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Tenchu: Wrath of Heaven (PlayStation 2) artwork

Tenchu: Wrath of Heaven (PlayStation 2) review

"It's fun to kill people in games. "

It's fun to kill people in games.

Whether it's choking a mafia mook to a mouth-foaming death with piano wire in Hitman, or clamping a plastic bag over some miscreant's face and holding it there until his frenzied struggles are reduced to the occasional shuddering twitch in Manhunt, or even just kicking an innocent mother to death in Vice City, it's always good clean fun. Indeed, many games work solely on this principle.

The Tenchu series takes the concept to feudal Japan; as a deadly ninja in the service of a powerful lord, your entire being is about killing wrongdoers in creatively macabre ways, and, more importantly, keeping your actions hidden from the just-slaughtered goon's friends. The Tenchu games are stealth games, but not in the manner of most others; your objective is not to avoid, but to quickly and silently strike from the shadows, to kill without detection.

Wrath of Heaven, the series' third iteration (I like to call it T3nchu), doesn't deviate from this theme, and as such is very similar to it's predecessors. Remarkably similar, in fact, especially to the first Tenchu. Aside from the same basic structure as before - 10 levels split into 20 missions for 2 characters, 1 secret character with a few more missions - there are all sorts of cosmetic and design similarities to the previous games, from the welcome (grappling hook), to the needless and lazy (sound effects, level themes, slack-jawed dunces for enemies). These similarities seem to be an attempt to recapture the magic from the first game that many felt was lost in Tenchu 2. The game does a reasonable job of that; however, this design ideology does nothing to advance the series, and nothing to fix the flaws that exist in the formula either.

The single area in which WOH deviates majorly from it's forefathers is that of control. The d-pad-to-turn-and-run system is replaced with the obligatory PS2 thirdperson setup; left stick to move the guy, right stick to move the camera. This new layout, tried and tested by countless other games, is a lot less unwieldy than moving the character with only a 4-directional d-pad. It also leads to a greater difference in the feel of the two main characters; the musclebound Rikimaru barrels about as a mass of controlled force, while lithe kunoichi Ayame springs with a catlike grace. However, these new controls are also something of a step back for the series, in terms of the agility of your character; the smooth acrobatics of old are nowhere to be seen as your character struggles with jerky jumping and geriatric running speeds. Despite the occasionally cumbersome movement though, the controls are generally functional and responsive enough.

The missions are largely uncomplicated (Punish the Evil Guy, Rescue the Chap, Kidnap the President, etc), and mostly boil down to standard level navigation. Most missions have a boss to be fought and some have special clauses (don't kill anyone, for example) to liven things up. The uninspiring nature of the missions means that the game really relies on it's basic stealth mechanic to be entertaining. It delivers, despite a few flaws. The Ki meter of the previous games remains a brilliant device; displaying the proximity of enemies and their state of alert, it creates some sublimely tense scenarios.

However, WOH also keeps a few of the less likable features from the older games. The AI is apparently unchanged from the Playstation titles - guards have only 3 levels of alert, and once someone sees you, everyone in the level knows. This archaic system could be forgivable if the enemies were a bit smarter, but they're are still the same laughable goons of old, that will often lose you if you hide round a corner and hurl themselves into bottomless pits for absolutely no reason. This kind of stuff is simply pathetic when looked at alongside other stealth games like MGS2 and Splinter Cell. The appalling AI also means that the wide range of ninja tools and gadgets are never as enjoyable as, say, MGS2's stealth camouflage toy, as they're mostly the kind of thing that rely on enemy reactions to entertain (although using the decoy whistle to make some worthless dolt excuse the horrific mess that's been made of his companion as the work of an innocent rooster raises a few unintentional chuckles).

