Tenchu: Shadow Assassins is the latest in a long line of Tenchu ninja-stealth games, dating back to the original PlayStation. It's the eighth instalment, although confusingly considered to be the fourth in the main storyline, according to the game's Japanese title Tenchu 4. There have been many failed attempts at side stories in the franchise, so perhaps it's good that the series has finally returned with another 'proper' instalment. So, does this Tenchu impress us with its stealthy charm, or does it leap out into the open before being promptly sliced to pieces by the guards?
Well, the good news is that Shadow Assassins certainly has plenty of style to spare. The game's graphics are surprisingly good for a Wii game, with all of the important players having detailed character models, and plenty of special effects being used to serve an admittedly pretty cool artistic style. Blowing out candles results in a slight poof of feathers fluttering down around them, while the shadows you creep along are cloaked in a misty darkness, which works pretty well to highlight areas you can hide in without sticking out like a sore thumb against the period aesthetic of the game. The game isn't overly bloody, although streams of merlot do pop up from time to time, but the animations for the execution moves are quite brutal. There's also a very decent line in weather and fire effects, making this one of the more impressive outings on the console.
The game once again sees you take control of ninjas Rikimaru and Ayame, servants of Lord Godha. We're not one for political machinations, of which there are a few in the storyline, but eventually the game boils down to a "save the princess" storyline that we could latch onto. The story is told via in-game cutscenes that effectively tell the story, thanks to some quality voice acting and cool fights with the ninjas showing off their mad skills. On the subject of the audio, the music in the game is also outstanding, with some beautiful orchestrated in-game tunes and operatic melodies, such as the song which opens the game. They can get a little repetitive as the game goes along, but it doesn't detract from their quality.
So how does it play? Well, the controls can be a little stiff and hard to get used to at first, but they do have their own certain logic. Both Rikimaru and Ayama's abilities are the same. You control your ninja via the nunchuck, holding down B to strafe and using the C button to jump. The A button is your contextual action button, while the D-Pad lets you select and use items. During a level, you'll have to find the most efficient way to sneak past guards, disposing of any who get in your way. You can perform stealth executions by approaching them from behind or from cover, then following the on-screen waggle prompts to slice and dice. These prompts don't seem to be all that sensitive at first, as any movement of the Wii Remote seems to prompt their action, but you'll occasionally find yourself striking out because you didn't follow them.
There are other motion control actions to take advantage of as well, such as 'hayate' or rolls from cover to cover, that work extremely well as you're sneaking about behind someone, zig-zagging from bush to bush. There's also a 'Mind's Eye' sight mode you can activate by holding down the Z button, which functions in a similar way to the radar in the Metal Gear Solid titles, highlighting the locations of enemies around you and showing you their sightlines, as well as showing you sources of light which could illuminate your presence and footprints to guide your way. It's a useful tool that gives you a heads-up on areas of danger. You'll also be required to defend yourself if a guard spots you and you're carrying a sword, where the game switches into a first person mode and puts you in control of your blade as you defend yourself. These sections are admittedly quite unresponsive, and we have yet to win more than a handful of these confrontations that weren't boss battles.
Unfortunately, the game is plagued by a variety of weird flaws. For instance, if you are discovered by a guard, you simply vanish yourself and return to the start of an area. But, strangely, the guards reset but your actions do not. For instance, if you killed half the guards in an area, then were discovered and went back to the start of the area, the remaining guards will keep patrolling the area without a second glance at the bodies lying around everywhere. Because of this, there's usually no point in hiding the bodies, because you can simply use this method to work your way through a level.
Despite this, the game can be tough simply because some mechanics don't work the way you'd expect them to. If you throw a shruiken at a guard in front of a well, he'll stumble back and fall to his death. But if you throw a shruiken at anyone else, no matter how well aimed, they'll simply brush it off and go into alert mode. From time to time it can be tough trying to work out exactly how the game wants you to proceed in a level, rather than it allowing you to take whichever path you choose. The game does get quite tough throughout its ten missions and ten-hour playtime. You receive rankings at the end of a level, and getting a high enough one unlocks bonus missions.
Tenchu: Shadow Assassins obviously has a few flaws. But despite these, it manages to be a enjoyable game. There's nothing quite like rolling around like a maniac from bush to bush before sneaking up behind a guard and snapping his neck. Your clock and dagger antics, which make up the bulk of the game, are very entertaining. It's just unfortunate that the same level of polish given to the game's presentation was not bestowed upon the rest of it, as the various flaws in the game prevent it from being truly great. While we're sure that ninjas have no need for motion-sensing videogames, if they did they'd probably enjoy this one, although they'd probably have a laugh or two while playing it as well.