Review: Tenchu: Shadow Assassins (Wii)

"Are you finished? Save your speeches for Hell!"

This is the fourth in a series of stealth-based action games which have often met with mixed reviews due to control and camera issues. After watching the atmospheric sepia-toned montage of game cut-scenes scored with Japanese opera and playing the game, fans and those new to the series will find that Tenchu: Shadow Assassins delivers one of the best action game experiences on the Wii. This tale of betrayal and revenge puts players in the roles of Rikimaru and Ayame of the Azuma ninja clan who are tasked with taking down the enemies of Lord Goda in an effort to prevent open warfare from engulfing his territory.

Ubisoft's announcement that the original language track wouldn't be included in the localisation was met with disappointment by many, but the American and British actors used do themselves proud with a quality translation of the original script. Rikimaru's gravelly voice suits him well and Ayame is portrayed with a sassy attitude which is also appropriate; supporting actors also do a great job - you'll hardly know the dialogue was originally written in Japanese!

Cut-scenes using visuals matching those in the game help set-up various missions and move the story along with a cinematic flair. The soundtrack is a mix of modern film score and traditional Japanese instrumentation that is good enough to listen to on its own; reinforcing the feeling players are controlling a character in a feature film. A tv drama element in the audio is present in the form of musical "stings" which accompany the game logo at the end of every mission prior to displaying the mission score. It's a nice detail which keeps players involved and wanting to continue on to the next chapter.

During the first five missions of the game you play as Rikimaru, the white-haired leader of the Azuma clan, who is tasked with assassinating various enemies of Lord Goda. The role of lithe female assassin, Ayame, is assumed in the next four missions as she tries to rescue Lord Goda's daughter from kidnappers whose identity and purpose initially aren't entirely clear before the final, tenth mission which wraps things up when all is revealed. Both characters operate on principles of stealth with the goal in each mission being the elimination of enemies without being detected. Aiding you will be items you find in situ (nothing is brought with you in an effort to eliminate any possibility of tracing your activities back to Lord Goda); shadows, shrubbery, cupboards and rafters for concealment; and your "mind's eye": an excellent conceit for explaining the characters' ability to see around corners due to the 3rd person perspective which plays well to the mythological aspect of the ninja. Hindering your progress are soldiers and enemy ninja in the employ of your targets who must be evaded and/or dispatched as you move closer towards your goal.

The first few missions are accompanied by a narrator who will guide you and prompt you to take certain actions in tutorial fashion. He will come in throughout missions where new items are discovered or moves introduced. The tutorials are very helpful in understanding how the game works and what is expected of the player. If desired they can be turned off, set to repeat or only be delivered once. You are advised to complete them as prompted given that tutorial sections often progress according to pre-set beats resulting in wasted effort if you try to rush ahead: for example after finding your first smoke bomb, throwing it before prompting results in waiting whilst the narrator makes observations of the scene by which time the smoke will have cleared; requiring you to restart the section if you've wasted all of them!

Whilst there are only 10 missions, they are quite lengthy and broken up into many sections with each mission taking around an hour to complete. This largely depends upon how quickly you progress through various areas and whether or not you're discovered. A directional indicator in the lower right hand corner will point you in the general direction of the entry to the next section, which is marked with a blue flame on either side of it. Ayame retreads some of the same ground as Rikimaru in parts of her missions, however she's often coming in from a reverse direction and the enemies, items on-hand and environmental effects all differ to keep it a fresh experience.

On Normal difficulty you can be discovered multiple times with each discovery causing you to disappear in a cloud of dust ("the art of utsusemi"); at which point you'll back to the start of the section to try again. Higher difficulties (the two being Hard and Hell) only allow for one discovery; if you're found again and don't have a sword you'll be killed and given the option to try the section again, restart the mission or quit. Avoiding discovery is key.

Since your missions are all undertaken under cover of darkness by the light of the moon you're usually able to hide in the shadows, which are indicated by wisps of smoke. Moving into these areas causes your character model and anything you're carrying - say, the body of a dispatched soldier - to become silhouetted. Places of concealment can be spotted at a distance using your minds-eye as they are highlighted in purple; this will also create a faint border around shadowy areas along walls.

