We all know ninjas are great in all ways imaginable. That’s been established. That’s something we’re all aware of. Ninja Gaiden, one of this year’s best games so far, showed what it’s like being a truly badass ninja-guy, but it didn’t really portray the hiding, the sneaking, and other things that made ninjas as effective as they actually were. Ninja Gaiden is an arcade game, but Tenchu: Return from Darkness isn’t. In fact, even though Tenchu is worse than Ninja Gaiden in most ways imaginable it lets you live the ninja role in a pretty different way; a role that might interest ninja fans, if you can look past its many shortcomings.
Tenchu: Return from Darkness is essentially a port of Tenchu: Wrath of Heaven, which was released on the PS2 about a year ago. When starting the game you can choose between two characters, one strong but slow male, and one not so strong but quite fast female. What makes the game slightly more interesting is that they don’t do the exact same missions. For instance, playing as the male ninja you may face one specific boss at one level, but playing as the female you may run into him before, or maybe after. The two characters play on many of the same levels, but the layout is different, and the guards’ placement and routes differ. The storyline is basically about some bad guys who want a lot of power. Your missions revolve around stealth, infiltration, silent kills, and ultimately killing the boss. You’ll fight in small towns, in a cemetery, by towers, sometimes inside, sometimes outside.
In my experience the game was easier playing as the female ninja, but there’s no denying that the game has replay value. Secondly, a third character is unlockable, a guy who uses his knowledge of human anatomy to stop enemies using their pressure points, among other things. Each of the three characters use different weapons and have various unique abilities. The game doesn’t focus much on you obtaining new weapons, but instead you’re given a number of tools, which basically force you to think out of the box. A few examples of these are a box, shurikens, poisonous rice, rudimentary grenades, smoke bombs, mines, sticky mines that you can detonate remotely, and various health potions. Most of the levels can be solved differently to a certain extent; meaning that to infiltrate a village, you can either choose to kill all the guards and go in the front door, or find a secret passage to sneak in. At the end of each mission your effort is rated, and if you score high enough then you’re rewarded with new items that you can use in future missions. Like in Hitman it’s not critical that you get awesome ratings after each mission, but it can help.
Tenchu is essentially a third-person action game, so it’s very easy to compare its gameplay to the likes of Ninja Gaiden and Splinter Cell, and the Hitman games. The whole idea of being this stealthy assassin is of course very cool, but it must be difficult to implement properly, because Tenchu fails in many ways. Tenchu’s presentation doesn’t score particularly well, unfortunately. After having played the gorgeous Ninja Gaiden my expectations may’ve been overly high, since this is merely a port of a PS2 game, but the fact remains that the low texture quality, boring architecture, and often not very lifelike level design detracts from the immersion. The three characters look quite cool, but many of the enemies seem generic at best. It can be fun to sneak up on unsuspecting guards and attacking them from the rear, because that starts one of your context sensitive special attacks. These are not just very bloody attacks, they’re also extremely effective. So much so that you should go out of your way to actually be stealthy and observe patrol routes, just so you can save your health potions for the boss fights. If you manage to do about ten of these special attacks in one mission you learn one new move. These vary in effectiveness, but tend to do you good. For instance, Ninja Vision lets you hold the white button to get a control the camera better than otherwise. Without the Ninja Vision you often have to arm the grappling hook, just so you can look up and down. You see, the camera in Tenchu is complete garbage. As a ninja you often have to rely on your sight to plan the next move. Because of that it can be quite annoying when you’re not able to look up or down, and instead have to move your character and the camera until you can get a half-decent view of your surroundings. Also, when you’re close to a ledge the camera tips forward, letting you look downwards. This can of course be nice if there’s an enemy there, or if you’re planning on jumping down, but what if an enemy is attacking you on a roof, and the camera suddenly decides to tilt down?
Even if the graphics are far from impressive, and the camera is even worse, the artificial “intelligence” is just abysmal. Honestly, I had no idea how stupid ninja guards can be if they’re in the right situation. When you’re inside of houses and places where you can’t hide all that much it’s not all that evident, but when you’re messing around outside it’s a totally different matter altogether. For instance, if you threw a couple of shurikens at some unsuspecting guards they’ll obviously be pissed off and chase you. But if you use your faithful grappling hook and hide on the roof, they’ll go completely blank, wonder where you went, and give up in a matter of seconds. In fact, you only need to get out of sight and you’re usually saved from an awkward confrontation. You can for instance hide behind a rock, or a crate – it doesn’t take more to outsmart most of the enemies. And of course you have the various bugs, such as the one that made an innocent woman suddenly lie down on top of a burning fire. Maybe she somehow realized that running into the nearby wall for minutes at a time was a worse fate than barbequing herself.
Next up is the combat system, or the poor excuse for one. Your character starts with a few combos that you can pull off by hammering the attack button and pushing the movement stick in various directions. You do learn new combos throughout the game, but few are all that useful. Also, the combat doesn’t feel dynamic at all. Again, this is just a port of an old PS2 game, but it still puzzles me greatly how Ninja Gaiden can be so immensely far ahead. There you actually felt like a ninja with some pretty obscene abilities – in Tenchu it feels like you’re a stone golem. The guards also tend to block many of your attacks, but if you attack right after the enemy missed, then you’ll usually land a full combo. Two or three of these and most enemies are dead. You can also block, but unfortunately you stand perfectly still when doing these, and the controls aren’t especially responsive, so if you’re hit by one whack then you can just forget about blocking the rest.
Tenchu’s audio is a mixed bag. I wonder if the developers intended for the audio to sound like cheesy old Hong Kong martial arts movies, because there are distinct similarities. You have many of the same swoosh sounds and all that, but each and every sound effect sounds almost as if its bitrate is in the single digit range, something I find very strange in 2004. It’s not often I comment on sound related bugs, because that’s one thing most developers avoid, but this time I can’t help it. When running out of ponds and water the sound of feet running in water continues about a half second AFTER you got up from it. Enemies may also sometimes yell “No!”, after you chopped their head off.
The soundtrack consists mostly of oriental music, as you’d expect. I was nearly horrified at the sound of one of the very first tracks, where oriental music and techno is mixed in a more or less repetitive and tasteless way. It doesn’t really get much less repetitive as you progress in the game either, but at least then electronica is left out of the soundtrack. I’ll have to add that a few of the tracks are actually quite fitting, and that they’re all recorded with much higher quality than the sound effects.
Surprisingly the game actually has a decent multiplayer part. Various cooperative and competitive missions are included with the game, which tend to be pretty challenging. You can also get additional content via XBOX Live, which is of course a plus. You should therefore have plenty to do with your friends, provided you find someone else who finds it fun.
Whenever ninjas are involved in games my expectations fly straight through the roof. Tenchu: Return from Darkness could’ve been a ton of fun, if it used more of the things that made Hitman, Ninja Gaiden and Splinter Cell successful. Unfortunately its graphics, sound effects, AI, and various other things are way below par. This is a game for fans of the previous ones, but that’s about the only people I can recommend it to.