Tenchu: Fatal Shadows
Here are some facts of life: money makes the world go round, girls ainít nothing but trouble and ninjas are pretty damned cool. In the case of Tenchu: Fatal Shadows, two of these are true, as both main characters are ninjas (pretty damned cool) and theyíre both girls (nothing but trouble). Yes, Rikimaru is gone, which is no surprise actually as he died several games ago, making his resurrection in Wrath of Heaven a bit of a stretch of the imagination anyway. Heís been replaced by Rin, a sexy young red-cloaked female ninja who sort of ends up being taken under Ayameís wing, which is a nice new direction to take the story Ė two sassy assassins killing by the cover of darkness. Wait a minute - assassins? Donít they get well paid? Is money making the world go round true here two? Oh well, there you go.
Ah, the classic Tenchu moment. Shame there aren’t enough of them in this game.
Anyway, itís business as usual in the medieval land of the rising sun. Lots of covert creeping around, crawling along the ground or edging along walls, more leaping over rooftops and dropping down for surprise stealth kills, and more launching yourself up to higher ledges using the Tenchu trademark grappling hook. Swimming is back, which is nice I suppose, except that it only seems to be there to allow level designers to add rivers and ponds to the maps instead of the usual trees and huts that populate the earlier incarnations. You get a few new stealth kills, which is nice, one from each angle of attack actually. Of course, youíd never actually plan for a particular angle to get your favourite attack since guards have a habit of always turning by 45 degrees at the last minute (yeah okay, I have tried it) but itís nice to get a different selection of kill animations now and again. You also get a really nifty double kill, possible if you can get close to two guards together, undetected, and hit that old stealth kill button. The resultant animation is impressive, as she dices one opponent then another in smooth succession. Ouch.
Actually, when I say impressive, I mean in the context of the move she pulls, not that the graphics are pretty. The look of Tenchu is still a bit grainy and washed out, and there appear to be little or no advances in the character animation, or general appearance even. Characters are still a bit blocky, the hair and clothes poke in and out of their skin as if collision detection had gone out of fashion and they still walk through the cardboard grass and other random inconsequential scenery like ghosts, but thatís not the issue that really lets Fatal Shadows down. The real bug bear is the game engine. In 1998, when stealth games were in their infancy, Tenchuís fairly clunky combat engine wasnít a big deal. There were few contemporaries (I think Metal Gear Solid was the only other similar title around) so you just learnt to get to grips with it. Even a couple of years ago, with Wrath of Heaven, I was prepared to overlook the lack of advancement in that department because, well, it was just so nice to see our beloved Tenchu make it onto the current generation of consoles. Now, after seven years of Tenchu, I think itís about time questions were asked and names were taken.
“Hey there, can you throw me my towel?”
Letís discuss the stealth engine. When youíre walking around, the left-stick controls movement and the right controls the horizontal positioning of the camera Ė no surprises so far. As soon as you crouch, however, and go into stealth mode, the two thumb sticks switch to a kind of FPS set up, where left stick controls forwards, backwards and sidestep, and the right controls turning left or right and looking up or down, although not very far. Tenchu has a weird habit of only allowing you to look up and down a little bit using the right thumb stick camera controls. Instead, youíre offered the L1 button as the Ďlookí option, at which point the control switches to the left thumb stick for you to look around. As the right thumb stick does nothing in this mode, that essentially means if you want to look around, or up and down specifically, you canít move as well.
So, canít move and look up and camera controls switch around depending on what button youíre holding down Ė what else can go wrong? Well, the next culprit of lack of innovation is Ďedging along walls and peeking round cornersí. The camera here is just as clumsy Ė holding the R1 stealth button near a wall allows you to edge along it using the left thumb stick, and the right thumb stick rigidly flips the camera to the right or the left. When you get to an edge and try to look around it, the right thumb stick still only moves in 90 degree shifts, and again you canít look up very far, so you have to hold down L1 again too. This allows you to direct the camera around the corner, but again control has switched back to the left stick, the right stick does nothing and you canít move. Damn it, all this switching sticks and not being able to look up without holding down another key gets to you pretty fast as itís very easy to fumble the keys and get spotted Ė very infuriating. And it doesnít happen so much on other stealth games these days so whatís wrong with Tenchu? I guess the truth is that Tenchu has just stubbornly refused to evolve.
Is that guy really trying to attack with three swords?
Itís time to slate the combat system now. Itís the same old one-button bash frenzy, resulting in a dull exchange of three hit combos until someone forgets to hold down the guard key. That is, unless you have to fight more than one opponent at a time, in which case the combat engine completely falls apart. Seven years ago, we didnít know what a good multi-opponent combat engine was. Now, with games like Prince of Persia handling that stuff so well, Tenchuís rigid lock-on strafing targeting system seems almost archaic. Fights against two opponents next to each other in Tenchu is suicide as one guy will block while the other attacks, resulting in a constant stream of hits. This means you end up running around a lot, battling with the camera to see where they are, darting in for a quick attack when they move apart. Sheesh - what a lot of work when weíve seen it done so much simpler in other recent games.
And it reinforces the argument that Tenchu just hasnít progressed since the last instalment. Gone is one character and the branching story arcs of choosing which character to play as on any one level. In comes swimming, a couple of stealth animations, a new character, a slightly improved throw mechanic (although not enough to make a big deal about) and a bunch of new maps, obviously. Back are the so-so graphics and the stealth and combat engines that seem to have made no advancements in the last seven years at all. The more I think about it, I may have to take a second look at Wrath of Heaven and see whether I was far to forgiving because of my fondness for the original title. Mind you, at least that version, and the Tenchu Xbox exclusive of Return to Darkness, had multiplayer modes for you to muck around with. This version of Tenchu has none of the sort, only a tacked-on boss battle game. Rubbish.
I’m afraid that polygon bear is about as convincing as those trousers.
So, the gameís up Tenchu, weíre not falling for it this time. Until K2 pull their finger out and bring the game engine into the 21st Century, Tenchu will be remembered as a Playstation classic with a load of all too similar sequels. Donít get me wrong, this game isnít awful or anything, itís playable and all that, but you canít help but have an overwhelming feeling of neglect as a player. You want the franchise to move forwards, not to stay where it is, so letís just say K2 have a lot of work to do to turn this franchise around.
But I hope they do, because ninjas are pretty damned cool.
Six out of ten