Some people would equate the sound of footsteps on the roof to the arrival of a jolly man in a red coat come to deliver gifts to good people around the world. Others would check to see if an imcompetent burglar was trying to break into the house. However, in feudal Japan, it would probably be time to prepare to receive a sword through the gullet. Despite the full-frontal ass kicking ninjas are commonly depicted giving out, Tenchu Z strives to provide a more realistic view of Ninjutsu- that is, sneaky bastards running around behind you with a sharp stick. Not to say that it isn’t badass, but fans of Ninja Gaiden be warned: this isn’t an action game. Tenchu, beginning its life on the PS1, is the series that is often credited for starting the stealth genre, along with its cousin Metal Gear Solid. Both focused on staying hidden, and striking only when necessary. However, sequels spread the series apart; Metal Gear Solid constantly evolved, whereas Tenchu simply got more and more challenging, throwing more of the same at the hardcore fan base. Now, on Xbox 360, Tenchu Z takes a stab (no pun intended) at the next-generation market. How does the old formula hold up?
For starters, it is indeed as much of a niche title as ever. Playing around with Japanese history, the game lets you create a ninja character to play as, and teaches you the basics of movement and combat. That’s it. Your hand isn’t held in any way, and it is possible to make new discoveries all the time within it. Unlockable items and abilities bring new cards to the table when it comes to clearing out a level. It’s good that there are this many options, too, because Tenchu’s gameplay is as barebones as it gets. Plopped into a level, be it a village or a cave or a forest, you have one objective: kill a bad guy. As macabre as it sounds, this objective plus all of the options, it is quite fun to devise a strategy that involves you getting from point A to point B without being noticed, and dealing out your feudal justice. Guards are pretty dumb, and so are civilians, but nonetheless it is certainly a thrill to jump from rooftop to rooftop above unsuspecting people. If you do get spotted by a guard, you can fight back or run away, but so much as touch a civilian and you’re done. As brutal as the game’s concept is, it sticks rigidly to the Ninjutsu code of honor.
Actually tackling your targets can be quite cerebral. Do you wait by the door and jam your sword in when their shadow passes by? Maybe you should stake out about the building, and pop a few shuriken into his back when he decides to go to the bathroom. The AI may be entirely scripted and dumb, but in a way that makes the game ever more challenging. Plenty of time can be spent observing patterns in the enemy and looking for the best chance to strike. Of course, the open format of the game lets you toy around as much as you like with the presented scenarios. As lean as the game may appear, it certainly has some lasting appeal, what with over 50 missions and four-player online co-op. Oh yes, you can take your assassinations online.
Unfortunately, online play seems to be the only major update the game has received on the 360. The graphics are fairly bland and ugly at times, especially compared to other stealth games on the system. At least it has a nice sense of style, with ridiculous anime blood sprays and some gorgeous animation. Your ninja will shift his or her weight to clamber over a wall, or steady themselves while walking on a high precipice. However, as good as all of the motion is, it can’t cover up the less-than-stellar technical visuals. Environments are often bland and blocky, and a lack of dynamic lighting hurts in a game so driven by hiding in shadows. At least the game sounds great; The original Japanese voice acting was left in, and accompanied by a very traditional Asian soundtrack, it all feels very authentic.
Tenchu Z is not for everyone. It’s not flashy, it’s very cerebral, and at times it can feel very dull. However, given the massive amount of customization available, and the sheer number of possible ways to take out a target, dealing out ninja justice is a lot of fun if you can overlook the boring graphics and the simple level design. For fans of serious stealth, the title is a must buy. Less hardcore gamers will probably be better off with something more mainstream, but if you’re trying to understand what “cult classic” means, Tenchu is probably a safe bet.
Seven out of ten
- Open gameplay
- Excellent sound design
- Plenty of customization options
- Dull graphics
- Aging game design
- Dumb AI