Release Date: 3/5/2003
The original Tenchu on the PSX was probably one of the most overlooked titles made for the system. In Tenchu, two Azuma ninjas Rikimaru and Ayame served under Lord Gohda and strived to rid their lord’s lands of evil and injustice while trying to stay hidden in the shadows from the public eye. While the graphics and audio in Tenchu were sub-par compared to other games released at the same time the gameplay more than made up for it, grounding itself heavily in the tactical use of stealth and various weapons and items to not only dispatch your foes but also to make it happen without raising alarm or attention.
The Tenchu series has never strayed far from the path set in the first game. The plots and characters changed but the gameplay has always been stealth-driven, while you can simply fight and kill the enemy it is much more difficult than if you struck from the cover of stealth. The second Tenchu served as a prequel to the first chronicling the history of Rikimaru and Ayame, but also suffered from the sub par quality in the graphics and audio departments. Tenchu 3 takes place after the events of Tenchu 1, where the evil Tenrai has summoned a huge army of not only samurai and ninjas but also of the demonic and the undead and hopes to use it to conquer 16th century Japan. Lord Gohda refuses to sit idly by and watch his lands get taken form him, and since sending his army against Tenrai’s would be a disaster the plan is to send Lord Gohda’s best ninjas, the brave Rikimaru and the agile Ayame, to disable Tenrai’s army and stealthily strike at Tenrai himself.
The Tenchu series of games has always been about getting immersed into the fact you are a ninja. Tenchu 3 is no exception to the rule, giving the player a wide variety of options in order to achieve his/her goal. Tenchu 3, like the others before it, has an inventory system that serves as a warehouse of sorts in order to equip your character with your choosing of weapons and items. Before every level you visit this room that has shelves upon shelves, weapon holders, and mats on the floor. At first you only have the most basic of items but as you progress through the game more and more items will be unlocked for you to use in any level. Also, how well you play a level dictates how many items you receive at the end of the level, and of what types. A bad rating will only net you a few, bad items, while achieving a Grand Master rating will yield a bunch of everything and even unlock a new item for your use. You cannot just take a large amount of items into a level though; you only have room for 15 items or 6 different item types at any given time. While rarely much of a limitation, players who rely on items quite a bit will have to use some strategy and pick only the items they will really need.
The items themselves are a varied lot and range from the slightly whimsical to the realistic, from tools of distraction to downright nasty implements of warfare. True to ninja lore, you start off with the ability to use throwing stars, caltrops, and a grappling hook that allows you to scale walls and obstacles. For the times when you get nicked and bruised there are health potions, and if you die when carrying a Ninja Rebirth item you will pop back to life when defeated in combat. For distracting or confusing enemies there is everything from smoke bombs that cause temporary blindness to fireworks that cause all nearby guards to look up at the display. To actually kill an enemy without getting seen you can use mines, primitive grenades, flaming arrows, and super throwing stars that allow you to throw 8 regular throwing stars in rapid succession.
Ninjas have always been portrayed as having almost superhuman senses. To help convey these traits to the player the HUD has a few features not seen in many other games. The standard health bar is there, with both a red bar and a numerical representation. The Ki meter to the left of that shows a colored icon inside a circle and a number below that. The number represents the distance between your character and the nearest enemy, and the icon in the circle shows the current enemy status. If the icon shows a ? the enemy is totally unaware of you and you can perform stealth kills. If the icon shows a ?! the enemy has seen or heard something that is unusual, while a ! icon means the enemy has spotted you, but hasn’t determined if you are hostile. Finally, if the icon is !! the enemy has spotted you, gauged you as a threat, and is likely readying his weapons to use against you.
Also on the HUD is the Kuji meter. This meter represents the nine Kuji-In hand signs “Rin, Hei, Toh, Sha, Kai, Jin, Retsu, Zai, Zen” taken from the practices of early Buddhists and said to be able to channel energy. In game this meter shows how many stealth kills you have gotten. There are a multitude of different stealth kills in the game and each one has a different Kuji weight assigned to it. If you are close to an enemy that is totally unaware of your presence (? Symbol) and you attack them you will be treated to a cinema showing you offing them in a variety of creative (and brutal) ways. There are 6 types of stealth kills, front, back, left, right, slope, and air, and every character has a different stealth kill for all of them. The left, right, back, air, and slope kills all fill up one Kuji on the bar. The front stealth kill (Hard to perform) gives you one and a half Kuji, making one Kuji totally light up and a second begin to glow. When this meter is filled up you receive a cutscene of your character performing the Kuji-In hand signals surrounded by a glowing light, after which you get a new special move or ability, able to be performed immediately. Special moves range from faking death, to being able to zoom your vision, to even being able to utilize your grappling hook to stick to ceilings.
