Game Review: Tenchu Z

What could possibly be more fun than sneaking up on your victims undetected before dispatching them in a shower of blood? Not much, obviously. This is why a new genre of “stealth” video games has popped up in the last decade, the most famous of which are probably the Metal Gear Solid and Splinter Cell franchises. Tenchu has also been around for a while. This series lets you assume the role of a ninja in feudal Japan and do what ninjas do best, namely cutting throats and disemboweling unsuspecting samurai. Tenchu Z is technically the fourth U.S. installment of the series, and the first to appear on a “next-gen” system. The game was released to overwhelmingly negative reviews (with titles like “Tenchu ZZZZZZ”). While the game does have a weak story and some broken gameplay elements, I think that most of the reviews are unjustified; Tenchu Z adds a few new tricks to the series, and, given a chance, is actually pretty damn fun to play.
The problem with the storyline in Tenchu Z is that there practically isn’t one. Instead of sticking with the established characters from the series, Rikkimaru and Ayame, Tenchu Z lets you create your own custom character. You can choose the sex of this character, and personalize his or her appearance with an impressive variety of options, and even distribute skill attributes to create a stronger, slower character, or a faster, more stealthy one who is weaker in combat. The result is a nameless, faceless protagonist, who never actually speaks for him or herself. Rikimaru and Lord Gohda are the only returning characters, and they only have cameo roles. The game is set against the narrative backdrop of two provinces preparing for war: you are fighting for Gohda, against the stronger state of Ogawara.

While the game has over 50 missions, only a few of them are relevant enough to the story to feature cinematic cutscenes (most just begin with scrolling text saying something like “X has betrayed us, and must pay with his/her life!”) and said cutscenes are so short that they offer no chance for character development or to establish interest in the game’s story. The ending is very vague. Tenchu Z went the route of games like Unreal Tournament, or Metal Gear Solid: VR Missions and kept the plot to an absolute minimum in order to focus solely on gameplay. This is unfortunate, as a little bit of decent screenwriting would have helped this game immensely.

With the lack of story, Tenchu Z’s 50 missions tend to be generic and repetitious. The majority of the missions give you a target to assassinate. This target is generally nestled at the heart of a relatively well-guarded compound. Other missions have you kill all of the enemies on a map, recover ten packages, or get past a heavily fortified area. One frustrating mission makes you follow a paranoid guy without being seen or losing sight of him for more than a few seconds. These missions all share a stock of less than ten maps, which include a temple compound, a port, small villages, a castle, a cave, and a forest. At the completion of each mission, the player is ranked from a scale of “Ninja 1” to “Ninja 5,” and paid out accordingly. To complete a mission, a player must simply complete the objective. But to score well, one has to be smooth and sly. And that’s where the fun comes in.

Tenchu Z rates your performance based on a number of factors, such as how many “stealth kills” you got, how many times you were spotted, how long the enemy was aware of your presence, and how many innocents you killed. To do well, one must remain unseen and kill by stealth. Interestingly, stealth kills are weighted far more heavily than the other factors, so if you have a lot of them, you won’t suffer much for being seen or killing innocents. Stealth kills are the most exciting aspect of the Tenchu series. These are executed with a button press when the character sneaks up on an enemy without being seen. When the button is pressed, your ninja will automatically dispatch the enemy in a gruesome manner. There are a few different stealth kills with varying levels of goriness, depending on where your character is positioned. If these kills are timed right – which is indicated by a beating heart sound and a red circle – it may be counted as a “special” kill, worth more points. New to the series is the ability to stab enemies through screen doors and while peeking around corners.

If an attempt at a stealth kill fails, you can still defeat an enemy through old-fashioned sword fighting, but this proves to be a chore, as combat is a bit clunky. Getting the button combos for blocks or locking on is rough, and changing direction or camera angles to face other attackers is a bitch. If you don’t time your blocks or thrusts right, you’ll find yourself spanked by some of the cheapest combos this side of Killer Instinct. And the enemies take a lot of hits to kill. If you’re surrounded by enough enemies, you’d best escape and hide somewhere. Trust me, you’ll want to stick to the stealth kills as much as possible.