And yet... it still kind of works. The enemies may be stumbling fools, but the game is still relatively enjoyable to play. This is, as mentioned, mainly due to the exuberance that comes with a cunning kill. The game's much-vaunted Stealth Kills take a certain amount of patience and skill to execute, but once you manage to sneak up behind your unwitting victim, a tap of the Square button triggers your reward: a well-presented cutscene that depicts your ninja going to town on the goon's ancient Japanese ass. Each character has 6 SKs, ranging from the stylishly simple throat cut, to full-on multiple-laceration-quadruple-flip-spine-shatterers. A tangible reward for Stealth killing is provided in the unlockable moves you get for doing them, but they're also intensely satisfying on their own, and are actually made more entertaining by the poor AI; if you're spotted, it's easy to run away and hide until your jug-eared pursuers go back to staring at the paper walls with their mouths hanging slightly open, ready for you to tiptoe gleefully behind them and make sure they don't bother you again. From a technical standpoint, the AI is awful; from a gameplay one, it's handy.

The game can also accommodate you if you'd rather go toe-to-toe with your enemies instead. The combat mechanic is relatively lightweight; this is fine in the normal levels when you can easily flee, but it becomes tiresome in the boss battles when there's no alternative, and the simplicity of it begins to grate. There's only half the moves that Tenchu 2 had available, and the boss encounters usually are usually just a case of blocking and counterattacking over and over again. It's not terrible, but it's really a wasted opportunity for some chambara-stlye swordfightery.

Unfortunately, there are a few genuine flaws that serve to cramp your violent abandonment somewhat; most of which have been there since the first Tenchu. The game is still infuriatingly unforgiving - instant deaths from bottomless pits and the complete lack of mid-mission checkpoints mean that the tiniest mistake in one of the massive levels often leads to the loss of hours of progress (although the blow is softened somewhat by the presence of the coolest continue screen in all creation). The level design is also massively inconsistent; the outdoor levels are still massive and relatively non-linear (although not so much as before), but they occasionally give way to staggeringly linear indoor levels, that are usually little more than a bunch of tunnels with pits and enemies in them. Fortunately you're outside more often than in, but it's still tiresome stuff.

The indoor levels are also visually dreary compared to the beautiful outdoor arenas. The gritty nature of the older games is gone; K2's Japan is a smoothly stylish one, of bamboo forests blanketed by gentle snow, muddy villages drenched by pounding rain, and castle courtyards scattered with twirling sakura petals. This is lost when you go indoors, replaced with endless tunnels and corridors with apparently copy-and-pasted architecture. The character design also shares this inconsistency; the wild-eyed Rikimaru and tomboyishly delicate Ayame both look superb, but the enemies and bosses are caricaturish and sometimes look out of place with the scenarios. They do the job though, and substandard graphics are excusable when the whole thing runs at a silky 60fps like this does.

The game also features one of the best original videogame soundtracks ever. In terms of both the atmosphere it provides and as standalone music, the game's Japanese folk/rock soundtrack is sublime; absorbing, unintrusive ambience for the darker levels gives way to sweepingly dramatic melodies for boss fights and more action-packed scenarios. It's unconditionally superb listening. As for the rest of the game's audio; the SFX are mostly recycled from the older games. Functional enough, but nothing face-rocking. Voice acting is competent enough, and the presence of both English and Japanese language audio on the disc is nice.

WOH is a good game. It's not a bad game, because there are no face-punching flaws that will massively ruin your enjoyment of it. Saying it's a great game would be something of an overstatement, as it's not the genre-defining masterwork that it could be; it doesn't even try to be this, due to K2's apparent refusal to take the series any further with this installment. As it stands, it's a game in the purest sense: a simple, fun diversion from the drudgery of life.

Whether it's Ayame using her lissome pins to twist a vicious demon's head 180 degrees before backflipping gracefully off the grotesque picture of agony that is his face, or Rikimaru hopping onto some ninja whore's shoulders and driving his fine blade directly into the point where her spine connects with her brain; it's fun to kill people in Tenchu.

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Community review by autorock (September 11, 2004)

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