Review: Tenchu: Shadow Assassins

When you want stealth action involving ninjas and bloodshed, Tenchu has always been a reliable series to go to. More than ten titles have been released over the span of time we’ve been graced with the Tenchu franchise, though a good amount, admittedly, left a lot to be desired. When the series came to the Wii, it lost a lot in translation due to lackluster controls and graphics that weren’t quite up to par. However, the same port of the game, Tenchu: Shadow Assassins, on the PSP, is a surprisingly enjoyable throwback to the good old days of Tenchu that we all remember and love. It’s a great little port and a fascinating entry in the stealth genre.

Featuring Azuma Clan ninjas Ayame and Rikimaru, Lord Gohda is again in hot water (isn’t he always?). You can choose to play as either svelte ninja, as it doesn’t change the storyline or missions in any way. Shadow Assassin’s deals primarily with a glut of different political issues that Lord Gohda finds himself faced against on a regular basis, such as the kidnapping of daughter Kiku. Both Rikimaru and Ayame are called upon to return Princess Kiku to her father, as well as take out anyone who dares challenge their motives – or looks at them strangely.

Split into ten different missions, either Ayame or Rikimaru must sneak from point A to point B in various locations. This is not a game that will allow you to simply run up on guards caught unaware and slit their throats. No, this game requires a bit more finesse than that. You will need to have quite a bit of patience if you want to get very far in this game. Luckily, there are thorough tutorials in play to help you figure out how to slink around in the shadows most effectively. Most of your time will be spent creeping through dark shrubbery and grass, deactivating lanterns, or performing stealth kills on guards who have absolutely no idea you exist. You won’t only have to rely on your physicaly skills as a ninja, though. As you progress through the missions, more equipment will eventually be opened up for your use. This includes kunai, shuriken, and even bombs to toss while on the go. As you receive more and more new skills, the difficulty of the missions rises accordingly. Eventually you will find yourself putting them all to use at one point.

Both ninjas have a wide skillset in their arsenal, ranging from the ability to vault from one shadowy location to another, to snapping a soldier’s neck. Even so, don’t expect to finish each mission as if it were a cakewalk. These are some frustrating and difficult outings. Often, you will need to plan out an exact route to take in order to reach the main goal. You cannot simply play and make decisions on the fly. Much like Splinter Cell’s gameplay, one wrong move or one body left out in the open in plain sight can mean the difference between success and failure. In each mission, you have only one chance to make a mistake. If you happen to get caught, you will disappear in a flurry of leaves. You’ll then restart from the point you were seen. After you’ve used up this chance, the next time means death and beginning from the very last checkpoint. Checkpoints and saves are few and far between, so you’ll want to be as careful as possible when making that next move. I’m sure you don’t want to replay certain sections ten or twelve times over.

Most of the game will take place on the ground, in lieu of the rooftops that were featured in the first game. However, the rooftop mechanics haven’t been completely overlooked. Both ninjas can sprint from rooftop to rooftop and eliminate opposition from above if the need arises. Aside from moving from the start of the level to the end, there isn’t a lot of true gameplay involved such as puzzles or “real” boss encounters. Most of your experience lies in planning out how you will tackle each area, and for stealth fanatics that should make for an entertaining playthrough.

If you are a seasoned stealth action gamer, the game shouldn’t take too much time to complete since there are only 10 missions. They are a bit long, though, and there is a lot of ground to cover interwoven with exquisite cut scenes that do a great job of advancing the story.

This is a port from the Wii to PSP, so it’s important to keep in mind that the graphics aren’t that fantastic. Ayame and Rikimaru are rendered quite well, even when surrounding areas are a bit pixelated. In all honesty, though, after playing through some of the Wii version as well as this diminutive port, I found the PSP graphics superior to the Wii’s. Makes sense, as the screen is so compressed that the models appear sharper and cleaner. The cutscenes are rendered well but there are many artifacts throughout some of the scenes. Despite some graphical deficits, scenes were orchestrated quite efficiently. To keep things in perspective, Tenchu: Shadow Assassin is on par with the Metal Gear titles released on the PSP. It’s really a shame to see the PSP in the state it’s in considering all of the slick games it has in its library.

Some may say that the voice acting featured in Shadow Assassins leaves much to be desired when you compare it to the original Japanese voice actors’ work, but it’s fair. Sure, some soldiers may take on some obviously fake and annoying accents from time to time, but all in all you have a surprisingly solid take on personifying the characters. I did have a bit of a gripe with the voice actor passing along tutorial instructions – he spoke a bit too quickly and had a bit of strange enunciation with some words that seemed like some bad English dubbing for anime. Overall, I was pleased with the presentation.

Tenchu: Shadow Assassins can be completed rather quickly if you are familiar with the stealth genre, and there isn’t a lot to be offered aside from the main quest. Once it’s over, unless you want to play through it again then there isn’t much fun left to be had. However, if you’re a fan of the old-school Tenchu games, archaic game mechanics and all, then this is an entry into the franchise that you should pick up, but opt for the PSP version instead if you have the option between the Wii and the PSP. The game may rely on some truly old-school gameplay and harrowing difficulty, but it’s still worth playing if you’re into ninjas and the snapping of necks. Besides – the ninja scene in games hasn’t been all that impressive lately. No reason to pass up a tasty morsel!

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