Release Date: March 8, 2004
Preview By: Anthony Mitera
Pre-order 'TENCHU: Return from Darkness': Xbox
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 gameplay and overall feel in the Tenchu series has never strayed far from the path set in the first game. The plots and characters have 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 same 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 demons and the undead, planning to wield it to conquer 16th century Japan. Lord Gohda refuses to sit idly by and watch his lands get taken from him, and since sending his army against Tenrai's would be a massacre 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 original version of Tenchu 3 was entitled Tenchu: Wrath of Heaven and was developed for the Playstation 2. Arguably the best Tenchu game in the series up to that point, it did have a few flaws that tarnished the experience somewhat. While in the middle of the mission there was no way to restart or quit the current mission, if you didn't like the way things were going you had to physically restart your PS2. Also, in some levels such as the "Ronin Village" in certain areas the framerate would absolutely slow to a crawl, never a good thing to have happen in any game. When porting the game over to the Xbox K2 must have listened to the fans, as not only has nearly every major flaw been addressed but they've taken it upon themselves to add in new moves, tactics, items, and levels to give Xbox owners a real treat. Even further, the game now supports online play via Xbox Live.
The Tenchu series of games has always been about getting immersed into the fact you are a ninja. Tenchu 3: Return from Darkness is no exception to the rule, giving the player a wide variety of options in order to achieve his/her goal. Tenchu 3: RfD, like Wrath of Heaven and the others before it, has a warehouse of sorts that serves as inventory system of sorts in order to equip your character with your choice of weapons and items. Before every level you visit this room that has shelves upon shelves of items, weapon holders, and mats on the floor. At first you only have the most basic of items such as health potions 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 basic items while achieving a Grand Master rating will yield a bunch of everything and even unlock a new item for your use. You cannot take a large amount of items into a level though; you only have room for 15 individual items and 6 different item types at any given time. While rarely much of a limitation since you don't need always need items to accomplish a mission, players who rely on items quite a bit will have to use some forethought 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, bruised, slashed, and speared 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 in the sky. To actually kill an enemy without getting seen you can use mines, blowguns, primitive grenades, flaming arrows, and super throwing stars that allow you to throw 8 regular throwing stars in rapid succession. In Return from Darkness there are now a few more items that the player can use, such as the Viper Potion, which makes the players attacks stronger, and a Flash Bomb that blinds and confuses enemies.
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 is to the left of the health display and shows a colored icon inside a circle accompanied by a number below. The number represents the relative distance between your character and the nearest enemy, and the icon in the circle shows that enemy's current awareness level. If the icon shows a "?" the enemy is totally unaware of your presence and will follow his patrol route. If the icon shows a "?!" the enemy has seen or heard something that is unusual and will draw their weapon and look around, 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 prepared to face you in combat.
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 performed. 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 ("?") or slightly alerted ("!?") and you attack them you will be treated to a cinema showing you ending their life 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 each type. The left, right, back, air, and slope kills all fill up one Kuji on the bar. The front stealth kill (relatively harder to perform) gives you one and a half Kuji, making one Kuji totally light up and a second begin to glow. When the Kuji 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. In Return from Darkness the ability to conceal yourself behind a transparent shroud as you press against a wall has been added, which makes you invisible from someone looking at you straight on but makes you stick out like a sore thumb to anyone looking at you from the sides.
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 left trigger you go into stealth mode, which greatly reduces the range at which enemies can see you as well as allowing you to silently travel through water. If you hold stealth and move against a wall your character will hug the wall, allowing you to peek around corners. While peeking around a corner certain items can be tossed around the corner such as poison rice, grenades, and the smoke and flash bombs, increasing the amount of tactical options that you have. When you run around in the game you are always silent, so you can easily run at full speed behind someone who would stay totally oblivious to you, but falling from too high of a height, attacking a enemy with normal attacks, or using a loud item are bound to raise the awareness level of nearby guards.
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 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 and much more fun.
