After many entries of the ninja based Tenchu series on other platforms from the past two generations, K2 brings an exclusive title to the Xbox 360 with Tenchu Z. While many other prominent game franchises promote the art of ninjutsu, a widespread entity in the Japanese feudal society, the Tenchu series was the first to implement the important aspect of stealth. Despite this historically important implementation into the series, the franchise is notorious for shallow gameplay, little story, and even less replay value.
Although critics believed that the initial installments of the series on the Playstation were adequate, the developer has not amended the games to keep up with the important changes in action games. Tenchu Z is the first game in this decade-long series which includes features that are expected to be standard, but features that the developer believes differentiates the series from the competition.
One of these new features creates a needed change in the increasingly bland storyline of the series and one that the developer hoped would freshen up the gameplay. The original premise of the Tenchu games was the journey of two different ninjas, Rikimaru and Ayame, who worked for Lord Gohda in routing out corruption and other potential threats within his province. In Tenchu Z the player will create their own ninja who will go on missions given by Rikimaru and thus serve as a protégé of sorts.
The customization process is one of the strongest features of the game.
Before starting the main storyline, the player has the option of creating either a male or female ninja and will be able to both clothe and equip their character with many different outfits and items. It is another nice feature that the player has the ability to customize the “sidekick” ninja who will appear in the game’s cutscenes but it is a disappointment that he or she will never be a playable character. As the player progresses through the game they will receive gold and unlock more options in the store to further customize their ninja. However, there is one aspect of the store that is very questionable. For some reason, the game does not allow the player to view the different clothes before they are purchased from the store. Thus, many times the player will have to just buy an item from a general category, such as “armored” in the legs section. Despite this, there is great variety which allows the player to create ninjas that are more traditional and ones which are quite the opposite.
The game includes a leveling system that was put in for no real gameplay purpose because it fails to add more depth. At the beginning of the game the player can choose to spread points between life, strength and agility.
However it makes little difference on the overall gameplay experience, as it seems to have little or no effect on ninja’s effectiveness. It seems as though this aspect could have been better created to allow a more rich and varied gameplay experience.
With the created ninja ready to enter a story that is an interesting time period, it would seem to become a great one. However the basic premise of the story is very similar to the previous installments. The created hero will have to protect the specific region from threats, which in this case come through an illegal drug operation and a rival’s plan to take over the province. The developer included great detail within the story, including specific aspects of Japanese mythology, however the way the game goes about telling the story is completely convoluted and thus confusing. The game’s story is told through brief cutscenes shown to the player both before and after each mission. The player will soon find that they will never fully comprehend all of the specifics of the story, as they will most likely not see every cutscene because one is not required to beat every mission in order to beat the game.
The main storyline is comprised of over 50 missions. At first glance, the sheer number of missions is enough to hook many consumers. This is misleading because, just like in other previous Tenchu games, the missions quickly become extremely repetitive. There are four different types of missions, but they are all very similar. The first mission variant is the one that is most commonly used—assassination. The goal here is to make your way through a heavily guarded camp or castle to kill a corrupt official or another person of significant threat to the province. The other variants include finding a secret document, finding ten bombs, killing all enemies, and following a person of interest. The other mission types are repetitive and do not really correlate with the story fluently, meaning the following mission is flat out terrible. The one following mission, the 16th mission in the game, is technically flawed and is near impossible to achieve the highest rank. The goal in this type of mission is to follow a person without being seen or arousing too much suspicion. In order to get the highest rank, a Ninja five rank, the player must achieve stealth kills, not be detected, and continue to follow the person of interest. If the character falls to far behind a timer will go down, and if it reaches zero the mission is failed.
However, the one aspect of this mission that is clearly technically flawed is that the radius around the person is about twenty feet but if you are outside that zone you can many times still see the person, but the timer continues to go down. If you try to get in the twenty-foot radius many times the person you are following will be alerted to your presence. It is rather curious that there is only one following mission in the game, and it leaves you to wonder whether the developer realized that the mission was broken but decided to leave it in the finished game.
