Everyone's got that game they used to love but nobody else seems to remember it. This site it dedicated to those games. Check in each week for a fresh look at another hidden gem and weigh in on whether it should be remembered as a classic or not.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Tenchu: Wrath of Heaven

Year: 2003
Developer: K2
Publisher: Activision
Platform: PS2 (originally); later ported to Xbox
Metacritic score: 79
VGChartz sales to date: 1.14 million

Ninjas are often viewed as the pinnacle of the badass hierarchy.  They're incredibly lethal, they strike without warning and they are masters of slipping back into the shadows undetected. It's no wonder that people often associate ninjas with mystical powers and abilities, even as far back as the Meiji Restoration when Japan underwent rapid modernization Japanese looked back on the shinobi as supernatural or mythical figures.  In many ways the shinobi clans responsible for training and contracting ninjas were the elite special forces of feudal Japan.  Their mission wasn't to lead troops into battle to fight and die honorably like the Samurai, instead their goal was to disrupt the enemy by conducting espionage, sabotage and assassinations.  Their training, their tools and their techniques were all designed to maintain secrecy and so an aura of mystery naturally developed around them.  In short, they make for some of the most compelling protagonists to play as which is why it's so depressing how few games let you take up that role.

Of course, the very things that make ninja so interesting are also what makes them so difficult to design a game around.  Stealth is a tricky mechanic to pull off effectively and swordplay is even harder.  It's no wonder that most games revolving around ninjas play more like beat 'em ups or platformers.  The Tenchu series was one of the few games to focus on ninjas are both mythical figures and still retain some semblance of realism in terms of the tools and tactics at your disposal.  Tenchu: Wrath of Heaven, the third title in the series, is perhaps the high water mark even though it wasn't developed by series originator Acquire, who you may remember from our feature on Way of the Samurai.  The heavily mystical story picks up where the first game left off, continuing with series mainstays Rikimaru and Ayame while also introducing a 3rd playable character.  A cunning sorcerer named Tenrai is trying to collect three sacred jewels which are said to grant incredible power to whoever possesses them.  Fortunately Rikimaru, who was presumed dead after his battle with the Big Bad from the first game, has somehow returned to confront this new evil.  Like many great Japanese games the plot can be difficult to follow  at times and incredibly absorbed in its own mythology at others.  By the end of the game you'll no doubt be experiencing some confusion, or possibly nightmares from the potbellied demons or creepy wooden robots.  But maybe a game about magical ninjas doesn't need to always make sense.  

Seriously though, you need to mentally prepare yourself for this kind of shit
One of the features that makes Tenchu so much fun is the sandbox style of play.  You're able to select which character you want to play as and each one has there own style and abilities which makes them feel substantially different from one another.  Rikimaru relies on his single ninjato (a weapon that didn't actually exist at the time) on superior strength to overwhelm enemies while Ayame instead uses her greater speed and maneuverability in combination with her pair of smaller wakizashi.  Series newcomer Tesshu is the third playable character, unlocked after your first play through, and uses raw brute strength to pummel his enemies with his fists but also uses his knowledge of acupuncture to perform stealth kills.  Playing as each character unlocks alternate cutscenes, can alter boss fights and even effects the outcome of the story.  More importantly, because each character has such different controls it can allow for drastically different approaches on each subsequent play through.  The sandbox style level design also increases replay value as most levels include multiple paths to your goal.  Thanks to a massive toolset of over two dozen items that includes everything from throwing stars to poisoned rice there is always more then one solution to every problem.  Need to infiltrate a village?  You could run from rooftop to rooftop, singling out guards and leaping onto them from above to drive your sword through their spines.  Or you could engage in open combat to draw them away from your objective before dropping smoke and caltrops to make a hasty retreat to your now undefended target.  Perhaps making it through the village completely unseen is more your style, in which case you can stick to the shadows and slowly move between cover to reach your objective without even alerting the enemy you were ever there.

Knowing when to strike and when to remain unseen is one of the most critical aspects of the game.  Fortunately a (mostly) well-behaved camera with manual control makes this a little easier.
All of this adds up to provide a tremendous amount of replay value since there's no way to do and see everything in a single play through.  In addition, there's an excellent reward system built into the game that rewards you more points at the end of each level for remaining undetected, performing stealth kills, and otherwise being a total badass.  A high score at the end of a level nets you more items and equipment and also unlocks additional special moves and stealth kills.  This opens up even more possible approaches for you to take on future levels, but the strongest motivator to keep playing this game comes from the excellent stealth kill animations.  Trying to find all the different ways you can remove someone's head from their body is great fun, but setting up and then successfully pulling off the most complicated assassinations you can think of is the true reward for honing your skills.  One of my personal favorites is clinging to a ceiling rafter to wait for an unsuspecting guard to pass beneath you, then using your rope dart to silently hang them while you swing to the ground in one clean movement.  If that's not enough to keep you coming back, there's also split-screen multiplayer that lets two players take on missions together or hunt each other on a map populated with enemy AI.  You can choose from the main playable characters as well as many more you can unlock that include the bosses you face, complete with their unique special moves and abilities.  If you're a fan of ninjas (and honestly how can you not be?) then there's a lot in this game to love.

