The Tenchu franchise of action-stealth games has enjoyed a long history dating back to the original PlayStation, but of the 10-plus titles released in as many years, most have proven underwhelming and ultimately forgettable. Perhaps this is because the development team that designed the innovative debut effort took some time off, leaving many of the critically-panned follow-ups to other groups within studio Acquire. I'm willing to accept that excuse if only because the original team reunited to create Tenchu: Shadow Assassins for PSP, and the resulting game is surprisingly moody and fun, even if it clings to some dated gameplay designs. So whether you grew up with Tenchu or are altogether new to the brand, as I presume some PSP owners will be, my review mantra stands: if you like stealth games you will like Shadow Assassins. And if you don't, you can stop reading now.
Shadow Assassins is once more set to the backdrop of feudal Japan and again stars Azuma Clan ninjas Rikimaru and Ayame, sworn to protect and serve Lord Gohda by any means necessary, which, of course, means that the two regularly carry out assassinations ordered by their leader. The game's storyline, presented convincingly through a series of well-choreographed and acted in-game cinematics, deals with the political struggles that Gohda faces, eventually resulting in the kidnapping of his daughter, Princess Kiku. Scarred Rikimaru and curvy Ayame are deployed out into the world to search for the princess and to dispose of any enemies who stand in their way. The cinematics regularly spotlight battles against guards and ninjas and effectively define the characters of the two ninjas, who are both ruthless in their pursuit of the princess.
Video review (of nearly-identical Wii version)
Obviously, Shadow Assassins is based on an already-released Wii game and while it doesn't look as good as the Nintendo version, it still looks pretty sharp. Gamers lose the 480p resolution, but PSP's screen more than adequately handles and displays Tenchu's dark and atmospheric environments. Basic character animations can be stiff, but the the models themselves look great and many of the levels they inhabit come to life with architectural detail and effects. I was particularly wowed the first time I made my way through a stormy night area in which the rain poured down in sheets and flashes of lighting in the background temporarily illuminated the entire stage. Portable players will definitely like what they see and the framerate generally holds up.
The downside on PSP is that the detail comes at the expense of load times. Not a big issue on the Wii iteration, the handheld version is full of long loads, both before and between levels, that really break up the momentum of the action. I'm confident that the developer could have better streamed the challenge-filled environments to gamers on-the-go better than it has, which is disappointing.
I know some Tenchu elite will complain about the voice work -- specifically that they can't revert to the original Japanese with English subtitles -- but this is a non-issue for me because the English dubs are good and believable, even if some seasoned Japanese warriors occasionally bust out Harry Potter-style accents. The bigger issue is that some enemies repeat dialog endlessly as they search for your hiding characters. Meanwhile, the game boasts a great PSP soundtrack. Not only is the music beautifully composed using a variety of traditional flute and string-based instruments, but it's crystal clear and triumphantly sets the mood for the stages that Rikimaru and Ayame progress through. My only complaint with regard to the soundtrack is that the development team has overused songs, repeating them often across multiple levels.
Of course, the greatest voice-acting and soundtrack in the universe are meaningless if the gameplay they pepper is tedious or broken, but thankfully this isn't at all the case with Shadow Assassins. All newbies to the series need know is that you control Rikimaru and Ayame at different times through 10-plus unique missions, all of which challenge you to use stealth to your advantage, staying to the shadows and sneaking up on enemies so that you can assassinate them quickly and silently. As you progress through the title, you gain extra equipment -- shuriken, kunai, ninjato, smoke and fire bombs, even a bamboo tube to shoot water or breathe underwater -- all utilized at one time or another to defeat enemies or create darkness. The way of the ninja is not to run courageously forward, blades drawn, in an attempt to fight three warriors at a time, but to stay hidden and assassinate each in succession without drawing any attention to yourself. Thus, you must embrace stealth in order to succeed.
Tenchu could loosely be labeled an action game, but the inherently slow pace of the stealth mechanics seems at conflict with such a classification. There are thrills to be had at every turn and yet the intensity is usually drawn from the prospect of being discovered as you lie hidden in the shadows and not from arcade-fast battles, which are uncommon. There is just as much strategy to the experience as anything else because each level is an obstacle-ridden puzzle and the goal is to plan a route through to the finish either by assassinating foes or by sneaking past them undiscovered. And it's when you're hunkered down in the blackness awaiting your chance to pounce on two turned Samurai scouring the area for signs of movement that Tenchu is so much fun.
The PlayStation original featured a healthy amount of rooftop-based gameplay in which the ninjas could zip between buildings and drop down on enemies below. Sadly, Shadow Assassins omits much of that for ground-based attacks, a truth that may disappoint some purists. I don't mean to suggest you will never find your characters on rooftops because they do traverse the peaks of structures on occasion. More often, though, Rikimaru and Ayame sneak across ceiling rafters, and they can reach down and break the necks of any guards who happen to be making their rounds below them. These mechanics plus freshly introduced ones -- for instance, the ability to hide underneath carriages as villagers tow goods through guarded gates -- are really enjoyable.
Shadow Assassins allows Rikimaru and Ayame to use the "mind's eye," a hyper-sensitive vision undoubtedly exclusive to seasoned ninjas, to see enemy heat sources and line-of-sight lasers. So, if a guard approaches, you will be able to spot exactly what they are looking at, represented on-screen as a controlled beam. This great feature enables you to observe enemy patterns and plan accordingly -- if a guard looks away for just a moment, you can spring forward and take him down. One bonus benefit to using the mind's eye -- which you must and will do often -- is that you can also rotate the camera in any direction to obtain a clearer view of the surrounding environment, also useful for strategically mapping your next move.
During a typical mission, you will find yourself sneaking into the shadows, crawling underneath walkways, dashing between bushes, tiptoeing across rafters, and even hiding in barrels or closets as you stealthily avoid enemies. It's all engaging. However, you will probably kill guards and ninjas more often than you will sneak past them so thankfully the game features a rewarding assassination system. As you approach a foe from behind, you can tap the a button to go into a very brief quicktime sequence in which you press the analog stick in a direction to trigger the kill animation. It's not revolutionary, but it's functional and the resulting deaths are satisfying. Over the course of the game, you will snap necks, choke out, burn, drown, blow up, slice and dice, throw shuriken at and even poison enemies, all to the tune of cinematic animations sure to please bloodlusting PSP owners. Unfortunately, duels -- handled in the Wii version via a gesture system -- as not nearly as engaging with the PSP's control scheme.
Tenchu sometimes feels like a well made game created by a developer clinging stubbornly to a few dated designs. Take, for example, the control configurations that power the game. Not only do Rikimaru and Ayame move like ninja tanks -- heavy and slow to turn, in other words -- but they lack any semblance of analog precision. The controls are all digital despite the fact that you utilize the PSP's analog stick to move the characters. Thus, you can walk or if you hold a button you can run, but you cannot do anything in-between. And don't even get me started on the jumping mechanic, so robotically out of place that it might as well be a programming relic from an experimental 3D PlayStation game. Yet even with these issues I'd be a liar if I indicated the resulting experience wasn't fun, because it still is.
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