Entering the forest, he moves not the grass;
Entering the water he makes not a ripple
So goes the wisdom of the Zenrin Kushu, and although perhaps not intended as a description of ninja stealth, the saying applies to the overall strategy of Xbox 360’s first ninja stealth title, Tenchu Z.
While not particularly fond of stealth games, I am quite particular to all things ninja and martial arts in general. The original Xbox was seemingly awash in martial arts games and two of the standouts, Jade Empire and Ninja Gaiden provided a depth of game play that, in my opinion, has yet to be recaptured in martial arts games hence.
While Ninja Gaiden’s revolutionary combat engine made for thrilling game play, the fantastical, demon-themed storyline was a little confusing and wasn’t as true to the ninja aesthetic (if indeed there is a ninja aesthetic) as I would have hoped. It also lacked even minimal stealth strategy – something I thought would be a given for a ninja game with any variety or depth. Enter Tenchu Z, a game that takes great pains to capture the elusive shadow quality for which the ninja were so notorious. And it succeeds in making the ninja stealth experience engaging, but only for a short time.
Tenchu Z quite simply lacks depth. In a nutshell, the game play boils down to sneaking up behind enemies and decapitating them with your katana. There are surprisingly few ways to do this, which is my main beef with the game. The lack of variety of kills and skills makes for a repetitive experience that grows tiresome early into the game. Thus, forty plus stages of what basically amounts to searching villages for your target and finding them in a remote room – either sitting, standing or walking around mumbling – and then dispatching them can seem monotonous despite the grand effort to bring the art of ninja stealth to your 360 console.
And although one can spend 20 plus hours playing the game, it’s not all that challenging. Sure, it’s difficult at times. But after a few failures in a scenario, one figures out the best route to accomplish the objective and then it becomes relatively easy. Some stages are just a matter of memorizing where targets are and then going right to them without facing many obstacles on the way. And the actual layouts of the environments start repeating early and often, so by the time a player finishes the game, he knows by memory the geographic layout of several levels.
Tenchu Z does, of course, have its good points, though some amount to basically bells and whistles. There is a Ki meter system that indicates how close you are to an enemy, how easily detected you are, and if detected, how severe the detection is. In ascending order: a bad guy can smell, hear, or see you or any combination of the three. And if he does indeed sense you, then your Ki meter will either show alert or alarm, which means that you better either stand and fight or flee. I recommend fleeing, which leads to my next gripe.
I know a deep battle system for stealth games sort of defeats the purpose, but it’s not as if the guys over at From Software didn’t try to create at least a little variety with melee. The problem is, melee battle can be visually stunning, but lacks excitement for the player. You can upgrade your ninja’s battle moves – and it is absolutely necessary that you do so – but, with a few exceptions, battle ends up being a series of hacks, slashes and blocks without much in the way of variety from either you as the character or your enemy.
Additionally, there is a dearth of weapons to choose from. In fact, your ninja retains the very same sword from the outset. There are a variety of items available throughout the levels and for purchase at the shop, some of which give you one-use or temporary weapons to use. However, none of these items ever prove crucial to the completion of a mission. There is never a scenario wherein you have no other choice than to use the blowgun to dispatch an enemy. Sneaking up on them and splaying their innards over the ground is always a choice and the better one at that.
One element to the character upgrades that I find useful is the non-combat abilities upgrades. This is where the true ninja skills begin to take shape. As you move throughout the game and gain some experience a variety of these abilities will become available for a price at the shop. You can purchase these abilities and assign them to your character. Some of them are useful, some of them are not. Several of them require you to adjust your ninja’s combination of vitality, strength and agility in order to use them at all. This is something that will keep you interested as the upgrade options are only revealed one at a time throughout the game.
There is also the obligatory costume shop where a character can wear full ninja garb, bedecked with a variety of accoutrements some of which are silly and bizarre and seem to have no other purpose than to elicit a chuckle.
At times, Tenchu Z seems like it was built for a last-generation system, but upgraded to next-gen at the last minute. The graphics and game play are good enough to be next-gen, but the overall scheme of the menus – saves, loads, etc. seem to be better suited to the original Xbox. One can only speculate. It is irritating that if you are killed in action, you are not given the option to restart at the beginning of the level, but are forced to go back out to the mission screen where the shop and your mentor (who assigns you missions) are located, then reload the level. This game just has way too many menus.
One of the things that I found frustrating at first, but eventually grew to like, is how certain elements of the game reveal themselves at certain crucial points, rather than inundating you with everything at once. When I first started playing, I wasn’t really clear on what the story was, or how to go about doing some of the things I saw in the demo screen, or really even how to properly control my ninja. But with a little game experience and careful attention to detail, things begin to come together and the player gains an understanding of what you, as the ninja, are doing and how to go about doing it.
It’s really a rather brilliant method of game progression and I would like to see it more often in games. Granted, it sounds like a typical video game scenario wherein certain details are revealed at certain times, but in this case one has to have a sharp eye to catch instructions on how to perform certain moves that add variety to the game. For example, the controls are a little unwieldy at first because of a less-than-helpful tutorial, but it is kind of fun leaping from roof-top to roof-top or bashing bad guys against the wall, shakedown-style. The kicker is: many of these moves are discovered through astute observations of loading screen advice or re-playing the tutorial over and over, not by gamer intuition. So there is a learning curve to the game, no matter what difficulty you play on and I really found it satisfying.
Finally, the story. There are a few cut scenes that serve only to beguile the player at the different stages, but don’t inspire much curiosity to continue the journey in the hopes of some further important story revelations. It’s not entirely clear why you are being asked to perform these assassinations, other than the notion that the targets are perpetrating some vague plot against the well-being of Japan and the nation-state of Goda. Much like the game play, the story does unfold by the time you finish, but certain elements are not entirely clear at any point during the game. The music adds to the atmosphere and the Japanese voice acting does lend a certain authenticity lacking in other games in the martial arts genre, so I found that appealing.
Overall, Tenchu Z is a middle of the pack game with some unrealized potential. It does offer innovation in the way of abilities development and progression and it is fun to hang from a roof, drop silently in to the grass and sneak up on a jumpy samurai and send him to meet his maker. Unfortunately, the repetitive nature of the game play and the lack of dynamics in the overall scheme of the game make for a worthy, but ultimately unfulfilling experience. Further development of the finer points of the game would be welcomed. It would be interesting to see what another take on the ninja stealth genre could hold.
Tenchu Z is rated M (Mature) by the ESRB for blood, partial nudity and violence.