Ninjas are cool. Everyone knows that. They are stealthy and agile and have neat swords. They get to sneak around in the shadows until just the right time, when they drop down and assassinate their victim. So when I got my hands on a copy of Tenchu: Return from Darkness for Xbox, I was pretty excited. I’d never really ventured into the virtual world of ninjas before, and I was glad that my first opportunity presented itself in the form of a Live-enabled game.
For those of you unfamiliar with the game, Tenchu: Return from Darkness is a flashier port of the 2003 PS2 release of Tenchu: Wrath of Heaven. The Xbox version features enhanced graphics, a few extra maps and Live play, which allows you to play both versus and co-op. The two-player offline co-op is also a nice feature, as I like having company on my missions, and it’s a nice break from the monotony that is sometimes found in the single-player mode.
The game is fairly easy; anyone can pick it up and have some fun. The controls are basic, and you only need to press one button in order to attack an opponent. The attack varies based on the direction from which you strike, including from above, and on your degree of stealth. The results range from a mere chest stabbing to beheading.
There are two separate meters that work together to help you along the way. Each time you perform a stealth kill, you receive one Kanji on your Kuji meter. When you fill the meter, you are awarded a special move that is specific to the mission. The second meter, the Ki meter, acts like a ninja sixth sense that allows you to determine the level of awareness of the people and animals around you. In some respects, it’s like the stealth meter in Splinter Cell, which allows you to gauge whether you’ll be spotted by enemies.
There are four levels on the Ki meter. The lowest level is green and is represented with a question mark. This indicates that anyone in the vicinity is completely unaware of your presence. This is the time to make your move, and in theory, the only level on the meter that will reward you with a stealth kill. I say in theory because there have been a few times when the guard will see you, whistle for reinforcements and yell out “ninja,” but when you slit his throat, the Kanji will still appear.
This leads to one of the major flaws of Activision’s third-person stealth game: there really isn’t a whole lot of stealth involved. You’re awarded points for each normal kill and each stealth kill, and points are deducted for each time you alert a guard to your presence or kill an innocent bystander. But while it’s fun to “Spider-Man” your way around the rooftops, drop down on unsuspecting prey and drive a sword through his skull, the game doesn’t require that much effort. You could run through the entire level, slashing your way through guard after guard, never hiding a body, and the only consequence would be that you get a low rating at the end of the mission.
Another glaring fault in the game is the ridiculously stupid AI. It is hit or miss as to whether or not a guard will spot you. If you’re off on your timing when you jump down on a guard, he still will not turn around, despite the loud “swishing” sound of your sword cutting through the air. But somehow a guard standing 30 yards away can spot you crouching on the roof, in the dark of night. When a guard does actually spot you, he will sometimes whistle for reinforcements, which seldom show up, and will then attack.
It’s up to you how to handle the situation. You can stand and fight, or you can run, setting yourself up for a stealth kill. Should you choose to take on the big, dumb oaf, it shouldn’t take too long to dispose of him, although it can be hard to recover from a good shot, since enemies’ hits come fast. It also seems to take a while to get up after being knocked to the ground. Should you choose to flee, all you really need to do is run around a corner and hug the wall. After a few mere seconds of looking, the guards will sheathe their swords and go on about their business, leaving you free to slit their throats undetected a few moments later.
A terrible camera system plagues the game, although once you get used to it, it is at least bearable. The angle will shift during a fight, leaving you vulnerable as you try to maneuver the camera back around. You do have the option to use the right trigger to automatically face your enemy, but the trick is remembering that the option is available. The normal camera mode is very limited, not allowing you the freedom to look around and survey your environment. In order to get a better angle, you have to hold down the white button, but this seldom allows you a full 360-degree view, and you can’t move while in this mode.
You are given several tools to use throughout your mission, my favorite being the grappling hook, which is always in your inventory and allows access to high places. At the start of each level, you are shown a room that contains the items you can take with you, similar to the shed in Hitman 2: Silent Assassin. These items range from Shuriken (throwing stars), poisoned rice bowls and the very useful Ninja rebirth item, which allows you to restart from the point where you died. The rebirth item is a good choice to take along if you play the game on Normal or Hard settings, which make you restart the entire level if you meet an untimely death. Playing the game on Easy mode allows you to just continue.
The graphics in Tenchu are rather bland, and it seems obvious from the moment the game starts that it is a PS2 port. The biggest shortcoming in this category is the choppy movement of the characters, especially while running. There are a few scenes that look really good, but this game in no way utilizes the capabilities of the Xbox.
Being a stealth game, there isn’t much background noise, save for the mumblings of nearby guards. The sound effects are average, with nothing of note that adds to the ambiance. The music is decent, and even though it is sometimes just a continuous loop, it doesn’t ever get irritating. The voice acting is average, with enemies saying the same things over and over again, and sometimes the dialogue doesn’t seem to coincide with the action.
What Tenchu: Return from Darkness is missing in graphical panache and audio variety though, it makes up for in gameplay diversity. And this fact gives the game high marks for replay value. The single-player game gives the choice of playing with Rikamaru, Ayame or another unlockable character. Although you play through the same story with any of the characters, each one has his or her own perspective on the story as it unfolds, so each one offers you a different experience. Another feature of the single-player game is that each mission has three different layouts, so you can try the level again with different positioning of enemies and items. And for the true perfectionists, there is the added challenge of achieving the Grand Master ranking on every level.
The game also has its multiplayer options, which you can play on- or offline, but I have to say, I’ve only been able to find one game on Xbox Live. It seems the best way to utilize the multiplayer options, then, is to have someone sitting next to you. That way you’re at least guaranteed a game.
Tenchu: Return from Darkness could have been a great game, but instead, it arrives as a lackluster port with average graphics, a poor camera system and stupid AI. After having said all that though, Tenchu isn’t a bad game. The gameplay is fun and there is enough variety to keep it interesting, at least for a little while. There just isn’t anything that makes this game stand out as a “must have” title.
- Gameplay: 6.7
- Graphics: 6.5
- Sound: 6
- Replay: 7.5
- Overall: 6.8
- Only a ninja fetish should warrant purchasing this game.
— J. Paradise