The missions included in the game become increasingly uninteresting as there is also very little variation in setting. The game seems to go on a cycle of sorts in which almost all of the castle missions take place at the same castle and many times the enemies are in the same positions. The only slight change, if there is any included, is the starting point of the player’s ninja. Towards the end of the game, the mission level will have more enemies and the boundaries are slightly bigger, but this addition to the experience on a player already weary with the lack of change is too little too late.
The gameplay is based upon moving silently through shadows and greenery and quickly killing enemies in order to complete the task at hand. Like a true ninja, the player will have to stay unseen and unheard in order to not make the guards become suspicious. There is a meter on the interface that changes colors to tell the player how close enemies are and whether enemies’
suspicions are being aroused by sound, sight, or smell. The different senses that alert the guards are quite unbalanced and smell seems to be a very small and seemingly pointless addition from previous games. Smell comes into play when the ninja falls into dirty water, walks through blood, or is near enemy animals. Toward the later stages of the game, the player will be constantly found for smelling. Many times it is quite hard to figure out how the player got the smell, as it is common to see blood on the battlefield.
The only way that the player can get rid of the smell is to got into water, which many times will alert enemies and does not always seem to work properly.
When controlling the ninja, the player will find that they are constantly holding down the right bumper, which puts the ninja into a ninja crouch. In this ninja crouch, the player can roll to move quickly and make little or no sound to alert the enemies. If the player does not go into the ninja crouch, the noise of their movement will alert the enemies to the ninja’s presence.
It really makes little sense that the guards will be alerted if a player is walking, but they will not even check if a player is rolling right behind them.
The purpose of getting right behind the enemy is so that the player can get a stealth kill which is a silent, efficient way to kill the enemies (and also work towards getting the stealth achievements). As the player approaches an enemy, a ring of Japanese characters will appear and allow the player to press the X button to take the enemy out. There are several nice looking animations when a player is completing a stealth kill which range from tackling the enemy to the ground and breaking their neck to jumping on their back and slashing their throat.
The other way of killing enemies is by employing a special move. The way that a player can use a special move is by jumping from a rooftop on top of an enemy (and then pressing the X button when the same Japanese characters
appears) which will cause the character to slice through the enemy’s body.
These animations are also nice but come at a cost, as the special moves cause the player to go into a longer animation and thus become more susceptible to the suspicions of nearby enemies.
In addition to the enemies with weapons in some missions there are civilians who can cause the player trouble. If the civilian sees the player’s ninja they will immediately go into the alert mode that will cause all guards in the vicinity to come with their weapons drawn. The player can kill the civilians but at the end of the mission they will get a points penalty that can cause a drop in rank. The best way to deal with civilians is to keep your sword sheathed, sneak up behind them, and put them in a headlock. The player can then drag them into an area that is concealed and knock them out by pressing the B button. This can also be used against armed enemies, but does not make much sense to use because the player needs stealth kills for both a higher rank and achievements.
This is the same reason that the player will not find a need to use normal combat to kill enemies, as the point total is not as high. The player can fight another enemy in regular combat, but it makes no sense from a time or points standpoint. If the enemy is engaged this way, it will take much longer to kill the enemy and it will also alert other enemies. If the player does make the choice of playing more aggressively there are specific combos and specials that can be purchased at the store that will allow enemies to be subdued faster.
One of the worst aspects about the game is the tacked on boss battles.
Although they only occur twice in the game, they cause most players to play in a style that is completely different than the one that they used throughout the course of the game. The specific missions that include boss battles are ones that the player is going to have to take healing items as the bosses can take a long time to kill and employ very explosive combos.
The store comes back into play at this point of the game because most players will find it easier to buy more effective combos to take the bosses down in a shorter time. The combos are mostly easily to pull off and they are rather lackluster both in presentation and effect. There is also the option of picking up more ranged weapons, such as a blow dart or ninjitsu stars, that allow the player to stay out of range of the bosses’ combos.