In the original incarnation of Tenchu 3 on the PS2 the graphics level had been seriously upped from those found in the previous games in the series. However, with the sheer muscle of the Xbox now factored into the equation Tenchu: Return from Darkness is easily the best looking game in the series. The textures and character models look pretty much the same as their PS2 counterparts overall, which in turn don't look half bad at all. From Rikimaru's scarred face to Ayame's slim figure, from the robe wearing Ronins to the tongue inside that shrieking guards mouth, everything looks not only believable but also consistent. Special effects such as the semi transparent look of the invisibility spell rival the quality in those found in other recent games, and other effects such as the reflective sheen bladed weapons give off aren't quite as noticeable but add considerably to the detail. Of course, with all of the swordplay and stealth kills found in the game one would expect some gore. Slashing and cutting an opponent with your weapon produces blood sure enough, while performing stealth kills and the occasional decapitation really ups the amount. The stealth kills themselves go from the most basic of executions (Like slitting someone's throat from behind) to the more exotic (Such as jumping onto someone's shoulders, impaling your sword through their head, then pulling it out and flipping backwards off of them before they collapse). However, there is a rather noticeable flaw to be found in the graphics engine when you look at a enemy who is missing their head. Where some form of a stump should be you can see through the entire model.
Sound in the game can be either very nostalgic or relatively low quality, depending on if you played the original Tenchu games 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. Most of the score is performed using traditional oriental instruments, which obviously syncs well with the locations and time period the game is set in. Voiceovers such as the narration between levels and most of the main characters all sound close to perfect, though there are a couple rough spots in the new voiceovers heard in the new levels (One of Ayame's lines sounds like it was spoken by a blatantly different person). The new characters (A samurai and his daughter) also get their own voiceovers, and sound of the same quality as the rest of the ensemble.
Even this improved version of Tenchu 3 has its share of flaws. One of the most disappointing modes of play found in the original version of Tenchu 3 was the lackluster multiplayer mode, which had to be played via vertical split screen and just wasn't really much fun. Once again K2 has listened to the populace and reworked the multiplayer mode, though more on an accessibility level than gameplay wise. The ability to play split screen multiplayer in both versus and co-op modes makes its return, as well as the ability to play those same modes of play over Xbox Live. On the flip side of that enhancement, there is still the same amount of levels found in the PS2 version (6 levels in versus and 6 different levels for co-op). These levels are merely inspired by the single player campaign rather than the levels actually seen in it, which isn't bad for the versus mode but is kind of a bummer when looked at from the co-op perspective.
On the plus side, a couple of the major flaws from the PS2 version of Tenchu 3 have been addressed. The grappling hook can be used on nearly any surface, but had trouble in some spots. For instance, if you grappled near the corner of the roof of a house you would grapple to that spot, but then would fall since your character wouldn't have enough surface area to grab on to. In some spots, such as the edge of the roof in Lord Gohda's castle, this would mean immediate and certain death. Now, the end player position is shifted so that you rarely if ever fall down from an area you can grapple to as long as it is near an edge that you can grab on to. Another flaw was that you could not restart a mission while you were in the middle of one. With Return from Darkness you can now retry the current mission you are on with the same item loadout or go back and choose a different loadout via the inventory screen. Finally, in the PS2 version of Tenchu 3 enemies could not be moved from their position once slain. In a comeback from Tenchu 2 you can now drag bodies to any spot along the same plane of ground in order to conceal them from enemy units on patrol.
All things considered, Return from Darkness is undoubtedly the better of the two versions of Tenchu 3 with its added moves, abilities, items, and levels (You can now battle your way through a secluded pagoda and on the rooftops of a samurai's courtyard), and could be considered as the best game in the series. Nearly all of the flaws present in the PS2 version have been fixed, and the graphics engine now runs at a rock solid 60 fps regardless of what level you are in or what's happening on screen. The storyline is also much more fleshed out and easier to follow in this version, with the addition of new cutscenes. The two new levels fit into all three of the single player campaigns playable characters, though in different forms, which not only give veterans of Wrath of Heaven some new stomping grounds but also adds to the experience of those new to Tenchu 3.
Finally, it all boils down to the closing arguments. Tenchu: Return from Darkness is shaping up quite nicely, and even the current preview build wildly outshines its predecessor on the PS2. The new additions to the game really round off the sharp corners and fill in the rough spots, but the jury is still out on whether or not RfD is a must-buy if you already own WoH on the PS2. If you don't, Tenchu: Return from Darkness should probably make its way into your collection as it is not only can be picked up, played, and understood by those new to the series but also stands perfectly in line with those already familiar with two of Gohda's best ninjas. The multiplayer modes do benefit somewhat from Xbox Live and the accessibility that such a thing brings, but there really isn't enough substance to make it one of the games strong points. Regardless, the single player game is Tenchu 3 as it is largely meant to be played, and there is really no game that captures the essence of being a ninja in such an enjoyable and unique way.
More articles about Tenchu: Return from Darkness