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Tenchu: Return From Darkness

Review By:  Greg Lynch

Developer:  K2
Publisher:  Activision
# of Players:  1-2
Genre:  Action
ESRB:  Mature
Online:  Yes
Accessories:  Xbox Live, HDTV, Dolby Digital 5.1
Date Posted: 

6-17-04

Ah, the lonely life of a ninja. Such things as creeping around in the shadows, stealthily killing opponents, and looking for random weapons strewn about the world allows for little time to focus on more selfish aspirations. Itís really no wonder that you donít hear much about them anymore, except for the occasional movie on the USA Network. When you stop to think about it, being a ninja probably wasnít all that fun.

Developer K2 tries to debunk that theory by introducing a remixed version of PS2ís Tenchu: Wrath of Heaven for the Xbox in a Live enabled version renamed Tenchu: Return from Darkness.  Widely considered a stealth game for the masses, Tenchu is recognized for being a lot more forgiving than other games in the genre, offering quick and dirty arcade action and relatively little penalty for getting caught running between shadows.

As in most games of its ilk, Tenchuís plot is mostly forgettable and stands as nothing more than the glue that connects levels together in a stream of videogame consciousness. However, it is commendable that the developer offers up different storylines and different guard patrol layouts for each character, which adds some decent replay value. Couple that with some excellent things to unlock, level scoring, and multiplayer support over Xbox Live, and youíve got a game that offers some excellent bang for your buck.

For the uninitiated, Tenchuís gameplay revolves around running (and sneaking) about huge levels designed to allow the player to achieve their goal by any means possible. While the game is far from being truly open-ended, it does offer up quite a few different routes to achieve your goal. For example, running around on the ground will occasionally reveal crawlspaces to enter buildings, whereas another route might be found jumping from rooftop to rooftop until you find the main entrance. In the end, however, youíll still be forced to follow a fairly linear path through winding, maze-like buildings or caverns.

Sneaking is handled relatively well, focusing on the fun aspect of staying hidden above the trial and error aspect found in other similar games where getting found typically means death. Guards have a fairly short range of eyesight, meaning theyíre easy to sneak up on, and if youíre spotted you can escape with relative ease. Simply finding higher ledges to attach your grappling hook to will get you up and out of the way in short order, and the guards typically give up chase after a few seconds -usually in a grunt of often-repeated dialog about the chase not being worth it-. 

The best part of stealth is that a hidden attack means an instant kill, usually in the form of a highlighted deathblow that includes a close up, camera shifts, and lots of blood spray. These are obviously the highlights of gameplay, and you are rewarded for multiple stealth kills in the form of more brutal highlights, as well as unlocking special moves and combos. Itís a great reward system for stealthy gameplay, as if watching a successful kill wasnít its own reward.

Unfortunately, despite a meter that lets you know when youíre getting closer to an enemy, there are times where getting spotted just seems unavoidable. For example, I found a couple of occasions where it seemed as though I was seen through a wall while pressed against it, or times when I thought I was well hidden only to be spotted. Itís a kind of trial and error thing that some may find they have to overcome if they want perfect scores, but hardly game destroying for those who just enjoy the fun of it all.

Adding to the frustration of being spotted, the game includes a feisty camera that can make seeing your enemy difficult at times. Though it tries its best to keep up and aid you in instances where it thinks youíll be looking a certain direction (down from a rooftop when at the edge, for example), more often than not youíll find that youíre consciously fighting it to get a good look around. Even pressing the button for manual control isnít always helpful, and youíll probably die more than a few times because of the problem.

Of course, the other option when being spotted is available in the form of a little hand-to-hand combat. While Tenchu goes to great lengths to impress with its stealthy killing, regular combat isnít nearly as interesting. Typically consisting of brain dead AI, itís usually a matter of blocking and finding an opening to combo them into oblivion. There are exceptions to the rule, usually the boss battles, but for the most part fighting is a piece of cake as long as you donít run into multiple combatants.

The weakness of fighting becomes much more clear when playing the game over Xbox Live. Despite the best intentions of the developer and my desire to praise anyone with enough gumption to offer Live support on a PS2 port (or anyone who offers Live support for that matter), this just isnít the type of game conducive to that style of gameplay. Multiplayer combat is overshadowed by the simplicity of sword fighting in the game, and never really offers much in terms of fun over an extended period of time. Meanwhile, cooperative mode isnít nearly as fun with a stranger who doesnít really want to play cooperatively with you. Of course, all this assumes that youíll actually be able to find players, since Tenchu is clearly not a fan favorite of Live players.

In terms of presentation, thereís not a whole lot to boast about. The graphics are mostly made up of system-cleaned textures ported from an already lackluster PS2 showing. Environment textures are typically muddy and dark, sometimes making it difficult to see where instant-death falls are located. Enemy design is kept at a minimal, with very few instances of anything that stands out. Even your own characters arenít that impressive in design. All said and done, it comes across as nothing more than a cleaned up version of the Playstation originals, right down to the jarringly bad running animations.

Sound also falls a little short, but unlike the graphics there isnít anything particularly offensive to the senses. The soundtrack is perhaps the best of what the game has to offer, consisting of some music that might even make you stop to think ďneatĒ as youíre waiting for you opponent to walk within killing range. Sound effects are basically straightforward clanks and whooshes, mimicking the other games in the series pretty much in every way except for the use of 5.1 support. 

Highs:

  • Fast paced, forgiving stealth gameplay
  • Good replay value

Lows:

  • Lackluster presentation
  • Brings little new to the long running series

Final Verdict: 

In the end, Tenchu suffers by not offering much new in terms of both graphics and gameplay, not to mention that the additions to the Xbox version might not be worth the price difference when nearly the same game is available for $20 on the PS2. Itís not that the game is bad by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, newcomers annoyed with the slow pacing of other stealth titles will likely find a lot to like here. However, anyone whoís had their fill with the rest of the series wonít likely find much reason to return with this iteration. With a little bit of spit and polish, and a few tweaks to gameplay mechanics, this game can make a resounding comeback. Until then, this game is best recommended to die-hard fans of the series who havenít played the PS2 version, and people who have never experienced the series before and donít mind a few flaws for what is ultimately a pretty good time. Tenchu proves that being a ninja can be fun, but itís still not a pretty job.

Overall Score: 7.0

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