Tenchu: Shadow Assassins is a departure from its stealth-action origins, but it’s great fun nonetheless.
Since this is usually the first big question on everyone’s minds, Shadow Assassins looks great on Wii. Character models are detailed, textures are colourful and stylized but not cartoony, and the animation is top-notch. There’s some great art here. The soundtrack is amazing as well, and if you’re a fan of game OSTs, the in game music will keep you playing even when a level starts to get troublesome.
Despite this, Shadow Assassins manages to create a bad first impression. You’ll notice this within a few seconds of booting up the first level as the complete lack of analog control for movement makes itself apparent. Yes, you can push your analog stick as subtly as you like, but Rikimaru and Ayame will always walk at the same pace.
Oddly enough, you’ll need to hold down the B button on the Wii remote if you want to run, and this is where the first of Shadow Assassins’s numerous design flaws start to show. Enemy AI is very iffy in that the bad guys seem oblivious to things like excessive noise — something the original Tenchu baddies relied on heavily to catch you in the act. Shadow Assassins also emphasizes ground-based stealth as opposed to that of the rooftop variety. Instead of sneaking around on rooftops, you’ll find yourself hiding in bushes and in areas covered by this black “mist.” As long as you’re in the mist, no one will be able to see you. This isn’t the least bit logical as sometimes you’ll be standing right next to an enemy and still be safe because you’re in the “safe zone” the mist provides.
Unfortunately, this is one of the many design decisions that make Tenchu: Shadow Assassins a far more trial-and-error experience than the PS1 games. I like to think of it as a “popcorn ninja game.” Instead of dropping poisoned rice to kill guard dogs and trying to traverse the levels while making as little noise as possible, you’ll find yourself breaking on enemy’s neck after another, all the while avoiding the gaze of the ones around them. Spencer described it best when he called the PSP port a puzzle game wrapped up in a ninja theme.
Another odd omission is that of the grappling hook from Tenchu and Tenchu 2. There are walls to climb in Shadow Assassins, but for some odd reason, From Software seems to think it more suitable that a ninja prepare a box to stand on before scaling a wall. This is especially ridiculous considering that the Wii remote’s pointer would have allowed for some great fun with the grappling hook.
But enough about the game’s flaws. Despite these annoyances, Tenchu: Shadow Assassins is a damn fun game.
Quick-time-events are the name of the game here. Shadow Assassins relies heavily on its many QTEs to get players from one end of a level to the other, and to perform stealth kills. Luckily, every single stealth kill QTE in the game is immensely satisfying to pull off. They’re mostly motion-controlled, feel great to perform, and — most importantly — are pretty accurate. Other developers looking to use motion-controlled QTEs in their games need to take a good look at Shadow Assassins, which goes about them in a very smart way by using sound to tell you whether you’re doing them right or not.
In the event you’re spotted by an enemy and happen to be carrying a sword, you’ll be required to engage them in a one-on-one sword fight. The sword fights in Shadow Assassins are another great example of motion-based swordplay done right and I can safely say that they wouldn’t have felt as good on any other console.
Depending on who got the jump on whom, either you or the enemy will get to attack first. An onscreen image will tell you how you need to hold your Wii remote in order to block the enemy’s sword swings. Once they’re done attacking, it’s your turn to waggle furiously — which, trust me, is fun in this game — before you finish them off with a push of the A button. Blocking requires lightning-fast reflexes and takes skill and practice to get the hang of.
The sword fights can be very punishing at times, but given that the point of the game is to avoid these affairs altogether, it makes sense that you won’t be escaping one alive unless you have lightning fast reflexes (which, arguably, is how it should be). More importantly, it feels great when you actually manage to win one, because they’re so hard. Failing to block an enemy’s attack properly damages your sword, too, so there’s actually incentive to perform a perfect block. Great gameplay mechanic. This could be the first example of sword fighting done right on Wii.
By now, you’re probably thinking, “Wait…this doesn’t sound like Tenchu at all.” And you’re right. It’s certainly a departure from the first two games.
Regardless, Tenchu: Shadow Assassins is overflowing with potential, and is a damn fun game once you get accustomed to the changes it introduces. Levels are broken up into 4 or 5 “areas,” and you need to make it to the end of each one in order to complete a level. Loading times between these are non-existent. Furthermore, if you ever get bored of playing, you can always save and quit the game, and the next time you boot it up, you’ll start at the beginning of your current area with all kills and items saved. Kudos to From Software for making the game accessible for us busy folk without dumbing down the difficulty.
While the level design can get questionable in places and Shadow Assassins is a fairly short game (although, I think of it as “just right”), there’s plenty of incentive for replay. You’ll find yourself going back to older levels to get a perfect rank, and there are plenty of additional hard-as-nails assignments to unlock.
Bottom line — if you’re looking for some fun and don’t mind a great game with some noticeable flaws, pick this one up. Wii owners — if you want to see a fine example of motion control done right in core game, this is a great experience in that regard.
Food for Thought:
1. Thumbs up to Ubisoft for tweaking the difficulty and controls before releasing the game in the U.S. Getting spotted in the Japanese version without your sword means instant game over.
2. Tenchu 4, 5 and 6 are supposed to be a trilogy. There’s no info on whether or not 5 and 6 will be on Wii or not, but I certainly hope From Software builds upon the great motion control introduced in this one if they are. There’s a lot of potential here.
3. Bring back the grappling hook next game. Twilight Princess demonstrated how fun that can be with the pointer.
4. Being spotted by a guard without your sword on you leads to disappearing in a burst of smoke, ninja-style. Rikimaru’s top, following this, gets half torn off, revealing his manly chest. Ayame’s, unfortunately, does not.
5. The “ninjas in ancient Japan” setting provides a great backdrop for storytelling. I’m actually quite interested in the idea of not playing as Rikimaru and Ayame in Tenchu 5 and, instead, playing through a more…personal…story. For example; two ninja lovers separated because of a clan feud.
6. It would be fun if From Software experimented with some “stealth-action co-op” gameplay in Tenchu 5 — an unexplored genre so far.