One major stumbling block to video game design in general is the problem of creating convincing artificial intelligence. Tenchu Z, like many games, falls a bit short in this department. You’ll find that enemies are very predictable. Most patrol a certain short path in an endless loop, while some even stand in place, and just turn around once in a while. They seem to have a very limited field of vision, and they never seem to look up. In most cases, you have to literally be right in front of them in a well-lit area for them to take notice. There are a few ways that they do this. They can see you directly, in which case they will immediately draw their weapon and run over to you. They can see you very briefly, in which case they will head over to where you were to investigate. They can hear you, if you draw your sword, or make noise, which will cause them to raise their guard and look around. In an interesting new feature to the series, they can also smell you for a short time after you’ve been splashed with an enemy’s blood in a sword fight, or if you’ve fallen into a cesspool. They will also be alerted if they find a dead body, or if you throw a shuriken or something at them. The problem is that in any case, they will only look around for you for a few seconds, after which they seem to “forget,” and go right back to their routine. In the “hard” difficulty level, the guards’ senses seem a little sharper, but not by much. “Realistic” A.I. would probably make the game impossible. But it sure would be nice if the enemies didn’t seem like lobotomy patients.

There are a few irritating glitches in this game, but they aren’t necessarily deal breakers. There are some roofs that mysteriously can’t be climbed. When I used the grappling hook to mount them, my character kind of spazzed out and slid right down. Also, there were some occasions where an enemy saw me head-on, but I was still somehow able to grab him from behind and do a stealth kill because he hadn’t completed the animation for drawing his sword. Also, while technically not glitches, I was annoyed by the “invisible boundaries” of the levels, and by the bizarre “bottomless pit traps,” which apparently littered the streets of feudal Japan.

Tenchu Z gives you quite a bit of incentive to keep playing. You must play the levels on all three difficulty levels to get 100% completion. And if you’re an achievement junkie, the game offers a fair number of them. Unlockable items, costumes, and special abilities are doled out a few at a time. My only problem with that is that they aren’t all that useful. With the exception of the blowgun, which gives you an instant stealth kill, none of the items really gave me an edge. Plus, by the time they were readily available, I was pretty much done with the game anyway. The same holds true for special moves. These mostly pertain to sword combat, which is best avoided in favor of stealth kills. And the costumes, while cool, are only cosmetic in nature; you can’t actually use the spiked claws, or the giant shuriken. Plus, there’s no way to preview them before buying, so I ended up wasting my hard-earned gold on sandals and dumb purple kimonos.

Tenchu Z’s online gameplay adds greatly to the replay value. I’ve literally only spent minutes playing online, but this component seems to consist of playing missions cooperatively with up to three other players, all of whom are ranked and given gold at the end of the mission. The few times I played, everyone just kind of dashed off and did his own thing. But I imagine that if you played with people you actually knew, you could coordinate some pretty fun double-team kills on the guards.

Visually, Tenchu Z is the best looking game of the series. This isn’t saying much, as the previous installments were on the systems of yesteryear. While character models and locales aren’t excessively detailed, they are smooth and polished – quite literally in some cases. I noticed a number of surfaces, like dirt, rocks, and tree trunks, which seemed to shine unnaturally in the moonlight. I also noticed a few minor graphical glitches, like shadows sometimes impossibly visible through solid walls and roofs. Also, the locales get kind of drab and repetitive, especially considering that the same maps are recycled over multiple missions. All in all, there’s nothing here to make your jaw drop, but the game is certainly no eyesore, either.

The sound in Tenchu Z is passable, though not great. The voice acting and pre-level narrations are entirely in Japanese, with no option for English, though subtitles are provided for cutscenes. Even so, you can still sense the alarm in a guard’s voice when he sees you. Sound effects seem a little exaggerated; any sword noises are accompanied by an excessively loud ringing, and footsteps and spraying blood sound way too “scratchy.” Music sounds authentic to the period (heavily featuring koto and flute music), but gets quite annoying and repetitive after a while as the same tracks are looped across various levels. It should be noted that you can play music from your 360’s hard drive, though this will drown out all of the game’s sound effects.

Glitches and annoyances aside, I think Tenchu Z is a good game that could have been great if the developers had taken the time to craft a proper storyline, add some variety to the levels, and balance out the enemy A.I. And if they only wanted to focus on gameplay, they could have at least given us a level editor as they did in Tenchu 2 for the PS1. What really burns me is that all the issues I mentioned could have easily been resolved via a patch, downloadable on Xbox Live Marketplace. As it stands, I had a lot of fun playing this game, and have actually invested more time in it than I have so far in Halo 3 or GTA 4, driven by my addiction to stealth. This game is fun for what it is: a repetitive exercise in sneaking up on dumb guards.