It would seem as though the gameplay elements outlined so far would allow for a enthralling gameplay experience, however, enemy artificial intelligence is so atrocious that the game becomes very slow and the player is really never forced to get into a normal fight with enemies besides a boss. Most of the time if a player alerts a guard the enemy will loose interest within a matter of seconds, many times not even following a retreating ninja. The only time that the enemies seem to always sense danger is when a ninja is on the other side of the wall. Whereas in other more successful stealth games the enemies have multiple paths and different behaviors, the enemies in Tenchu Z are all on tracks. If a player is patient enough, the enemy will turn, yawn, or walk away. It is a commonality to see the enemies turn and face a wall, allowing the player to get a very easy kill.
The artificial intelligence really takes away from the difficulty of the game. The game is very easy as enemies do not pose any challenge on any of the three difficulty levels. The only way that a player will truly die during the game is in a boss battle mistakenly falling down a hole. This lack of challenge makes the game very easy to beat and thus extenuates its repetitive nature.
The lackluster gameplay is not supported by good graphical appearance. The game could have easily been produced on an Xbox as the character models, textures, and animations are not up to the quality most consumers are used to seeing on the Xbox 360. Although the game’s framerate holds up nicely, there are several areas in which animations can become completely broken and even result in a random death of the player. These cases specifically occur when the player is completing an animation close to a wall or when the animation comes into contact with a large object. The shadows in the game are also quite wacky as it is common to see your shadow and the shadow of enemies on the opposite sides of walls. Couple that with a very disappointing draw-distance (with enemies sometimes randomly disappearing) and you are looking at a game with some real graphical problems.
The game has a lot of blood as the ninja is usually killing enemies with very violent close range attacks with a katana. The blood looks absolutely terrible. Many times it will start coming out of the body before the player has actually stabbed the enemy and when it does come out properly it seems to look like a two-dimensional pattern. Many of the pieces of greenery are also two-dimensional sprites that do not move in the wind or even when they come into contact. Even in the cutscenes, which are mainly produced by CGI, the graphics look less realistic than some of the in game graphics of the higher quality Xbox 360 titles. In the cutscenes the speaking characters will not move their lips and they look very awkward when they are running, stopping, and bending over.
The audio in the game does not make up for any of the graphical shortcomings. Although there is voice acting, it is not very well done, even in Japanese. The voice acting often sounds very uninspired and there is an absence of any sort of voice acting in many of the different cutscenes. The in game sound is even poorer than the ones in the cutscenes. The game does not really have any sort of soundtrack and it often seems that a ten second sound clip is looped throughout the entire mission. There is a faster paced piece of music that plays when the enemies are alerted to the ninja’s presence but this also seems to be on a short loop. Enemies in the game do make noise and talk to each other, which is a nice part of the game’s otherwise horrendous audio. However, not much other good can be said about it other than its presence as the in game voices are few and far between.
Another one of the new features to this installment in the Tenchu series is the addition of co-op support over Xbox Live or system link. The gameplay does seem to get better and less repetitive (but not much) when the player is playing with another person as they can do combination stealth kills, such as one ninja holding an enemy and the other driving the sword into their body. However it is very difficult to find someone to play with co-op as the online infrastructure for the particular title does not seem up to par. It would have been nice to have also seen some co-op achievements in the game and it is downright disappointing that the player cannot attain any achievements while playing in co-op.
Tenchu Z is a full price game that is really not worth purchasing. This is a game that had many elements, such as leveling and a historical setting that could have created a very deep and enthralling gameplay experience but were not fleshed out with an more impressive looking and sounding game. The game has technical flaws, such as a broken enemy artificial intelligence, and a lack of variation among the stretched 50 missions that create an incredibly boring gaming experience. The Tenchu series has seen a lot of changes in this particular installment of the series and it is good to see some of this much needed change, but it is not a complete package and thus should not be a part of your Xbox 360 library.
Originally Written By: Douglas Buffone