Version tested: Xbox 360
I crouch atop a moonlit wall, stalking my prey as the crane stalks the koi. Choosing my moment, I drop silently to the ground and begin to creep across open ground. Disaster! A wandering guard sees me, and runs to intercept. I sprint back to the wall, vault onto the top, and prepare for the worst. Several guards are now heading in my direction but...what's this? Upon arriving at the base of the wall, on top of which I am very obviously sitting, they decide to give up the chase, apparently bamboozled by my ability to perch slightly above eye level.
A different place, a different time, but a very similar situation. I am squatting low against the top of a wall, hoping to evade another curious guard. This one is more tenacious. He actually climbs the wall and draws his sword. Standing mere inches away from me, he flaps his arms, turns around on the spot and falls off the wall. Then he forgets that he was pursuing a black-clad assassin and just wanders off. I dutifully follow him and gut him like a rabbit.
Later still. Inside an enemy stronghold, in search of secret plans. I have aroused the attention of a rival master of ninjitsu and, rather than engage in open combat, I retreat into a nearby room in the hope of finding a more stealthy solution to the situation. In the middle of the floor is a trap door. The enemy ninja runs straight towards me, jogs on the spot in front of the gaping hole for a good ten seconds, then falls through it. I continue on my way.
Honestly, I've got a notebook full of similar stories from my time spent in next-gen ninja land courtesy of Tenchu Z, and could easily fill the rest of the review with examples of the bone-headed foes I found there. Suffice to say, for a series now on its eighth incarnation, Tenchu is still pretty much the same game that debuted on the original PlayStation: outdated graphics, basic AI, clunky controls and all.
There are some new developments, but they're mostly cosmetic in nature and do little to compensate for the game's fundamental shortcomings. You can now design your own ninja, for example, using a selection of horribly rendered faces and assorted clothing (hint: black is this season's colour) as well as assigning some basic attributes - health, power and agility. Regardless of what you choose, you'll be hard pushed to notice the effects in-game. You can also trade in your points to buy new abilities and moves, though these are so complicated to execute - and so utterly unnecessary for most of the game - that, again, you can safely ignore this feature without it impacting your gameplay one jot.
Online play returns, and Tenchu followers will still enjoy the prospect of creeping around together. For those who aren't married to the brand (and, really, if you're still devoted to a series this stylistically retarded after ten years you're no longer a fan - you're an apologist) the sparse nature of the Live play will fail to impress. It's nothing more than the most simplistic co-op mode possible, allowing you to replay levels with up to four players but with no added objectives or incentives. Even though it's supposedly co-operative you're still competing for the most kills, yet the deathmatch mode from the last Xbox version has, unbelievably, been removed. Offering less gameplay than was available on older hardware, this lazy attempt at multiplayer is deserving of only the faintest praise.
Meanwhile, the laughably titled "Ninja Village" game hub is simply a tiny location where you can buy and equip items and abilities, or select your next mission. It's a menu screen, basically, but dressed up as a RPG style hub, where even just starting a new mission (handed to you by Rikimaru, the grey-haired hero of Tenchus past) is a long-winded affair.
Are you ready to accept a mission? Yes.
Are ready to go on a mission? Well, yes.
Select your mission. Alright then.
Do you accept this mission? For the love of Mifune, YES. I just selected it.
Do you want to depart now? OH PLEASE JUST LET ME START THE SODDING MISSION.
Seriously, that's the process you have to go through before each mission - confirming that, yes, you really would like to start the level a staggering five times before it finally lets you begin. Then you've just got the scrolling text introduction, a ponderous loading time and a short cut-scene to get through. And here's the kicker - fail a mission, and you're dumped back at the Ninja Village. Not only do you have to go through that whole process again (which takes a good two minutes, even when you skip the intro and cut-scene) but you also have to reequip whatever items you'd selected to take with you.
Once you're in the game, it's like 1998 all over again. The graphics wouldn't trouble the PS2, filled as they are with jagged polygons, flat textures and weird glitches. Walk up a sloped roof and marvel at how your feet and legs vanish into the tiles. Run up some stairs and gasp at the way your feet don't even seem to touch the floor. Walk over a table or similar low obstacle, and boggle at how you suddenly flicker and appear on top of it. Shadows are cast through solid objects. Sprays of blood are made up of jagged black and red lines. After such displays of visual prehistory it barely comes as a surprise that the same few character and building models recur throughout, and that many of the 50 levels try to pass off repeated maps as new locations.
Combine this with the absolutely embarrassing enemy AI and you've got a game still fatally tethered to the hardware generation before last. Because of their genetic stupidity, it feels positively cruel to slaughter the blundering automatons stiffly roaming the levels in fixed linear patterns. They're so easy to confuse, often simply by running around a corner or jumping in a bush, that it feels more like you're being asked to invade an old folk's home and murder the addled residents as they wander the halls muttering about the price of eggs.
(Cut to Rockstar head office, where an eager young producer suddenly has a great idea...)
And I haven't even mentioned some of the smaller annoyances I found along the way. Such as the way it's possible to completely ace a level, killing your target without ever being spotted, only to be awarded a low rank because you didn't kill enough mindless minions along the way. Since when did ninjas go out of their way to kill as many people as possible? Or that the loading screens boast such priceless advice as "Use items to deal with difficult situations" or, my personal favourite, "Change clothes for a change of pace". Who knew ninjas enjoy retail therapy almost as much as Colleen and Posh? Or that the end of Mission 17 suddenly throws you into a daylight boss fight which requires you to use all the melee combat skills you've spent the rest of the game dutifully avoiding. Yeah, that's always fun.
The sad thing is, when you manage to align the clunky pieces in the right way, the game can still be sort of entertaining. There's a thrill to the perfectly executed stealth kill that all the half-assed development decisions can't entirely erase. Yet even in those moments, you're uncomfortably aware that you're not being challenged. Stealth games, perhaps even moreso than first-person shooters, rely on the sensation that you're outwitting dangerous and intelligent foes but here you're left feeling like you're taking advantage of the game's idiotic coding. There's little pleasure, and no honour, in such a victory.
As Tenchu Z is already outclassed in every area by last generation stealth games like Metal Gear Solid 2, it fails almost completely when stacked up against Hitman: Blood Money, Splinter Cell: Double Agent or upcoming treats like Assassin's Creed. There are those die hards who'll still pick it up, and make half-hearted excuses for its shambolic nature, but, come on, it's time to let it go. The time is long overdue for Tenchu to follow Darwin's advice and evolve into something that deserves to survive or just lie down and die like the dinosaur it clearly is.
3 / 10