There’s no Wii game quite as masculine as Tenchu: Shadow Assassins. Every character model is a statuesque brute, albeit carved from prime beef as opposed to stone. Every chest is coated with enough hair to craft 100 Brillo Pads. Even lady ninja Ayame comes stocked with horse thighs capable of snapping a neck. Tenchu is meaty. And Tenchu is governed by an equally meaty rulebook, free of confusing degrees of right and wrong. Enter the shadows and you are hidden. Get spotted and you will return to the beginning. The logic extends to your tools: shuriken will always snag a guard from his watchtower and the bamboo shoot will always extinguish flaming torches.
Acquire’s strength lies in stitching the rules together into an action-puzzler. Ideas that, taken alone, feel rigid and mechanical, weave into entertaining conundrums. Brightly lit corridor allowing a foe to see you? Slowly bleed it of light and go for the kill. Garden paths rammed with guards? Use ninja sight to pull your prey into an ornamental pond just as his mates are looking elsewhere. There’s even a spot of Ninja Cat sacrifice needed, in one PETA-baiting assassination setpiece. It’s simple A to B stuff but route-finding is the game.
Oddly enough, the killing itself is almost by-the-by: quick cutscenes to reward sneaking. But what cutscenes they are. Guards tumble, necks snap and netherparts are viciously booted. It’s arguable that with so many killing avenues available it can be a walk in the park. The straightforwardness of Acquire’s vision should be applauded, but the game is too generous. (Though we should give a special shout-out to the fiery finale – a level so deadly even the guards die accidentally.)
A big part of the puzzle, and one that aids replayability, is the application of weapons. You can carry three weapons at any one time, and each opens up certain opportunities in the levels. From physical exploration (claws let you climb walls and Ninja Cat can squeeze into secret rooms) to killing opportunities courtesy of shurikens and bombs, you’ll be constantly noting routes through each area that are closed off thanks to poor item choice.
Even with the items, your journey is a relatively linear one. There’s an optimal sneaking path and Acquire want you to find it. Irritatingly, switching from Rikimaru to Ayame halfway through the game sees you re-entering many of the old levels, and although enemy placement is new, many of those Rikimaru tricks still work. There’s a decent 12-hour challenge in the story mode, but it would have been nice to see a few new locales. Fifty side missions bolster the package, but the developers struggle to devise many things the story campaign couldn’t throw at you.
During your 12 hours you can expect a couple to consist of cursing the god-awful sword fighting. Dueling is split into two phases: tilting the remote to defend and swiping to attack. The problem? Blocking is horribly implemented and diagonal blocks are near-impossible. Should the enemy use a diagonal swipe? That’s you dead and another restart. One boss killed us 62 times before we got lucky; a loose idea in a title that prides itself on being watertight.
When Tenchu gets its sneak back on, however, it’s an enjoyable slice of action pie. Finding your footing and murderising 10 men within metres of one another is satisfying stuff, and for every bit of cowering behind a box there’s a shot of cool-looking ninjas doing cool-looking things to less-cool-looking villains. Perhaps not as meaty as its visual style suggests, Tenchu: Shadow Assassins is still a generous portion of fun.
Feb 3, 2009