Familiarity breeds contempt. It is yet another assassination mission. With the toss of a grappling hook, you've quickly scaled the perimeter. The elevated perch provides a view of the patrolmen making rounds. This could be tricky - fortunately you've already been in this exact same situation at a very similar location. After a quick survey, you spot the small annex jutting off the rear of the main compound. That is, no doubt, where the greedy merchant you've been sent to punish conducts his pacing and grumbling. All that is left is to scamper across the roof, drop to the ground, dispatch the guard and plunge your sword through the shoji screen into the glutton's gut.
Tenchu Z is about 50 slightly varied permutations of the above scene. At least, as the loading screens recommend, you will get a lot of practice. From Software's latest Tenchu does little to improve upon its last installment on the PlayStation 2. To some extent, it appears to have directly ported its predecessor's muddied textures and simple character models and its disgraceful AI routines directly to the Xbox 360.
Long-time series protagonist Rikimaru now rides a floor mat and tasks younger ninjas (you) with accomplishing his various objectives. Some are straightforward assassinations and others demand compound-wide exterminations. When not focused on killing, you'll occasionally use ninjitsu to safely escort contacts, to retrieve items or to meet with confidential sources. These assignments are loosely strung together by a narrative that slowly unfolds via brief cut scenes and a few scattered lines of text. The general gist is that civil war has erupted between clans. It's your job to stifle the conflict - although the plot does little more than justify your breaking and entering.
Stealth, not storytelling, is Tenchu's main attraction. For a time, lurking in the shadows is entertaining. There's a wide arsenal of stealth kills, combos, special abilities and weapons at your disposal, and more are unlocked as you grind through missions. But it is soon apparent that Tenchu Z requires neither skill nor its vast armory. If, as a ninja would, you simply stick to rooftops, it's possible to quickly navigate and complete each level in mere minutes. Perhaps that's why successful stealth kills add a bonus to your overall score, allowing you to purchase more loot.
Set patrol paths are a staple of the stealth genre - it's the only way to let you get the drop on enemies when vastly outnumbered - but they certainly detract from your role as ninja. If you're sighted and an alarm is raised, a quick sprint into the nearest bush, onto a nearby roof, or under a building quickly restores calm. When you reemerge, any alerted guards have completely forgotten the incursion. They're a forgetful lot.
Despite visually signaling each other when making rounds, none notice if someone is suddenly absent. They also fail to notice bodies strewn across their path, fellow guards killed before their eyes (as long as they can't see you), or ninjas hiding a mere foot away in sparse shrubbery. It's also possible to walk about in plain view as long as you're outside their vision cone. Good help, as always, is hard to find.
Their lack of concern allows ample time to execute a variety of stealth kills. For most, you simply need to grab a foe from behind and quickly eviscerate him (there's a handy on-screen and controller rumble prompt). For a visual flourish, you can slam enemies to the ground and snap their necks or shove them against a wall prior to disembowelment. But with such basic AI, stalking prey soon loses much of its appeal. Sure, you can drop onto someone from above, leap out from a bush, and stab around corners, but none require much skill beyond timing button taps.
It's hard to be caught off guard with lookouts constantly complaining, in Japanese, about the weather and their lack of sleep. If you step too loudly, guards bark an order of silence, alerting you of potential threats. In the off chance you're caught out in the open, it's almost always better to run. There's a slight delay cycling through attack animations, and it's often hard to tell if villains are reeling from pain or in a prolonged death throe. The camera also gets a bit antsy when forced into a sword fight -- often contributing to flesh wounds in close-quarters.
To help even the odds, Tenchu Z does offer a four-player cooperative mode over Xbox Live and System Link. Currently, it suffers from a debilitating amount of lag that often cuts out voice chat and teleports ninjas and swordsmen across the landscape.
Tenchu Z has all the right ingredients: ninjas, stealth, smoke bombs, throwing stars, stealth kills, grappling hooks, co-op and loads of shadows from which to deal death. But like a game of telephone, the recipe got garbled. It's edible but distinctly mediocre.
©2007, IGN Entertainment, Inc. All Rights Reserved