Hone your skills and you'll be regularly rewarded with some of the best stealth kill animations ever created
Nothing, really.  In just about every way, Wrath of Heaven was a major improvement on both the previous titles that had been released on PSX.  Being the first game in the series to transition to the PS2 era, significant improvements in graphics and audio were a given. The larger playable roster and surprisingly enjoyable multiplayer were both welcome additions to the series, and while the gameplay focus remained unchanged the increased inventory added new flavors to an already well-seasoned experience.  But there were two areas in particular where reviewers felt the series had a misstep.  Tenchu 2 introduced an extensive level editor that let players build their own arenas and design missions for them, a feature that was pretty ahead of it's time for a console game back in 2000 but this was axed from Wrath of Heaven.  

The other area reviews harped on was the enemy AI routines which, despite being improved upon from earlier entries, simply couldn't match the polish of Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, the long awaited next installment of the series that pretty much defines the action stealth genre.  Even though Tenchu was the first 3D stealth game, Metal Gear Solid became the gold standard when it launched later that same year and has held that position pretty much ever since.  In Wrath of Heaven, enemies have simplistic patterns and poor visual acuity (though their hearing is annoyingly accurate) which can make them easy picking for a stealthy player.  But get caught in the open and they'll gang up on you, showing sword handling skills far greater then their ability to patrol on guard duty.  Some enemies can even stealth kill you from behind if you're not watching your back in a melee, all of which makes for a big swing in difficulty the moment you break stealth.  

Right, so that's where that third demon was
Even with these concerns reviews were still predominately positive, though they may explain why it scores slightly below it's predecessors.  It didn't quite reach the 2 million sales accrued by the original, but did blow away sales of the second game (to be fair, that game was released just a month before the PS2 launched in North America).  Activision made the choice to sell the property to From Software, a small but talented Japanese studio we've featured before.  The series lived on and has produced a number of spin-off games and mobile ports along with another entry in the main storyline with 2009's Tenchu: Shadow Assassins for the Wii.  None of these have been particularly well received, but the mobile phone ports to Sony Erickson devices (remember those dark days before smartphone app stores?) deserve special scorn for how terrible they were.  Without big games to grab people's attention or Activision's deep pockets for marketing the series has mostly fallen into obscurity.

Hopefully we'll see the Tenchu series again someday, as From Software has been publishing new titles  developed by K2, Acquire and their own in-house people sporadically over the years.  The most recent releases have been Japan-only, but with a new console generate right around the corner the time might be right for Tenchu to start fresh.  The thought of scaling up the sandbox design to a whole cityscape is certainly an enticing prospect is the success of Assassin's Creed is any indication.  Being able to control Rikimaru, Ayame or a user created ninja as in Tenchu Z in an open world 15th century Kyoto or Osaka would offer up so many possibilities in terms of gameplay variety.  With a continued focus on stealth and missions that could include espionage, infiltrating secure castles, assassinating rival daimyo and more the game could fill a unique niche in the market.  Including mission editors, online multiplayer or co-op modes would further set the game apart and bring the series into the next console generation. 

Challenging boss fights and deep inventories are staples of the series, but there's no reason these can't make the jump to a truly open world setting
Complicating things, however, is that so many developers have worked on the series.  Tenchu progenitor Acquire developed the last game from the main storyline with Shadow Assassins for Wii in 2009.  But when they lost the rights to the series to From Software they developed the Shinobido series, a ninja stealth game that is (unsurprisingly) very similar to Tenchu.  Interestingly, Acquire had been developing Shinobido before (and after) doing Shadow Assassins for From Software so perhaps it's not an issue.  It's not entirely clear who should take the reigns if Acquire is unable or unwilling.  K2 did a great job with Wrath of Heaven, but their release of Tenchu Z for Xbox 360 was met with pretty harsh reviews for failing to improve over the previous title.  From Software's in-house studio is another option, but their only work in the series is an XBLA puzzle-style game that also failed to impress.  Whoever does it, it's not too hard to believe we haven't seen the last of Tenchu.  Sooner or later it will slip from the shadows, silently infiltrate our consoles and take us all by surprise with how incredible it is.

Look at how sweet this is!  How is more of this not being made right now?!
Have you played this game?  Is there a game you remember being great but no one else has heard of it?  Sound off in the comments below, and be sure to Like us on Facebook or Follow us on Twitter!       

No comments:

Post a Comment