When the original Tenchu: Stealth Assassins was released in 1998, it quickly became my anti-stress drug. While my graduate school classmates would look for relief in the inhalation of tobacco or at the bottom of a beer glass, stealthily killing guards in feudal Japan was my liberation of choice. From the game’s clandestine dashes along angled rooftops, to the haunting flute score that set the game’s tempo, Tenchu was an amazing ninja simulation. Sadly, subsequent sequels failed to improve upon the strong foundation laid out by the first title. Nine years later, Tenchu Z for the Xbox 360 added little innovation to the increasingly stagnant and misguided formula.
So I approached Tenchu: Shadow Assassins with a mix of excitement and hesitation. While I was hopeful that original developer Acquire Software has returned to reignite the series, I was also afraid that the game’s design decisions would not reflect eleven years of gaming progress. Fortunately, Shadow Assassins seems delightfully fresh, relevant, and is on par with the original title. With 10 main missions and 50 side quests, the title offers a healthy amount of gameplay for fans of stealthy action.
To be a true ninja, you must learn to walk as gently as a cat.
Unlike the assassins in Ninja Gaiden, or Shinobi, the two protagonists in Tenchu move at a deliberate and methodical pace. Players use the control stick to move either series mainstays Rikimaru and Ayame. The ‘A’ button on the remote is context sensitive, and is used to initiate Hissatsu (or instant kills), open doors, stick to walls, and hang from ledges. The ‘B’ button is used to run, while moving, or to sidestep when stationary. When players were spotted in past Tenchu games, the title would revert to a clunky fighting system. However, combat in Shadow Assassins involves rotating the Wiimote like a sword to block attacks; unlike many Wii games, sword control was fluid and effortless. One of our favorite maneuvers was jumping along indoor rafters, Prince of Persia style, by snapping the Wiimote. Shadow Assassins is one of the few games that integrates control Wiimote gestures thoughtfully; the control scheme seems attentively refined.
“Jeffry, what are you doing outside of Virtua Fighter?”
However, a few nagging control issues prohibit the player from becoming completely immersed in the 13th century Japanese environments. When using ranged tools such as the shuriken or rock, players use the analog stick on the nunchuck to aim an on-screen cursor. Using the wiimote to guide the cursor would have felt more instinctual. Occasionally, when creeping around interiors, the camera can become the ninja’s worst enemy, obscuring the view of nearby foes. At worst, this propels Shadow Assassins toward the trial and error type gameplay common in the Hitman games; players become more successful as they learn where enemies are patrolling.
Warrior, meet thy sword!
While the game doesn’t have progressive scan support for 480P televisions, Tenchu at least offers widescreen support. Most of the game’s locations are graphically lush, from water ponds, lantern-lit pathways, and vistas illuminated by the intermittent lightening flash. An attention to detail is shown throughout the game- we particularly enjoyed how Rikimaru and Ayame would carefully step over dispatched foes. Shadow Assassins‘ musical palette perfectly complements the on-screen action, and is instrumental in setting the game’s sense of time and location. It’s good enough to make us overlook the sporadic English accent used by the voice actors.
Not only is Tenchu: Shadow Assassins one of our favorite third-party Wii titles, it is also a fine return to form for Rikimaru and Ayame. After eleven years of starring roles that would make Michael Dudikoff blush, the duo has finally been given a game that reaches for the plateaus set by the original title. Gamers with an interest in stealth or ninjas (isn’t that everyone?), should surreptitiously make their way to the nearest software retailer.