There are just some things that seem to go together. Nobody is going to look at you funny if you crack out a chocolate brownies and milk, go to a football game with a big foam finger, or make a sandwich that includes peanut butter and jelly. And that's true in the video game arena as well; just look at how many games we've played set in mythical worlds or in outer space or as a superhero. Perhaps one of the best pairing comes when you take ninjas and let the gamer control their outcome. There's just nothing better than being able to play out your dreams of being a ninja in the confines of a video game ... at least, that's what I thought until I played through Tenchu Z for the Xbox 360.
Tenchu Z is the eighth installment of the on-running ninja franchise, a franchise that has found its way to everything from the PlayStation and PlayStation 2 to the Xbox, PSP and Nintendo DS. This is the first time we've seen a "next generation" Tenchu game, and also the first time Microsoft has published the series. If you're hoping that Tenchu would use the power of the Xbox 360 to dazzle you with amazing graphics, sharp gameplay and unique abilities, then buddy, you need to set your sights a little lower when going into this game.
One question plagued me as I started playing this newest installment of the Tenchu series: What exactly has changed since the series was first introduced ten years ago? For a franchise that has had so many sequels, Tenchu has yet to really evolve past the original idea of sneaking up behind your enemy, assassinating them without anybody else seeing you, finding another enemy, rinse and repeat. This Tenchu, while graphically more advanced and a bit longer than most of its prequels, continues down this path of offering you the same boring gameplay, the same boring enemies, the same boring locations, and the same boring story. What was starting to get old on the PlayStation and PlayStation 2 is now so outdated that it leads me to wonder why Microsoft (or anybody for that matter) would want to publish this game in the U.S.
As you would expect, Tenchu Z offers a story that looks convoluted and deep, but is actually pretty basic and shallow. Essentially the whole game revolves around you tracking down (and ultimately killing) an evil man who traffics illegal drugs and wants to take over your town. This "story" is explained through a series of boring and pointless cinemas that you access by tackling the fifty levels. If you've come to Tenchu Z for a grand sweeping story full of high adventure and memorable characters, then you're better off just looking elsewhere. Tenchu Z may have a story, but it's pretty shallow and actually a lot less interesting than the plots of previous Tenchu titles.
The biggest change to Tenchu this time around comes in the way of a character creator, which (surprise, surprise) allows you to customize your character in a few different ways. You can choose between a male or female ninja, each with their own set of options. But that's not all, From Software (the makers of Tenchu Z) seem to understand how exciting it is to create your own custom ninja ... because seconds after you've finished your first custom ninja you're asked to do it again. That's right, after you make your character it's off to make another character for reasons I have yet to understand. The good news (if you want to call it that) is that this character will occasionally pop up in the game. Why you had to create this character (as opposed to just see another pre-made character) is never explained, and honestly I don't care enough to ask.
As I previously stated, Tenchu Z features fifty different levels to play through. Now don't get too excited by the fact that this has some four dozen levels, because there are two problems that keep Tenchu Z's levels from being truly impressive. For one thing the mission variety is limited to only two or three different tasks. A lot of your missions revolve around you having to track down a specific person and kill them (which ends the level, no matter how many other enemies are around you). Another mission is to find a specific item that is hidden away in the level somewhere. There's a variation on this mission, sometimes you'll have to track down a couple dozen items that are hidden in plain sight. There are also missions where you need to kill a certain amount of enemies, which isn't nearly as much fun as it sounds. The game does throw one or two more missions your way, but for much of the game you will be forced to play these few game types without much of a break.
The other problem is that the levels tend to repeat themselves. Despite the fact that the mission map shows you making a long journey from one part of the world to another, Tenchu Z really only takes place in a half dozen levels. You'll find plenty of variations on ninja villages, a ninja castle-like structure, a ninja farm, a spooky ninja cave, and a weird port city where you fight pirates (yes, pirates). The game does manage to switch these levels up a bit by having you play them at night in one level and during the day in another level, but needless to say it won't take long before you start to feel like you've seen and done this all before.
Speaking of things you've done and seen before, the gameplay remains unchanged from the last few Tenchu titles. Your goal is still to sneak up behind the bad guys and perform some sort of stealth kill without anybody else seeing you. You also have a few ninja accessories that you can use, such as throwing stars and a grappling hook. Along the way you will be able to pick up extra weapons left by the enemies, though most of the time you can take the baddies out with your default weapons.
Although the idea of a ninja game using the tried and true stealth mechanic is a good one, Tenchu Z's execution of this genre is so poor that sometimes I wondered why I was even bothering to hide out in the shadows. On the default difficulty you can literally run up to most enemies and get a stealth kill. Forget being quiet or coming from behind, Tenchu Z's enemies are apparently deaf and blind because you can run as fast as you want to and stealth kill them in front of their face. And best of all, if there are two enemies standing next to each other you can stealth kill one without the other even noticing. And if by chance the other character does notice you, all it takes is you running away for a few seconds to make him completely forget about you. That's right; the enemy is so stupid that he literally forgets that just seconds earlier his evil bad guy best friend was killed in front of his eyes! Yes, the AI is that stupid.
Of course, in most levels you don't even have to worry too much about killing the bad guys. I found that it was just as easy to run through most of the missions looking for that one big bad guy I was supposed to kill or that package I was supposed to find instead of taking each enemy out one by one. Most of the enemies don't give you chase and once you've found the big bad guy he's usually easy to defeat. Depending on how you play a lot of the levels will only take you a few minutes to beat, some taking less than a minute.
As you beat the levels you will be given ninja points that you can use to buy brand new ninja moves and ninja combos. Of course, these moves and combos end up being completely useless, and most people will be able to beat the game without a problem with just the original list of ninja moves given to your custom character. It would have been nice if From Software would have gone in and given us more incentive to buy these new attacks and combos, but alas, that part of the game (like every other aspect of the game) just feels half baked.
If, after you've beaten Tenchu Z, you still want to fight on and see what this game has to offer you can always take part in the online multiplayer modes. But don't get too excited, because the online game is all about playing through the same boring single-player experience with a second person. You might think that playing this with a second person would make the whole experience a lot less painful, but you would be wrong.
At this point it's almost not worth mentioning how disappointing the graphics are in Tenchu Z. From the enemies you fight to your hero's animation to the levels you play through again and again to the cinema scenes, the graphics are completely underwhelming every step of the way. Outside of the achievement points, there was no reason whatsoever for Microsoft to release this as an Xbox 360 title. As an Xbox game this might have been acceptable, but for a company trying their hardest to show the world how powerful their next generation hardware is, Microsoft really dropped the ball when it came to this game.
Tenchu Z proves that just because ninjas and video games are a perfect fit that doesn't mean that all ninja games are fun to play. With a bit more variety, better graphics, more interesting gameplay and an interesting story, Tenchu Z could have been something fun. As it is this game is completely average in every way. There's nothing about the game that stands out ... well, nothing except for the enemies you can run right up to and stealth kill. That's pretty memorable, but not in a good way. Let's hope that everybody involved with this project goes back to the drawing board and delivers us the true Tenchu sequel we all deserve.