Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Developer: K2 LLC
Release Date: June 12, 2007
I think that we can all agree that ninjas are stealthy, quick, deadly, wear masks, and kill from the shadows. If you realize that a ninja is right next to you, it probably means that it's too late, as he or she is about to kill you. When a game like Tenchu Z comes along, ninja fans get excited because it's got all the makings of a great game: ninjas galore, stealth kills, grappling hooks, shurikens and blowguns. It should have been a formula for success, so what the heck happened here?
At its very core, Tenchu Z is flawed, with horrible AI, repetitive missions and clunky stealth. There are some shining moments, but only fans of the series are going to play it long enough to see them; everyone else will probably give up after a few missions.
The story opens with your homeland, Goda, feeling pressure from a nearby country that is looking to expand its dominance. You take on the role of a nameless ninja who must protect the country from the outside invaders, while stealthily striking them where it counts: the trade of an illegal drug. If the story seems a bit confusing, that's because it is. It's told through 10-second cut scenes at the beginning and end of each level, but they don't really explain much beyond telling you what your objective is and why you're getting ready to do it. Eventually, you stop caring and just figure that anyone with a sword is a bad guy and should be killed. This works surprisingly well.
You begin the game by creating your own stealthy, justice-dealing ninja and his sidekick, who only shows up for a few cut scenes, leaving you to wonder what he's doing while you're trying to disarm 10 bombs before they blow up the city. While the character creation may seem decent, the only big choice you have to make here is gender, because everything else can be changed in-game.
Once you create your ninja, you're dropped in a village, where you can buy items, clothing and skills. After that, you meet up with Rikimaru, the male star of the previous Tenchu games, who guides you to the screen where you can choose your mission. Now it's time to get stealthy.
Tenchu Z is the largest game in the franchise yet, boasting 50 missions. While this may seem like a lot, don't get your hopes up too high because almost all of them are exactly the same: find your target and kill them. While the game tries to shake it up with the occasional missions involving disarming bombs or finding objects, the bulk of your time is spent finding a particular building, walking in and killing the occupant of said building.
All of the locations are the same, too. The game tells you that you're in another part of the country, but this restaurant looks remarkably familiar. Could it be that it's the exact same restaurant you were in six missions ago? Maybe.
The first thing you notice about actually playing Tenchu Z is the horrible camera. Since this is a stealth title, you'd think that the camera would be there to help you, but most of the time, you can't move or rotate it enough to see your surroundings. You know a guy is below you, but you can't see him or what direction he's facing, which means there are a lot of instances where you jump right in front of people and blow your cover.
It's not as if it really matters, since the enemy AI is so brainless. If you're caught, you just have to run around a corner, and they'll lose you. On top of that, if they don't see you for 15 seconds, they forget about you and go back to whatever they were doing. It creates a pretty brutal trial-and-error system, but it's worth it to get the stealth kill because if you choose to fight, you'll have to try and beat them with a terrible combat system.
Basically, you repeatedly hit the X button for a series of three-hit combos. There are other moves you can buy, but they're pretty complicated and don't work half the time so it's just easier to hit X over and over again until they fall — or run away for a bit, come back and stealth-kill them.
Now, you may be asking yourself as you read this: as a stealth game, how does Tenchu Z stack up? Not too well, I'm afraid. You are given three meters that tell you how much noise you're making, how visible you are and how far away the nearest enemy is. The first two don't really matter since the enemy doesn't notice noise too well, and they'll see you no matter how dark it is, unless you're directly above them.
The third meter is the one that seems to betray you the most. Since the camera rarely gives you the perspective you need, this meter becomes the one you rely on to know where the enemy is and what direction they're facing. As you move, if the number gets bigger, it means you're getting closer to an enemy. If you're standing still and the number gets smaller, it means they're walking away from you. While it may seem pretty intuitive, it fails on a number of levels. For example, the meter doesn't give you any indication in which direction the enemy is walking. It also doesn't account for enemies stopping and turning around, which they do frequently. Since the meter only focuses on one enemy, you have no clue where the other enemies are. There are a few instances where you perform a stealth kill, only to be spotted in the process and have to escape and play the waiting game again. Things like this really ruin the stealth experience, so while the stealth kills themselves may be fun, it's just not any fun getting there.
To be fair, stealth kills are pretty fun when you first do them, and there is quite a variety. It may take you a while to get the timing right for stealth kills, but you feel a surge of power when you shove your katana through someone's shoulder and twist it. Even though they look and feel cool, the novelty wears off eventually, and you find yourself going through the motions just to get it done.
The game's 50 missions provide you with a ton of replay value. After each mission, you're given a ranking depending on how well you did. For example, stealth kills are worth the most points, but you lose points for each time you're spotted. The higher your points, the higher your ranking, and the more gold you get. Getting higher rankings unlocks new items, clothing and skills at the store. The items themselves, such as the shurikens and blowgun aren't really that useful, so it's much easier to kill everyone with your sword. However, there is a wide variety of clothing and skills you can buy, which shake up the game a bit. If this is your thing and you're the type of person who has to "complete" everything, you won't find a lack of stuff to do here.
While the AI seems really dumb, they seem to be gifted with second sight, which means that they'll see you through walls, floors and trees. As a result, you spend plenty of time running to the edge of the map, waiting for things to return to normal before heading back in.
The graphics in Tenchu Z get the job done, but there's really nothing to write home about. The draw distance is pretty sad for an Xbox 360 title, and the character models look cool, although their faces seem a bit distorted. All of the buildings look exactly the same, with the same textures and design.
The sound is the same way. There's really no music except when you're spotted, and it dies down when the enemy loses interest in you. All of the voices are in Japanese, so you don't really pay attention to them either, because you're busy reading subtitles. Once again, the audio gets the job done, but it's not noteworthy.
You can also take your finely dressed avatar on System Link or Xbox Live for a little cooperative play. It's a nice gesture and it makes the game feel bigger, but ultimately, the flaws remain and playing a bad game with a friend is still playing a bad game.
Tenchu Z just feels dated. The original Tenchu came out almost 10 years ago, and although there are some minor changes here and there, the core gameplay is exactly the same. The problem is that it was good 10 years ago, and now, it's not. Games like Metal Gear Solid and Splinter Cell have come along since then and improved the stealth-action genre, with the enemies being smarter and the stealth feeling better. Tenchu Z feels like a regression, which is not a good thing. There are a few good points to the title, but the bad points — clunky design, stupid AI and a disjointed story —easily outweigh them, making Tenchu Z a game to avoid.
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