Of course, all of these features would be moot if the gameplay itself wasn’t solid. The stealth aspect of the game is extremely well done and allows for a really fluid form of gameplay. When you hold the R1 button you go into stealth mode and if you are on open ground you go into a crouch, greatly reducing the range at which enemies can see you. If you hold stealth and move against a wall your character will hug the wall, allowing you to peek around corners or hide under ledges. While peeking around a corner certain items can be tossed around the corner such as poison rice and grenades, increasing the amount of tactical options that you have. When you run around in the game you are always silent, but running through water will make all nearby guards enter a ?! state. If you use stealth to crawl through the water no noise is made, and the enemies will never know you are there until it’s too late.
As briefly touched on earlier, at the end of every level you are rated on how well you performed. For every stealth kill you perform you get 20 points, while every regular kill you do only gets you 5 points. The spotted category follows a different scoring system; at the beginning of each mission you have 450 points in the spotted category. The first time you are spotted you lose 150 points, and 30 points every time you are spotted after that. Finally, the last scoring category is non-combatants consisting of the innocent people in a level; every time you kill a non-combatant you lose 50 points. After all of that is calculated and added up you get your total points that determines your rating. The lowest rating is Thug, followed by Ninja, Expert Ninja, and Grand Master. As stated earlier, getting a Grand Master rating unlocks a new item for your use, so while getting great ratings aren’t required to progress in the game it can make it easier.
The graphics in Tenchu 3 finally breaks the mold of how badly the previous Tenchu games looked and actually can be a bit stunning. The character models all stay true to the Tenchu universe while also look considerably better in term of both modeling and the texturing. The buildings in the game (Both interiors and exteriors) all look like they were taken right out of feudal Japan, and torches lit to ward off the darkness of night also cast a glowing, gently pulsating lighting effect on anything nearby. In the rainy levels the raindrops can be seen arcing down from the sky and splattering on not only the level but also on the heads and shoulders of the characters. The HUD in the game shows information to the player in a form that doesn’t take up too much real estate on the screen but also is easily readable, and looks great to boot. The only downside to the graphics is in a couple, reproducible areas where looking at a certain spot at a certain angle makes the frame rate hit the floor, but that hardly ever happens in combat and rarely intrudes too much. Other than those spots the frame rate remains consistently solid.
Sound in the game can be either very nostalgic or relatively low quality, depending on if you played the original Tenchus or not. The same sounds used in the original Tenchu for many of the enemy noises and other sound effects are also used in Tenchu 3, albeit a slightly higher quality version. Players new to the series wont really notice much of a problem, while veterans of the series will get a kick out of it. The music in the game is very well done, with a vast array of songs that represent everything from tense combat, suspense, stealth, and moody areas.
The controls in Tenchu 3 are great and take a short amount of time to get accustomed to. However, they are also fully customizable so nearly anyone will be able to pick it up and play with ease. That’s not to say everyone will become a master in a heartbeat, but anyone can play with relative ease in a short amount of time.
Tenchu 3 does have a few flaws however. The game boasts a multiplayer mode in which you can play either versus or cooperatively. However, both of these modes are rather badly done, which is surprising considering the stellar single player. The main problem with the multiplayer lies in its vertical split screen and the camera’s tendency to zoom in on your characters back when standing near a wall, thus eliminating any vision of anything else. The versus mode only has a handful of maps to play on (6 in total) which is expected, but the problem is the Co-op also only has 6 maps. Also, these maps have time limits and weird objectives that can take away from the experience. Rather than taking your time and making precise and calculated judgments you are always on the clock and thus never really feel like you can afford to scope out the situation before you act.
There are a couple other rough spots as well. Occasionally when you grapple to a ledge your character wont grab on. This can be a very bad thing when you are grappling over a bottomless pit, which results in instant death. To compound that problem there is no checkpoints and no way to save your progress mid-level. Some levels can get fairly long, and thus one errant misstep or grapple bug can force you to replay an entire level over again. The grappling bug doesn’t happen too often, but the lack of any method to save your progress mid level can be frustrating for people who are trying to get a Grand Master rating on some of the larger levels.
However, those rough spots try really hard but ultimately can’t change the fact that Tenchu 3 is an awesome game. The addition of a multiplayer mode was a valiant effort on K2’s part but really isn’t the games selling point. The great single player mode is really where the game shines, and like a beacon at that. Combine that with fluid gameplay, easy controls, and (for the first time in a Tenchu game) great audio and visual Tenchu 3 has not only progressed leaps and bounds ahead of its predecessors but also stands to be one of the best games this year. Fans of the original Tenchus should go and get Tenchu 3 right now without a second thought, and newcomers to the Tenchu universe would do themselves good to pick up this title, or rent it at the very least. Flaws and bad multiplayer mode aside, there are few other games that really capture the essence of what it is to be a ninja.