Tenchu: Time of the Assassins Review

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Graphics: 6.0
Sound : 7.0
Gameplay : 4.0
Multiplayer : 6.0
Overall : 5
Review by Stevie Smith
As a series, Tenchu has moved stealthily across Sony’s evolving videogame platforms since its critically acclaimed inception in 1999, and it’s thus cemented itself as a regularly expected software release during the lifespan of both the PSOne and the PS2. It therefore fulfils consumer anticipation that Sega and From Software offer up Tenchu: Time of the Assassins for Sony’s PlayStation Portable, in the hopes of keeping the series sharp-edged and appealing, especially in light of the next-gen Tenchu that’s set to appear on Microsoft’s Xbox 360—with no clear indication of a release on the upcoming PlayStation 3.

With the growing—and worrying—trend to merely port and tweak PlayStation 2 releases over to Sony’s sexy handheld rather than develop exclusive titles, it’s relatively refreshing to receive a game that’s built specifically for the PSP. Although, to be honest, considering Time of the Assassins is newly developed and exclusive to the PSP, it still feels a little too familiar, lacking in any tangible creativity or innovation to help push the series’ boundaries beyond that which we already know. The usual selection of shadow-hugging ninjas are available as playable characters—including Rikimaru and Ayame—and all of them are cast amid gameplay that harks back to the very first Tenchu on the PSOne. Missions are the same blend of single and multiple-target assassination, absolute stealth, and item retrieval, while each character offers a straightforward attack pattern and a few special moves to carve out a semblance of originality. Some Tenchu fans may welcome the game’s stagnancy in terms of content, characters, and structure, and though in principle there’s nothing wrong with reiterating rather than reinventing, Time of the Assassins often fails to inspire anything more than a fleeting fondness that’s all-too quickly shattered by each resultant twist of Tenchu’s glitch blade.

Time of the Assassins also mirrors the PSOne edition of Tenchu in visual quality and subsequently delivers a largely disappointing aesthetic performance that feels much older than it should. The PlayStation Portable certainly doesn’t want for applicable power and can hold its own beside most releases on both the PlayStation 2 and GameCube, but the in-game visuals and level designs in Time of the Assassins can swing between grimy, blocky, overly dark, and hard to decipher, to just plain dull and poor. There’s plenty of environmental chop and jagging on show from the opening level, and the lack of soft edges to almost every graphical detail is really rather appalling fractious. By contrast to the environments, character models, fight moves, blood fountains, and gory deaths are all well produced and well animated—though basic fight moves are a little restricted and repetitive in terms of variety. And also, decent character realisation is tarnished by the general failure to secure a believable weight of ground movement and also by the game’s most substantial point of detraction: its character camera.

Just like Splinter Cell: Essentials and Tomb Raider: Legend, both of which crumbled when ported to the PlayStation Portable, Tenchu: Time of the Assassins has its gameplay heart crushed internally by a dumb trailing camera that can only be centred with the right shoulder button and isn’t open to the player for self-roaming movement. What this creates is a tunnelled sense of cloying claustrophobia throughout intrinsic scenarios that succeed or fail on the player’s ability to see enemies, avoid enemies, lay in wait for enemies, and silently attack enemies by using the game camera to assess environments and probable obstacles and threats. A selection of flashing on-screen ‘enemy awareness’ icons are rendered all-but worthless as the player’s chosen character isn’t able to establish a clear line of sight to an enemy who’s spotted them and is closing fast. The fractured camera basically boils down to the PSP only offering a single analogue stick—which delivers player movement—when there are two on a standard PlayStation 2 controller that naturally lend themselves to the assignment of player movement on one, and the complete control of the game camera on the other. Ultimately, not being able to see the placement of enemies, study the immediate layout of the environment, and plan ahead for the sake of cashing in on the series’ lofty stealth mechanic, means that Time of the Assassins always ends up devolving in mindless button mashing while charging headlong through missions. It’s painfully disappointing.

Granted, there are a smidgen of plus points to be noted. For example, the opening rendered cinematic sequence is gorgeous, as is the presentation of the navigation menus; both of which serve as starkly superior comparisons to the somewhat downtrodden in-game graphics. The musical score is also beautifully orchestrated to provide a definite oriental feel to the atmosphere, and there are snatches of decent narrative voice work mixed in with thoroughly acceptable sound effects. Beyond the single-player component of the game, Time of the Assassins also provides Wi-Fi multiplayer for those collective ninja wanting and willing to vent their gathered frustrations upon one another. Perhaps the game’s most innovative element exists in its Mission Creator tool, which allows for the complete construction of new playable levels by setting everything from mission title, type, architecture, and terrain, to placement of enemies, music style, and even item allocation. It’s just a shame that players won’t ever get to truly enjoy the multiplayer or Mission Creator aspects as—you guessed it—the same camera restrictions hamper both.

Tenchu: Time of the Assassins is a terminally faulty character camera away from being another solid addition to the Tenchu series. Its under whelming aesthetics and somewhat uninspiring level design could have been forgiven in return for absorbing gameplay and the faithful following of previous stealthy standards, but the wholly fractured result of the game’s woeful camera control only compound Time of the Assassins’ many failings. The expectation of carefully applied PSP stealth alongside considered and mercilessly-delivered death was perhaps too much weight to bear for the developers—though all could have been crafted to a decent enough degree if only a more convincing control method had been implemented. It’s such a shame that it had to end up this way. What ever happened to Q&A testing?