There aren’t many ninja games available nowadays, but luckily there’s the Tenchu series. Tenchu Z is the latest iteration of the franchise that’s been in a downward spiral for years. Not much new stuff has been added in the last couple of Tenchu games to keep it fresh, and the old-fashioned PS1 gameplay was dragging it down. Will a fresh next-generation title rejuvenate the series, or is it a hopeless attempt to cash in on lost glory?
Despite the cliché of ninjas wearing black robes and skirts, the first objective when booting up the game is creating your character. The Ninja creator allows combinations very uncommon to the Ninja style. One might wonder why there are only a few dozen combinations available whilst games from the previous generation would allow hundreds of millions of combinations; even eyebrows could be modeled. Distributing a set amount of skill points is the last step in creating the protagonist. The looks for a second Ninja have to be created afterwards, but other than seeing him pop up in cut scenes occasionally, he’s not of much use.
Before starting the fifty mission long journey, a mandatory tutorial has to be completed. Most of the game’s controls are explained in there, but it’s going way too fast to fully comprehend everything. Instead of teaching you all the basics at a slow pace, boring text is displayed very fast whilst only providing one exercise to try out the newly learned skill. The game manual has all the controls listed, but for a better understanding of how all the moves work, trial and error is the way to go. Once completed, you find yourself in the Ninja Village where missions can be chosen, or extra skills and equipment can be bought. This place itself is pretty useless and it would’ve been better if it was left out because it causes annoying extra loading screen between each mission. But alas, when choosing a mission, Master Ninja Rikimaru’s hut is the place to be!
Contained within the hut are all the available missions at the time, some of which are optional. This in turn means that only bits and pieces of the story fall into place, because you don’t need to play every level so the story doesn’t open itself up as it should to explain everything. The story is also annoying because despite the game being translated for the Western market, the publisher didn’t really feel like going through the process of translating the Japanese spoken dialog. The pathetic excuse for a storyline is about a conflict between rival clans and drug trafficking in ancient Japan. There isn’t really anything more to it than that, but it’s your goal to solve this mess. The aforementioned Rikimaru is the protagonist of earlier Tenchu games and is now a wise master handing out assignments. Most of the time there’s more than one mission to choose from, but in order to fully understand the game’s storyline all of them have to be dealt with. Unfortunately the objectives are incredibly shallow, they mainly consist of getting to a certain point on the map and then performing an action; kill a mobster, pick up a package or stealthily follow someone. Each mission contains exactly one objective and a failure condition which is death most of the time.
After seeing another pointless loading screen with some well meant but ill received hints and tips, stealth and killing awaits. Unfortunately the game doesn’t explicitly require any stealth at all; you’ll find yourself massacring an entire village full of bad guys occasionally. Killing enemies can be done in two ways, with and without stealth. The first option is the preferred one since it only takes one blow to disable the bad guys, while the other option of no stealth can be lethal for the Ninja as he may well take a lot of damage, which may also attract some unwanted friends. Despite stealth being the smart move, there are plenty of moves and combos available to kill enemies should players go head-on into battle.
The artificial intelligence is so incredibly bad that it’ll probably be the worst you’ll ever see this generation of consoles. There are so many things that are flawed about the system that warrant it a nightmare. For example, enemies completely ignore shadows clearly indicating that you’re hiding somewhere. Even huge shadows being cast on the ground while standing on a roof don’t catch the guard’s attention. They do manage to call for help when they’ve spotted you slaughtering one of their buddies, but simply running away from the scene makes them forget everything and they go back to normal guard mode. The above examples are just a couple of the many imperfections, but when choosing a higher difficulty there’s even more trouble. Apparently enemy guards have oversensitive sight and hearing, meaning that they can somehow sense someone through a rock wall. Instead of having this slightly realistic ninja experience, the AI’s flaws have to be taken into account all the time to avoid frustrating restarts.
The game starts off with pretty decent environments varying quite a bit from each other, but after a dozen missions, this quickly turns around when all locations (of which mostly villages) start looking the same. Combined with the repetitive objectives, the missions vary too little to be challenging. Various traps and alarms are scattered throughout the enemy encampment but they’re very easy to detect and it won’t take much effort to escape and evade them since the enemy doesn’t respond very quickly. The major gripe with the gameplay is that finishing most missions can be done in as little as a minute. Going straight for the objective and right through the encampment is no problem at all, as long as you make sure that you take a couple of seconds to let the enemy cool down and forget about you. Fifty missions doesn’t sound so much now, does it?
There are some good things about the game, but it takes too much work to actually enjoy them. In order to have some fun with the combat system, the hard way of confronting enemies head on has to be taken, which on the other hand is unnecessary in order to complete the mission. The Ki Meter located in your HUD is an addition that can help you read your surroundings. This meter displays the awareness of your enemy and has a bunch of symbols to do so. New in Tenchu Z is smell. The Ki Meter start showing a Japanese symbol indicating that an enemy has picked up your scent. This should give enough warning so that measures to prevent detection can be taken.
The almost useless Ninja Villages fulfills another function besides housing Rikimaru and offering extra loading times, there’s also a shop. Money earned by successfully completing missions and killing lots of enemies can be spent on gadgets and new fighting skills. Not only does this make life a little easier, also a bit more fun. The new moves can be added in the combo menu for some creative killing. Items can also be obtained during a mission, but aren’t really required for bringing the mission to an end. It can be entertaining to experiment with as there are quite a lot of things to choose from, ranging from poison cookies to smoke bombs.
Graphically the game is a disgrace to the Xbox 360 platform; there are just too many things that make it look ugly and boring. Basic and repetitive textures, bad lighting, and shadows that go through walls are just a few of the many issues. It almost looks like developer FromSoftware ported this game straight from the Playstation 2 without making any effort to make it look worthy of a next generation title. The sound isn’t particularly interesting either. The music is of the typical Asian flute-and-string type which gets repetitive after a while and since the dialogues are in Japanese, not much satisfaction can be gained from that either.
You can double, triple or quadruple the fun of a singleplayer game by going online. The only game mode available is Co-op, but it’s available in a ranked and unranked version. The voice chat feature makes this multiplayer feature worthwile, because the missions themselves are already laughable in the singleplayer part, but playing them together is even worse. Only the pleasure of laughing at your objective with someone else makes it bearable.
It’s too much hard work to get any enjoyment out of this game, there are just too few good parts to make up for the many flaws. Instead of offering a fun ninja experience by itself, you’ll have to look up ways to enjoy it yourself. Not even the four way multiplayer can save this hopeless attempt at a fun game. Both graphics and gameplay belong on previous generation consoles and the question of whether Tenchu Z is a hopeless cash-in can be answered with a big yes.
Final Score: 3 out of 10 – Extremely Poor (How do we rate games?)