are after all of the achievements. Couple this with the fact that there is more than one layout of each mission when you replay it means you can stealth kill your way into the record books. Sadly there are no leader-boards or rewards for scoring highly or doing things quickly other than the aforementioned monetary value which is a shame as it seems the game could have been geared towards this. With Xbox Live play as a bonus is a good thing but again a lack of obvious modes really lets the online portion of the game down.
Tenchu Z is a cool stealth game that will please fans of the series no end. It’s pretty much more of the same with the inclusion of better graphics and some slight gameplay additions and tweaks here and there. In my opinion I think Tenchu Z gets things wrong in many ways and with its lack of overall polish is not really going to be the game we talk and play for months and years to come. There’s a solid game here with some neat ideas that even surpass the more popular stealth games (such as the open levels) but when the core gameplay revolves around performing the same canned moves over and over makes the game a touch on the one dimensional side. For fans of the series they can mess around the open maps to their hearts content but even then will eventually realise the overall lack of challenge and the lost potential.
Tenchu Z feels very much like a last generation game and could have been better; however as a fan of the series I have enjoyed sneaking around and jumping out of the shadows to perform another stealth kill to add to the thousand I already have notched up on my stealth kill bedpost.
The game is certainly not up to par in terms of overall polish but still remains fun and enjoyable if you like stealth. Sadly the game doesn’t really reward you for playing like a pro and if you are looking for advanced action based combat a la Ninja Gaiden then you might be a little disappointed. In this respect I would recommend a rental or to try out the demo which gives a good taste of what to expect. With some extra ambition on their next Tenchu game and some more polish then we could have a very good game on our hands. As it stands Tenchu Z offers some cool but repetitive moments that really is only going to appeal to fans and those gamers looking for a break from shooting and driving.