07 Jun, 2005

Tenchu: Fatal Shadows Review

PS2 Review | Ninja chop!
Fatal Shadows is the second PS2 outing for the popular Tenchu series, which made its debut all the way back in 1998, one of the pioneers of the stealth genre. It combined a medieval Japan – or ninja – feel, with silent killing action from a third person perspective. Unfortunately, since then, Tenchu hasn’t made a whole lot of progress.

The storyline in Fatal Shadows won’t be winning any awards for originality. Throughout the game you take control of two characters – veteran ninja Ayame, and angsty Linkin Park fan Rin, who presumably cuts herself with her sword at night. The story begins in Rin’s village. Everybody in it has been killed, and, in a totally unexpected and shocking cliché, the buildings have been set ablaze. Ayame spots the carnage, being the wanderer that she is, and stops by to check for survivors. Rin sees Ayame as the only person alive in the village, and promptly blames her for it. Ayame doesn’t refute the claims for some reason, and Ayame defeats Rin in battle, they both go their separate ways. Ayame chases after those really responsible, while Rin cuts herself even more and trains to become a bad ninja mofo, in order to ultimately defeat Ayame.

Ayame on the left, Rin on the right.

Ayame on the left, Rin on the right.
If you’ve played any of the past Tenchu games you will feel right at home with Fatal Shadows. The game still follows the same premise: use stealth and your trusty grappling hook to get from A to B, accomplishing the occasional objective in between. Doesn’t sound too complex? Well, that’s because it isn’t. The game is quite simple in its focus.

One thing that must be pointed out is just how slow paced this game is. There is a major emphasis on your player to watch and observe the routines of the guards, in order to decide on the best method of attack. Rushing in will usually always result in you being spotted, and you’ll have to fight off your attackers, rather than slit their throat from behind. If you’re the kind of gamer who wants to fight off hordes of enemies with spectacular attacks, then you’re better off sticking to Ninja Gaiden.

The aim of the game is to kill everybody without being spotted – a stealth kill, as the game puts it. These are many and varied, depending on the character you are controlling. Depending on which side you creep up to, your standing position and so on, pressing the X button will send the game into a cut scene where you witness some nice sword work, and possibly the worst blood effects seen on the PS2. New to Fatal Shadows are double stealth kills which are exactly what they sound like – two simultaneous stealth kills. The chances to perform these are few and far between though, so it doesn’t seem like a particularly worthwhile addition.

When it comes to hand to hand fighting, Fatal Shadows isn’t especially good. There is one attack button, a jump button, a block button and a counter button, which can be used to pull off a variety of attacks. However, the whole thing is pretty clunky and unresponsive. Combos will go in a straight line once initiated, making them easy to evade, both for you and your enemies. And, once hit, you, or an enemy, can be ‘juggled’ in the air and quickly be finished off. That’s fine for the enemies, but absolutely infuriating for you when you cannot even stand up without being knocked down again. Then there is Rin’s logic flaw of using a sword to perform stealth kills, but insisting to use her bare hands when confronted with a horde of guards. How a little girl can kill assorted guards barehanded while they have swords is beyond me.

Beware Rin’s teen angst.

Beware Rin’s teen angst.
Still, the objective is not to be spotted at all, and the ‘ki’ meter will help you achieve this. A green question mark (?, obviously) indicates that you are have not been spotted. It will also have a number in it – the higher the number, the closer you are to the guard. An exclamation mark (!) advises you to hide, as the patrolling guards have seen something, but aren’t sure what it is. A purple !? means they know you’re around, but can’t see you for the moment. Finally, !! indicates they can see you – time to fight. This system is about the only help you get in detecting enemies, so you will learn to love it.

Of course, it’s hard to trust it when the AI of your enemies is wildly inconsistent. Sometimes they will spot you from miles away, when you were hidden in what you thought were shadows. Other times, they will be completely oblivious to you, even if you just walked up behind them. Then if you manage to hide from them for a few seconds, they will completely forget all about you. The mission AI isn’t impressive either. An early mission will see you covertly pursuing an enemy, and being spotted will see you fail the mission. Of course, if the person you are chasing is fifty metres away in your line of sight, you will automatically fail the mission. However, if you are ten metres away, but separated by a large wooden fence, the game doesn’t seem to mind.

This is just one example where a quick failure will necessitate you restarting the mission from the beginning, as there are no mid level checkpoints. While the levels aren’t too big, waiting to stealth kill all the enemies can take an awful long time, and having to do it over and over quickly becomes controller-destroying stuff. Trial and error games combined with a lack of save points are NOT a good mix, especially when bottomless pits occur frequently in some levels for absolutely no reason.

Fatal Shadows is not impressive in the visual department. The whole game looks especially first generation, with fairly bland and poorly textured ‘typical’ medieval Japanese architecture taking up most of the environments. Effects are absolutely horrid, especially the enemy ‘blood’, which looks like a permanent texta line. Character models are somewhat improved, with a much higher level of detail – even if facial detail is at an absolute minimum when not in a cut scene. However, the whole thing runs at an incredibly smooth rate, with basically no slow down. It doesn’t make up for the lack of detail, but it is still a big achievement. Also worth mentioning are the nice pieces of traditional Japanese artwork that accompany the opening cut scenes to every mission – even if they begin repeating within a few cut scenes.

Fear those awesome textures.

Fear those awesome textures.
Then there is the absolutely woeful camera. It gets stuck and presses up against walls when you near them, making things nightmarish if under attack. Press yourself against the wall, and the camera is only adjustable to certain notches – you cannot move it freely, and it’s unbelievably annoying. It’s basic stuff that should have been worked out years ago – to still suffer this in 2005 is just not on.

The audio is fine for the most part. Music blends into the game seamlessly, with an expected oriental feel. The problem here lies with the voice acting. For a game supposedly set in medieval Japan, everybody talks with an over the top American accent. It’s just ridiculous, and almost single-handedly serves to destroy any immersion built up by the game.

The only people who should even think about buying Tenchu: Fatal Shadows are fans of the past Tenchu games. It’s awfully primitive in comparison to modern stealth and action games such as Snake Eater and Devil May Cry 3. It’s hard to believe anybody else getting a kick out of the unoriginality and frustrating trial and error method of Fatal Shadows.
The Score
Fatal Shadows isn’t awful, but it’s simply too primitive for anyone else but Tenchu fans to bother with in this era. 5
Looking to buy this game right now? PALGN recommends www.Play-Asia.com.

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