Tenchu is the perfect example of a franchise that simply does not want to grow up. It’s been seven years since the original Tenchu game was released on the PlayStation, and although stealth games in general have evolved, this is a series that seems to pride itself in staying just the way it is. So if you go into Fatal Shadows, the second Tenchu game released on the PlayStation 2, don’t expect a radical changes or impressive leaps to the games mechanics, because this game is exactly as you remember it.
Well, there is one change: in Fatal Shadows, Tenchu-mainstay Rikimaru is not one of the playable characters; instead we’re left switching from Ayame and Rin, two sexy female ninjas. These characters initially hate each other, something that is played out through a number of lengthy cinemas; but it won’t take too long before they are fighting side by side and working towards the same goal.
The two characters are nearly identical, with only a few minor differences to speak of. Rin wields a long sword on her back and is extremely effective with her arms and legs, while Ayame has two short blades that are fast and effective. As the characters progress through the game they will unlock new moves specific to their abilities, but the game always makes transitioning between the two ladies easy and simple since they generally have the same combos.
Tenchu doesn’t stray too far from the tried and true stealth mechanics found in previous outings. It’s you’re job to sneak up behind an enemy and go in for a stealth kill, a one-hit kill that is shown via a short cinema. Each of the two characters has a number of interesting stealth moves that are violent without becoming too gruesome. With each stealth kill comes a scroll, collect enough of these items and you’ll received a character-specific ability.
New to Fatal Shadows is the introduction of the double stealth kill, which allows you to sneak up and kill not just one person, but two. This sounds good, but the double stealth kills are often more trouble than their worth. It’s just as easy to sneak up on the characters individually and a lot less risky, but once you’ve mastered the skill, it does make for some cool looking kills and a sense of accomplishment generally lacking otherwise in this game.
One of the things that set Tenchu apart from the rest of the stealth titles early on was the ability to climb up to roofs and sneak around above everybody. You can still do this, although not every level seems ready for you to jump down on the enemy. The game allows for all kinds of special items for just about everything you could possibly want to do in the game. But until you’ve memorized what each item looks like, it’s almost impossible to tell what you have in-game. It’s also difficult to tell what type of item you’re going to need before each level, and by the time you know what you need it’s either too late or you’ve already moved on to the next chapter. Going back and experimenting with the weapons is fun, but unless you’re tackling the hardest difficulty you will not need to use many of the items.
Actually, you won’t need to use much stealth, either. The AI is so poor that most of the time you can run right up behind them and just get the stealth kill, I found that they rarely heard me even though I was running right at them. And while you are rewarded for performing these specialized kills, most of the levels are so simple you can run right through them without worrying about stealth at all. This doesn’t make the game bad, but there were a few times when it seemed a little too easy.
The game is split up into twelve different levels, switching off between Ayame and Rin. The story starts with the clichés right away as you’re thrown into dealing with a village that is being burned down. As luck would have it, this was Rin’s village, and she seeks revenge on whoever was responsible. Ayame, on the other hand, was just passing through, so her story is more of a mystery for much of the game. After meeting each other they go their separate ways, which fills in quite a bit of the story and introduces all of the characters we’ll be seeing in the rest of the adventure.
Although this Tenchu spends more time developing characters, the story never feels fully developed and you often feel like you’re just being strung along from one event to another. After the game is over there isn’t a sense of accomplishment, and when you think about it, the story is really very shallow. Fans of the series will likely be interested in learning about these ninjas, but most of the story is pulled down by hammy dialogue and bad voice acting.
The bosses are oddly underwhelming, too. Except for a giant bear you have to deal with early on, the bosses of Fatal Shadows are all about the same size as you are. I suppose it would be unrealistic to have huge characters or what we found in Ninja Gaiden, but it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference between the usual enemy and the bosses in this game. They are also extremely easy; most can be defeated by simply bashing on the buttons and repeating the same combos.
The hand to hand combat is a mess, something that should have been addressed long ago. Your character doesn’t track the enemy, so you will occasionally start throwing punches at the air leaving yourself open to all kinds of damage. If you do hit your enemy your moves are extremely limited, so most of the time you just hit the same button over and over. I suppose the hand to hand stuff is secondary in a stealth game, but that doesn’t mean it should be completely ignored.
The graphics look much like the previous PlayStation 2 installment, Wrath of Heaven, with only a few minor tweaks here and there. This is simply not a very good looking game, and tends to look extremely rough around the edges when you compare it to other stealth games like Splinter Cell or Metal Gear Solid 3. One of the problems I kept having was that the game often seemed too dark, making it extremely difficult to see the characters and enemies. With some practice (and fiddling with the TV brightness) I trained my eyes to see in the pitch black, but the game seemed too dark for its own good.
There are a few unique quirks about the presentation that will make you laugh (or scratch your head) early on, but the game has a funny way of taking a good thing a little too far. At the end of each chapter there is a preview for the next chapter, as if we were watching a serial. The problem with the previews is that it actually takes out all of the mystery about the next level, instead of showing the type of terrain you’ll be exploring (something that might be useful), the previews show plot points only moments before they happen.
The game also features a cinema that is repeated a dozen or more times with only a slight change. That game’s presentation looks great at first, but when you realize that you’re seeing the same thing every level it’s hard to get excited about moving on. Thanks to a lack of exciting level designs, a boring story, and cinemas that are more like Chinese water torture, it’s sometimes hard to justify continuing the adventure at all.
If you do weather it out to the end you will earn a whole slew of interesting extra features, which include everything from mini games to new costumes and weapons. Although you can beat the game in less than ten hours, there are quite a few things to do in order to get 100%. The problem won’t be the lack of extras; it’s just hard to stay interested in a game that is flawed in so many ways.
There have been a lot of advancements in stealth games since the original Tenchu, but playing Fatal Shadows I got the feeling that the developers aren’t interested in evolving the series and striving for ambitious goals. If you’ve played any of the previous Tenchu outings you have already seen most of what is in this game, making this a real hard purchase at full price. The game is not without a few impressive features, but they are too few and far between, and there are just too many better games in the same genre to recommend. I look forward to a truly revolutionary stealth ninja game, but sadly, Tenchu: Fatal Shadows is not that game.
Although Tenchu gets a few things right, the overall stealth action feels outdated and clumsy compared to other games in the genre