As a series, Tenchu has moved stealthily across Sonyâ€™s evolving videogame platforms since its critically acclaimed inception in 1999, and itâ€™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 Sonyâ€™s PlayStation Portable, in the hopes of keeping the series sharp-edged and appealing, especially in light of the next-gen Tenchu thatâ€™s set to appear on Microsoftâ€™s Xbox 360â€”with no clear indication of a release on the upcoming PlayStation 3.
With the growingâ€”and worryingâ€”trend to merely port and tweak PlayStation 2 releases over to Sonyâ€™s sexy handheld rather than develop exclusive titles, itâ€™s relatively refreshing to receive a game thatâ€™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 seriesâ€™ boundaries beyond that which we already know. The usual selection of shadow-hugging ninjas are available as playable charactersâ€”including Rikimaru and Ayameâ€”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 gameâ€™s stagnancy in terms of content, characters, and structure, and though in principle thereâ€™s nothing wrong with reiterating rather than reinventing, Time of the Assassins often fails to inspire anything more than a fleeting fondness thatâ€™s all-too quickly shattered by each resultant twist of Tenchuâ€™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 doesnâ€™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. Thereâ€™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 animatedâ€”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 gameâ€™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 isnâ€™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 playerâ€™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 â€˜enemy awarenessâ€™ icons are rendered all-but worthless as the playerâ€™s chosen character isnâ€™t able to establish a clear line of sight to an enemy whoâ€™s spotted them and is closing fast. The fractured camera basically boils down to the PSP only offering a single analogue stickâ€”which delivers player movementâ€”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 seriesâ€™ lofty stealth mechanic, means that Time of the Assassins always ends up devolving in mindless button mashing while charging headlong through missions. Itâ€™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 gameâ€™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. Itâ€™s just a shame that players wonâ€™t ever get to truly enjoy the multiplayer or Mission Creator aspects asâ€”you guessed itâ€”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 gameâ€™s woeful camera control only compound Time of the Assassinsâ€™ many failings. The expectation of carefully applied PSP stealth alongside considered and mercilessly-delivered death was perhaps too much weight to bear for the developersâ€”though all could have been crafted to a decent enough degree if only a more convincing control method had been implemented. Itâ€™s such a shame that it had to end up this way. What ever happened to Q&A testing?