Tenchu: Return from Darkness

Tenchu: Return from Darkness

Written by Ben Zackheim on 4/16/2004 for Xbox  

I wanted to be a Ninja when I grew up. Ever since I read Frank Miller’s Daredevil I’ve been in awe of these silent, powerful examples of humanity at its finest. Their presence meant the end of idle chatter, failed diplomacy, stagnant negotiations. If the night killed, its blade was Ninja!

I ended up being a writer on the Atkins diet. I did sneak up on my cat once without him hearing me, though. So I’m left with two options. One, cry a river over lost dreams, Two, track the latest Ninja games like a hawk. Enter Tenchu: Return From Darkness, a port of the PS2 Tenchu: Wrath of Heaven (with online play thrown in, amongst other enhancements).

I have been living the life of Ninja Gaiden for a while now. That should be made clear up front. I am spoiled. Comparisons to this instant classic may be unfair but they’re also unavoidable. I mean, if you have 50 bucks to spend on a Ninja game should it be Tenchu: RFD or Ninja Gaiden. The answer is two-fold – one being the instant knee-jerk response and two being the fair-minded response. One, “Go for Ninja Gaiden, no doubt about it.” Two, “Well, it depends on what you’re looking for in a Ninja game.”

If you are a fan of the Thief series where the word of the day is “stealth” then you may want to check Tenchu: RFD out. Stealth is what it’s all about. You don’t take your enemies on face-to-face if you can avoid it -- the true Ninja-way in my book. You must try to find the silent path to success.

At the start of the game you can choose which hero you want to play -- Rikimaru, the strong boy-Ninja or the fast girl-Ninja, Ayame. They each have their own campaign to go through, with each story weaving through the same locations from different points of view. The story is pretty basic stuff. Chaos and strife rule 16th century Japan. Tenrai has gathered a huge army of Ninja and “lords of darkness”. It is up to you to kill Tenrai and restore order to the country. Does any of that matter? Nah.

What does matter is the impressively large depth of the game. Not only do you get two characters to play with, you also get alternate endings depending on the choices you make. I didn’t get through more than one ending but it’s always cool to realize you could play through the game again and really squeeze out your dollar’s worth. In addition, there’s a nice big collection of weapons and abilities to gather. I would equate Tenchu: RFD with the Jedi Knight series -- you might be best with a sword but there are many tricks to learn. As you move through the game, quietly eliminating or sidestepping everyone in your way, you collect tools for your arsenal. You’ll get points at the end of each level depending on how “stealthy” you are and those points directly translate into some serious bounty. There’s a mind-control ability that will make your opponents fight each other and even kill themselves. You also get a spell that makes you Hulk-lite as well as a camouflage spell for those close quarter moments. All-in-all there are 20 tools of the trade.
Add to the mix an unlockable character named Tesshu and you get even more for your money. Though the character is only available in story mode for a while he’s still a nice touch, mastering in breaking bones and pressure points.Gameplay is, again, focused on stealth. Much of the time you will hide behind objects, crouch, and study the behavior of your enemy. If you can’t see a way around you have to eliminate him. You certainly can go in sword-swinging but the game will slap you upside the head at times if you try. For the most part you can win a one-on-one fight but beware if there are reinforcements. Stealth is the key, especially on the harder difficulty levels. Sure, you have a grenade but that doesn’t mean you should use it. If you can sneak up on your prey you’ll find the pleasure point of the game. The sneaking is made richer with throwing stars and a grappling hook, both of which help you stay out of sight. You get a Ki meter which shows you how aware the enemy is of you. It’s a nifty tool which is a lot like the light meter in Thief. You can take out your target with one deft move -- IF you take him by surprise. But if you go toe-to-toe you’ll definitely have a harder time of it. Just like in real life!

The only problem with the game in this respect is that there are many dull spots. Some levels stand out as being fun (Pagoda Temple) but others are just unspectacular. They’re certainly large but they don’t present inspired challenges or puzzles to spice the journey up. The sneaking can get so bland sometimes that you might find yourself throwing the grenade for the fun of it. I think the primary reason for this is the enemy AI. It’s sub-par. They tend to follow a path and not stray from it, which makes it tough to get caught up in the suspense of it all. Another problem with Tenchu: RFD is the awkward camera angle. You can control it but when you leave it to its own devices it’ll screw you up.

The graphics of the game are certainly good but they are far from cutting-edge (no pun intended – ok, pun intended). The characters are good-looking and the death animations are delightfully bloody. But the environments are plain-vanilla with the dreaded invisible wall stopping you from genuinely achieving freedom of movement. There’s also a good amount of clipping to yank you right out of the moment.

The audio in the game is about as inspired. There’s good mood music and battle sounds but they could have come from any boilerplate Ninja movie. I don’t mean to be harsh. There’s nothing wrong with the sound, there just isn’t much that stands out. If you’re in the mood for some good Ninja loving I’m sure the audio/visuals of the game will satisfy. It’s certainly better than the PS2 version of the game, but it’s not quite up to snuff when compared to current X-box titles.

Tenchu: RFD’s X-box Live stuff is pretty standard fare. You can go through a few co-op levels with a friend which is a cool idea -- but I didn’t find it very compelling. More fun can be found in the deathmatch mode where you can choose from 20 different characters and go at it. Again, nothing too special (most characters feel the same, and the fighting system is button-smashing) but it does add some spice to an already deep game.
Ninjas are meant to use stealth and Tenchu: Return from Darkness understands that. If you played Ninja Gaiden and want some alternate Ninja fare, give Tenchu a try.

Rating: 7.7 Above Average

* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company for review.


About Author

Ben Zackheim was born Ben Zackheim sometime before 1980 and after 1960 which characterizes him not at all. He's a writer of reviews, comics and screenplays, but aren't we all? Luxuries like food and shoes mean nothing to him. He's married to the most beautiful woman in the world, Robin, who reads all his reviews before he sends them in and says "Are you really going to write that for the public to read?" But I assure her no one reads my reviews anyway, only Charlie's, so it's kind of like a tree in the forest (without the cute little fuzzy things who smell their own poop - wait, then again there is Charlie...) She's a cross between Gillian Anderson and Hillary Clinton, which is a monster I'd love to play in Monster Rancher Advance 2. Photos are available upon request for a small fee. I'm currently writing this bio but have no plans beyond that. View Profile

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