Platform: PS2 (originally); later ported to Xbox
Metacritic score: 79
VGChartz sales to date: 1.14 million
WHAT MADE IT GREAT
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|
|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.|
|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|
WILL WE SEE IT AGAIN
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|
|Look at how sweet this is! How is more of this not being made right now?!|