"Tenchu: Shadow Assassins may very well be the return of developers Acquire to the franchise, but this Wii title falls flat on its poorly conceived digital face. Itís little more than an antiquated stealth game with tacked-on motion controls."
I really like ninjas. They wear snazzy black outfits, crawl around in the dark and can roundhouse kick someoneís head off with a single blow. Thereís pretty much nothing cooler than that. Video games about ninjas, however, are a completely different story. Only one video game entity has ever truly nailed the concept of being a ninja, and thatís the Tenchu series which made its debut on the PSOne all the way back in 1998. In that game, the player was tasked with sneaking through various landscapes undetected, and they had to rely on using speed and shadows as bloody instruments of vicious death dealing.
Things started off great for the Tenchu brand, until the following console generation when there was a shift in developers and the game began slowly moving away from its stealthy roots. After a slew of sub-par ninja outings, the series has returned to the hands of the original development team, Acquire, with Tenchu: Shadow Assassins for the Wii. So, grab your nunchucks and Wii-motes kids, because there are ninjas prowling on your tiny white console tonight!
The Tenchu games have always been more about sneakiní-and-peekiní than trying to deliver anything even remotely resembling an engaging story, and this entry doesnít change that pattern. Series veterans Rikimaru and Ayame make a welcome return and Shadow Assassins doesnít waste time bogging things down with an overly complicated plot. Thereís a bit of deception and mayhem peppered throughout the gameís tale, but the numerous cut-scenes are generally short and strictly to the point. Someone needs to be assassinated, someone else needs to be rescued, and, of course, Lord Gohda and Princess Kiku are heavily involved for the duration.
An epic saga or a complex narrative oozing with depth may be the last thing youíll find in Shadow Assassins, but thereís certainly not a lack of stealth, cold steel and arterial spray. Within the game's 10 main story missions, players will control both Rikimaru and Ayame as they creep about and carve a bloody swath through hordes of unsuspecting foes, all while completing random mission objectives on the side. And creeping is about all youíll do. Previous games in the series gave players an option to fight their way out of nasty situations, but this time around youíre not afforded that luxury. If spotted by an enemy, your character will mysteriously explode in a haze of dark mist and youíll be sent back to the starting line. There is a way to go toe-to-toe with your adversaries, but weíll get to that in due time.
Both stealth and precision played a huge part in the original Tenchu games. On the Wii, although the stealth remains, the majority of that precision is all but gone. With only one analog stick to provide character movement, maneuvering Rikimaru or Ayame is akin to controlling a worn down robot that has no legs. You can only move in direct patterns, or specific directions, and to make sudden turns you have to literally stop dead in your tracks and tilt the analog to the left or right Ė sort of like operating tank treads. This can lead to bouts of frustration and cursing when trying to reach a hiding spot before youíre discovered.
Unfortunately, the clumsy and sluggish controls donít end there. Stealth kills, or a Hissatsu, activate with a press of the A button when youíre in close proximity of an enemy, and then varied waggle motions will prompt you, on-screen. I could rarely ever successfully pull off the on-screen motions, so I usually just flailed my arms like a drunken orchestra conductor and that seemed to work best. Suspect motion controls also handle the usage of items, such as throwing stars and a bamboo water tube that can put out torches. No matter the situation, random flailing was most effective.
On top of horrendous controls, the game has a laundry list of design flaws and mechanical flubs. Itís very difficult to tell where you can and cannot stand to stay out of sight, because of the gameís awkward camera movement. This issue becomes worse when you pair it with the fact that thereís also a lot of clipping and poor collision detection to go around. Sometimes, a box youíre trying to place to help you climb over a wall will unexpectedly sink into the ground. Or youíll be sneaking through a patch of darkness and get caught up on an immovable blade of grass. At least I think it was a blade of grass...
When youíre not bumbling your way through the shadows like a ridiculous cartoon character, there is the occasional instance of motion controlled sword combat. Itís nice that Acquire decided to give players a small break from the endless shrub-crawling, but most people will wish they hadnít. Unless youíre the type that snorts Pixie Stix before you pick up a controller, youíll become quite familiar with the ďMission FailedĒ screen. The game briefly flashes lines across the display while you hold the Wii remote, vertically, and attempt to twist it in the opposing direction. Much like the rest of the controls in the game, itís extremely unresponsive. Even if you do happen to have the abnormal reflexes of a cocaine-induced jack rabbit, getting past these skirmishes demands nothing less than relentless determination - and balls of steel. Big ones.
Aside from repetitive, bland and linear story missions, Shadow Assassins also has a challenge based mode of play. This comes in the form of Assignments. In this additional mode, the player is given an objective and a small time window to complete that goal. To unlock these challenges, you have to beat the story missions with a positive rating Ė and attaining such a rating requires finishing with a low completion time, not being discovered and silently killing every enemy in sight. Landing a decent score will easily take multiple replays of each and every story mission and since the rewards arenít that spectacular, youíre not really given much of a reason to do so.
Shadow Assassinsí presentation, much like the gameplay, is a rather mixed bag. The visuals are clean and tight, the character models are fairly decent and the cut-scenes are impressively detailed. However, the game only supplies a lowly 480i output resolution. If youíre playing on a standard tv you wonít even notice, but gamers with a high definition display will be met with an ugly mish-mash of blurry textures and washed out colors. Itís also a little odd for a game that puts heavy emphasis on shadows to have such lackluster lighting effects. Most darkly shaded areas just look like massive blobs of blackness. On the audio side, though, this title delivers. The overall quality of the voice-over work and the music sort of makes up for its graphical shortcomings, but not by much.
Tenchu: Shadow Assassins may very well be the return of developers Acquire to the franchise, but this Wii title falls flat on its poorly conceived digital face. Itís little more than an antiquated stealth game with tacked-on motion controls. Gamers looking for solid, accessible stealth ninja gameplay should avert their eyes. Thereís nothing to see here.
Freelance review by Jeremy Wood (March 13, 2009)
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