What distinguishes Tenchu: Wrath of Heaven from all the Splinter Cells, Metal Gear Solids, Hitmans, and other stealth-action games? Buckets and buckets of blood. Rivers of spraying vitae. Burst vessels, severed body parts, hearts ripped out of chest cavities. There's something deeply satisfying about watching your opponents die a brutal, painful death, and Tenchu knows this. Third in a series of stealth-action titles that began on PSone, Wrath of Heaven lets you play a ninja, nature's ultimate badass. As Lazlow, the loudmouthed DJ of Grand Theft Auto III once said, "I think we all went through a ninja phase when we were younger." Tenchu allows you to revisit your ninja phase better than any other ninja game I've seen.
The game tells the story of two ninjas of the Azuma clan: Rikimaru and Ayame. The Azuma are a mystical sect devoted to the virtuous Lord Gohda and visiting heavenly retribution on his enemies. Rikimaru, presumed dead at the end of the first Tenchu, has returned to help his kunoichi compatriot, Ayame, foil the plans of Tenrai, an evil warlord. Together they must assassinate legions of ronin, ninjas, zombies, monks, clockwork guards, and other dastardly demons allied with Tenrai.
As any Internet-savvy reader knows, ninjas are awesome because they can kill anyone they want. And Tenchu's coolest features are the myriad ways you can kill your damnable foes. Each character has five or six different stealth kills that trigger depending on the angle at which you approach your opponent (from the front, sides, above, behind, etc.). Rikimaru slices his katana into his foes from various painful angles; Ayame favors quick kicks, neck cracks, and throat slashes; and Tesshu (the hidden character) just rips out his opponents' still-beating hearts. Best of all, these stealth kills are easy to execute: just catch your opponent off-guard, press the attack button, and watch the blood fly.
New to the series is the Kuji Meter. Near your health bar there is a row of nine kanji; each time you stealth kill someone (or something), a kanji will light up. Sometimes, if you pull off a particularly gutsy stealth kill, you'll get an additional half of a kanji. Once all nine kanji are lit, your character recites an incantation and learns a new skill. These special skills allow you to cling to ceilings, learn new battle combos, jump off walls, control minds, fake ritual suicide to lure guards (my personal favorite), and more. However, if you kill a civilian, your Kuji Meter will drop to zero, so you can't just kill the whole town at the drop of a spoon. These new skills provide real incentive to play the game stealthily, and although some skills are more useful than others, all of them are fun to use.
Of course, you'll have more than just your wits and your weapons. Tenchu also features a healthy assortment of ninja tools, from poison rice balls (great for distracting dim-witted guards) and smoke bombs to blow darts and shuriken. For the explosives-inclined, there are remote-control sticky bombs, explosive darts, grenades, and fireworks. There's even a Scorpion-esque "Get over here!" spear for pulling guards closer to you. Perhaps the game's most important tool, however, is the grappling hook. This handy tool allows you to scale walls, scamper across rooftops, and use every change in elevation to get the advantage over your opponents.
Each character plays through ten stages (except Tesshu, the hidden character, who has only five) and although most of the same locales are used in each character's story, the objectives and stages are different enough to warrant playing them all. The levels are huge and well-designed, and often permit multiple solutions to problems. On Rikimaru's first stage, for example, you must infiltrate a large house. You can either grapple your way to the roof, slaughter the guards in front and proceed through the front door, or you can approach silently through a hidden passageway on the side. At the end of each level you receive a rating based on number of stealth kills and number of times you were spotted. This rating determines the number of tools and bonus weapons you receive - yet another incentive to play well. Even better, each stage has three variations in which the layout and enemy placement is altered. Add in a super secret level available once you beat all three characters' missions, and Tenchu has a solid amount of replay value.
The meat of the game, apart from the incredible atmosphere and sheer thrill of playing a cool-as-ice ninja, is the challenge of the stealth kill. Combat itself is executed well, but it's pretty simple and clearly secondary to the art of silent ninja death. Most characters can be dispatched with simple button combos; only the bosses and regular opponents near the game's end pose any real threat. Fortunately Tenchu's control system makes it easy and enjoyable to go after stealth kills. The grappling hook controls work effortlessly and allow you to invent crafty solutions to problems. With a press of the shoulder button, your ninja can shimmy against walls, peek around corners, crouch, crawl, and land silently from great distances. You can even locate guards off-screen by paying attention to the “Ki Meter”, a meter that shows the distance (represented by a value from 1-100) of the nearest enemy, plus the alert status of that enemy (oblivious, confused, spotted, attacking).
Tenchu's stealth engine is well-suited to the purposes of the game, but it is less sophisticated than other games in the genre. Although your opponents respond to sound cues, like walking across a wooden floor or flooded plain, in most circumstances you can run at full speed behind an enemy on just about any ground without them taking notice. The enemy AI is atrocious. Guards rarely make an effort to find you once detected, and generally return to their patrols once you've kept out of sight for a few seconds. The guards walk in simple, repetitive patterns, so stealth killing is usually a matter of finding the right angle of attack and charging ahead without regard for sound or shadow. In this respect, the actual stealth strategy is less sophisticated than in Splinter Cell or even Metal Gear Solid 2, but in its emphasis on pure action and reflex, is more fun.
The extra multiplayer modes are solid. In Versus you can choose from sixteen different characters; fans of the Tenchu series will recognize some familiar faces here. Co-op allows you to team up with a friend to complete various objectives as well as perform co-op stealth kills. These modes are pretty simple compared to the main game, but they're a nice addition nonetheless.
Wrath of Heaven has its flaws, sure - the aforementioned AI problems, some slowdown here and there, but overall it's one of the best ninja games you'll ever play. It does so many things extremely well, from the lushly detailed levels to the awesome character design to the eerie, chilling soundtrack. Together with its brilliant stealth kills, immense replay value, and cool multiplayer mode, Tenchu shows you what it's like to have the real ultimate power of the ninja.
· · · Sleeveboy