reviews\ Mar 16, 2003 at 7:00 pm

Tenchu: Wrath of Heaven - PS2 - Review

Ninjas do not understand
Don't ask me how or why
Standing tall with sword in hand
Yet they're the ones who die

Ninja foes are not that smart
A cliff, a trap, oh not again!
They all die right from the start
But it still feels like the end

Is there hope?  Should we have retreated?
If we must, let's not forget
That sometimes we're all defeated
And can always hit reset...

That, in a nutshell, is Tenchu: Wrath of Heaven.  By the third mission, you'll find that this is one of the most addictive stealth/action games out there.  I'd even go as far as to say that it's the best spy game released on the console since Metal Gear Solid 2 came out.  But as you will soon find out, Tenchu will undoubtedly frustrate you with its wrath of something that could be described as anything but heavenly.

It all begins in a typical ninja setting: 16th-century Japan.  Small buildings are in high abundance.  Angry, hardheaded adversaries roam each level, just waiting for you to take advantage of them, while the environment patiently awaits its chance to make a fool out of you.  As Qui-Gon Jinn reminded us in The Phantom Menace, "There's always a bigger fish."  Most of your foes are merely salmon (while others are more like salmonella).  You, the player, would be considered a shark.  You're fierce, vicious and seemingly unbeatable...until the whale gets a hold of you.  The "whale" is the environment; if you're not careful, it'll swallow you whole.

Stealth kills are the best part of the game.  It takes a while to adjust to games like Splinter Cell and Metal Gear Solid 2, but Tenchu's controls are really easy to learn.  Only one button is required to perform a stealth kill (square), and you don't have to be a good player to pull them off.  Most of the enemies in the game have a pattern that's really easy to learn.  And while you do have to be sneaky to a certain extent, footsteps cannot be heard (unless walking in water), so you can just run up behind an enemy and kill him before he has a chance to react.  For face-to-face kills, enemies take a second to react, so if you're really fast, you can still complete a stealth kill.

Beyond the fun, highly-effective sneak-and-slice way of dealing with your adversaries, there are a number of items that can be used to stun, injure or kill a pursuing enemy.  Everything from ninja stars and poison darts to paralyzing food and explosive booby-traps can be collected and stored in your bag of ancient goodies.  This isn't the new millennium, so conventional gadgets are not available.  You can, however, learn a special ability that will turn your eyes into binoculars!  Zoom in and out, and throw weapons farther than before!

Speaking of abilities, there are around nine additional ones that can be acquired in the game.  They're acquired by performing nine stealth kills in any particular mission.

There are a surprising amount of missions in this game (26); the levels are surprisingly huge; and the missions are surprisingly long.  There's a good amount of depth to the levels, too.  Sure, there are some shallow areas, but some environments are packed with hidden areas that either have more items or more enemies.  Both have their good points – the more enemies you fight, the more chances you have to rack up nine stealth kills.  And you could always use more items.

Following in the footsteps of Hideo Kojima's multi-platinum hit (MGS2), Tenchu: Wrath of Heaven uses a question/exclamation alert system to keep you up-to-date on how aware your enemies are of your presence.  The symbols have slightly different meanings though.  In this game, "?" means that an enemy or an innocent bystander is not aware of your existence.  An exclamation mark indicates that the enemy has spotted, but not yet identified you.  They may mistake you for a dog or a cat (the manual's words, not mine), so it's not something to be too concerned with.  To give you an idea of how unconcerned you should be, I was able to, on multiple occasions, walk right in front of an enemy, see him clearly, and walk away without ever being identified.  File that one under "things that make you hmmmm."

An interabang "!?" means that the enemy heard something suspicious.  It could be you, it could be a cat, or maybe it's the sound of one of their own men hitting the bottom of a cliff (more on that later).  Either way, just walk away and the enemies will go back to doing what they do best – absolutely nothing.

Lastly, there's the infamous "!!" symbol.  This one means that the enemy knows who you are, and will not stop trying to kill you until you run away.  This is another one of those "hmmm" things – the enemy sees you, he knows who you are and where you're hiding.  But if you get past a certain point, the enemy will turn around, babble something about how you "ran away," and then literally forget you exist, leaving him wide open for a stealth kill.

They do the same thing (only with more obliviousness) when you jump onto a platform.  All enemies will become blind to your presence the minute you reach the top of a platform.  They know where you went, and they could look up and see you, but they'd rather just forget you exist.

Perhaps the most puzzling thing of all is what happens when an enemy gets really, really confused.  Most commonly you'll see them walk into a wall or some other barrier.  One time I saw an enemy (or should I say dummy?) walk right off a cliff.  I was watching from afar, and he was unaware of my presence.  Maybe it was the impending doom of my sword that got to him, or maybe he just wondered what it would be like to be in a Warner Brothers cartoon.

Stupid or not, killing these enemies is hard to resist.  The stealth kill animations are very cool, and the game never fails to entertain, even when you've performed the same action a million times.  Tenchu: Wrath of Heaven has an almost Onimusha-like quality in that repetition does not kill, but more or less enhances the experience.  In fact, it wouldn't be wrong to call this a stealthy, less-intelligent version of Onimusha.  It's got tons of enemies to slice and dice, and the replay value is extremely high.

Tenchu's only true shortcoming is what I call environmental killing.  The camera has its share of problems, but they're forgivable.  But when the controls just don't do what they're supposed to, or the camera angle is all wrong, and you find yourself at the bottom of a cliff feel about as smart as the game's dumb enemies.  Death is a common thing in this game, but not always with your enemies.  I don't mind a challenge, but it's almost laughable to think that I can kill several demon-like enemies without batting an eye, and then fall to my death due to poor game structure.  The level design is good, if not a little too mazy, but there are too many pitfalls.  If I'm going to die, I want it to be because an enemy killed me – not because I made a mistake that was nearly unavoidable.

Reviewer's Scoring Details

Gameplay: 8.7
If Tenchu: Wrath of Heaven was a survival/horror game, it'd be called Silent Kill.  There's plenty of kneck-slashing action in here for every gore-starved gamer.  Not only is this a great spy game, it's also a bit different from MGS2 and Splinter Cell, making it impossible to write this off as a mere clone of those games.

Graphics: 7.9 
This is a great-looking game, with detailed environments, smooth animation and intricate character designs.

Sound: 8
Tenchu: Wrath of Heaven has a superb Asian soundtrack that fits perfectly into the world of being a ninja.

Difficulty: Easy
Avoid pitfalls environmental death and the game is a synch.

Concept: 7.9 
A lot of games seemed to inspire Tenchu: Wrath of Heaven.  MGS2 most definitely had an effect on it, and there are definitely hints of other games in this title.  The sneak-and-kill style of gameplay is pretty unique, so the developers definitely deserve credit there.

Multiplayer: 8
Co-op is really cool – you can actually play through a mission with a friend!  However, the versus mode is little more than a game of block-and-slash.

Overall: 8.6
Despite having some ridiculous problems, I really, really love this game.  I've come to find that it's generally the most fun, not necessarily the most perfect games that you come back to month after month.  Tenchu has a lot of goofy enemy reactions, but it's not hard to ignore them and enjoy the great game that's there.  Fans of the series will be extremely enthused, while other gamers may find themselves engrossed in a series that they previously had no interest in.  I can confirm that last one, as up until now, I was not a fan of the series.  Now I'm anxious to track down the Tenchu games released on PSone!


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