For most of the 90s, stealth-based videogames were a niche market. There had certainly been Ninja games released before - Shinobi and Ninja Gaiden comes to mind. But until the fall of 1998, there had never been a game that accurately portrayed the reliance on silence, cunning, and stealth that Ninjas were renowned for. Along with the PC classic "Thief" and PlayStation’s seminal title Metal Gear Solid, came a game that accurately delivered a genuine Ninja experience and, along with the aforementioned titles, helped push the stealth genre into the third dimension. Since then, a prequel has been released, and no other dedicated Ninja stealth series has emerged. The series has also since left the hands of the original team, Acquire, and is now developed by K2. Luckily for fans, the first next generation version of Tenchu is here, delivering everything you could have hoped for, and quite a bit more.
While the early Tenchu titles lacked the visual appeal of their contemporaries, they did a great job in delivering a unique stealth experience. Without thermal goggles, infrared visors, or fiber-optic cables, you are forced to rely on alternative means of stealth. No series has done a better or even comparable job of simulating the low-tech, high-stakes adventures of a ninja. "Wrath of Heaven" takes everything you enjoyed about the original, fixes the blunders of the second title, and adds some great new features for good measure.
Being the first true sequel the series has seen, "Wrath of Heaven" takes place shortly after the events of the original game. The fate of Rikimaru, Onikage, Lord Godha & co. is finally revealed. Some of the cinematic sequences early in the game will catch quite a few people off guard, even those used to left-field plotlines from the likes of Metal Gear Solid 2. The old is mixed well with the new, as you’ll also encounter brand new adversaries, including the evil Tenrai.
The characters you can control have similar abilities but different specialties. Rikimaru is strong, enduring, and fast. Ayame is terrific at melee attacks. Tesshu, the new character that is unlocked upon completion of the other character’s campaigns, relies entirely on hand-to-hand combat and his grappling hook. Each of them are able to nimbly leap from roof to roof, shimmy along edges, and use all aspects of the environment to conceal their presence.
Most interesting in this installment of the series is the potential to earn new abilities and attacks by successfully performing blood-letting stealth kills. After each successful kill, a kanji symbol will appear. Once all of the symbols next to your ki meter are full, you’ll be granted a special new ability. These abilities range from advanced parrying techniques to the able to grapple ceilings indoors and drop down from above on your unsuspecting prey. You’ll also be granted abilities such as "ninja vision" which allows you to get a better view of the environment by zooming in. These abilities culminate with the "Wrath of Heaven," a devastating attack that will lay waste to a majority of foes. These abilities allow you to meet the daunting challenges that await in many stages, but they also do a good job of putting an emphasis on killing by stealth. Without modern day items such as security cameras or alarms, Tenchu has always been a bit more forgiving than other stealth games, but this aspect thankfully puts a great deal of emphasis back on the underlying theme of the games.
A great deal of replay value has been packed into the game as well, much more than you’d expect from a stealth game. Each mission for each character has three layouts of varying enemy placement, objective requirements, and overall difficulty. This is a major bonus for anyone who takes delight in trying to attain the status of "grand master" whenever possible. Wrath of Heaven also features two multi-player modes that don’t normally make appearances in stealth action titles: cooperative play and competitive death match. These modes work quite a bit better than one would anticipate, and the team stealth kills in particular are terrific event that most fans of the series hadn’t even thought of. After seeing how well these multi-player aspects works, I can only hope that other games in the genre will follow suit. It would also be interesting to see this portion of the game taken into an online environment at some point in the future. As it stands now, they simply add a great deal more longevity to a title already featuring a strong single-player game.
The only area where Wrath of Heaven really falls short is the enemy AI. In a majority of cases, the guards, ninjas, and ronin who patrol the levels simply aren’t that smart. Very rarely will they track you for more than a few yards, and you’re pretty much in the clear as long as you get out of their line of site. This is somewhat disappointing, as games like Metal Gear Solid 2 and Splinter Cell set up very tense situations when you fail to remain a shadow and alert guards of your presence. Instead of a tense and exciting chase, you usually just have to get out of the area for a few moments and then go back in to finish the job. Strangely enough, you’ll even hear enemies taunt you as you run off acting as if something significant has been accomplished. More seasoned adversaries would realize you are lethal the very moment they can no longer see you. Had this sense of tension been present, it could have gone a long way with the ability acquirement to promote complete and total stealth for perfectionist gamers. Overall, the less than stellar encounters with normal enemies does very little to detract from the quality of the experience that this game provides.
Upon its release, Tenchu was praised for a number of reasons. The strong emphasis on stealth, the terrific cast of characters, and the sweeping musical score were among them. The graphics were not. The visuals were good enough and never detracted from anyone’s enjoyment of the game, but it simply failed to live up to the splendor of other games released at the time. After a similar situation with the prequel that was released in 2000, fans will be pleased to know that the first genuine sequel in the series does a great job in standing up to the standards of modern console graphics.
The first aspect of the visuals to stand out will be the great draw distances. Darkness and sticking the shadows play as large a role as ever, but buildings and structures will no longer disappear into the distance. Being able to see to target locations and enemy movements from large distances is very impressive, and a very welcome addition. It’s also nice to see that the level designs and environments are more akin to the original. Villages, castles, and other populated areas abound. All of the areas have an excellent design and help to immerse you into feudal Japan. Many of the interiors are also quite good looking. Screen doors will have unique designs, rooms will adorn framed paintings, and even booby-trap laden dungeons and castles have a nice visual appeal.
Also noticeable are the quality of the character models. Rikimaru, Ayame, and familiar foe Onikage all look terrific. You can even see the scar on Rikimaru’s eyelid depending on how you position the camera. The sweeping, cinematic camera swoops during the game’s patented stealth kills are fantastic. Unfortunately, the enemy animation during combat is somewhat robotic. You can often determine which attack your opponent is going to use by watching the early steps of their somewhat longwinded animations. Fortunately, this does not extend to the excellent boss encounters.
Most interesting is the fact that despite the game takes place a few hundred years ago, it still seems a bit more vibrant and immersive than it’s modern-day and futuristic counterparts. From bees buzzing around their hive, flies crowding a dead corpse, or a cat’s shrieking alerting guards of your presence, you get the impression of really being in feudal Japan. This is a refreshing change of pace from the office building expeditions that so many other games offer. Some of the special effects such as explosions and water could have been a bit better, but overall, Tenchu Wrath of Heaven is a solid visual package and compares favorable to a large number of the third person games currently on the market.
"Wrath of Heaven" does a great job in providing a fun gaming experience for several types of gamers. It not only lives up to the hopes and expectations of its hardcore fan base, but it could potentially attract a good deal of people who normally find the stealth genre too regimented, tedious, or unforgiving to enjoy. The single player games provide excellent levels, a great cast of protagonists and arch enemies, a good story with some surprising twists and revelations.
The multi-player modes are a breath of fresh air and will give you the opportunity to have a friend join in on the fun. Alternate level layouts will give stealth perfectionists even more challenges in their hunt for the grand master ranking. Wrath of Heaven is quite simply a very fun game for anyone who is a fan of the genre, or adventure games in general.
Summing up Wrath of Heaven’s overall quality is quite simple: it delivers everything you could have hoped for, and quite a bit more. Although the average encounter with enemies could have been a bit more intense, K2 has done a great job in bringing the franchise into the 21st century. Fans of the series will undoubtedly be satisfied with Tenchu’s PS2 debut, and its great list features may add several new fans to the ranks.
Former owner and editor in chief of Darkstation.com