There will often be various candles and torches lighting areas, but you can extinguish these helping to create more shadows to hide in. You can simply blow out candles if you're close enough; even from cover. You can also take out candles and small torches/lanterns from a distance using thrown objects like shuriken, kunai or rocks. Extinguishing larger torches requires getting closer and using a bamboo tube filled with water (this also doubles as a handy breathing device for moving about under enemies' noses via decorative ponds). In areas with shrubbery you can move from shrub to shadow to hedge, using a quick flick of the Remote to execute a "hayate" move to keep you out of sight.

When you're not in full shadow there's dynamic lighting to indicate various grades of concealment, and there's also an indicator in the lower left corner of the screen resembling a full moon. Varying degrees of cloud cover indicate your level of concealment from enemies, who are represented by stars that move around the moon in relation to your current position and grow larger as they get closer; smaller as they move away. Later in the game your shadows may be dispersed by lightning flashes, adding to jeopardy and keeping you moving and watchful of enemies.

Enemy AI varies according to the type of soldier and their experience. Evading detection by some is as simple as sitting still even if in full illumination - assuming you're out of their line of sight or too far away to be seen clearly. You can tell exactly where an enemy is looking via the mind's eye: hold Z and your character becomes frozen in place allowing you to free look with the control stick on the Nunchuk. Enemies are represented by glowing red silhouettes which have lines radiating from their heads like laser beams indicating where they're looking (and how far they can see) - these will be visible even through walls which lets you know where enemies may be out of sight. Many enemies will walk past you if you're fully concealed, but more experienced soldiers will see you in full shadow if they get close enough or are walking straight at you. Others will randomly turn around and are extremely sensitive to noises, ruling out sneaking up them for a quick kill; even moving whilst concealed in a shrub can cause them to start searching for you.

Enemy awareness of your presence is indicated by the moon indicator flashing purple (red if you're actually spotted). Enemies will make various comments as they search for you; enemies on patrol will deviate quite widely from their normal route to try to find you. They will wonder aloud if you're hidden in shrubbery and stab the plants with their swords - this can be quite nerve-wracking if you're presently hiding in the shrub being stabbed! They'll even look underneath steps or up into the rafters, so sitting still is not always a good strategy.

Moving about right next to an enemy whilst he's searching will cause him to search longer (if your movements don't cause you to be discovered outright), so the only thing for it is to somehow get away quickly or find a place to sit still for the 30sec. - 1 minute until they decide there's no one there. When in areas with patrolling enemies you need to remember to take care to conceal the results of your handiwork as coming across a body will also trigger a search and increase the risk of discovery. It increases immersion adds tension given how rarely consequences follow from taking down enemies in most games.

To lift objects like boxes for getting a leg up to a rooftop or a dead body to hide in the bushes simply move close to the object and press A when prompted. Pressing B will put the object down, though your ninja cannot occupy the same space so be aware you will shift backwards when dropping your load.

The use of the A button for contextual controls allows for a wide range of actions in the game: lifting objects, pressing up against walls, jumping into large earthenware jugs, hiding in cupboards, jumping up and grabbing onto roof ledges and rafters; or even hiding under floorboards. The amount of flexibility given in making your way through levels is impressive and helps make every level feel fresh even upon replay. Players are limited to carrying three items, any one of which can affect the strategy in how missions are completed by players which also adds to replay value.

Dispatching of enemies will often also be via context-driven presses of the A button. Enemies who pass close by a hiding place like a jar or outside storage cupboard will be dispatched and hidden away in one motion; other "hissatsu" or "instant kills," such as sneaking up on enemies from behind, grabbing them from above or dragging them into the shrub where you're hiding will prompt for Remote and/or Nunchuk motions to execute various dispatching methods.

Motion detection on the whole works well, the only hitch being that a request for a thrust motion will sometimes require a sharp downward jerk instead. Hissatsu are played out as rather brutal neck breaks, impaling soldiers with swords or slashing their throats; even the odd suplex (Suda 51 would be proud). Whilst these are basically QTEs, the use of motion requires a bit more vigour than the usual button press and is quite satisfying. There are often different motion choices presented which will result in different deaths for your victims to provide variety. The death scenes are played out in the location where executed and with the right character models so you never feel taken out of the game. Squeamish players have the option to disable the nicely-animated spurting blood that often accompanies dispatching of enemies with their own weapons.

Use of shuriken and kunai (throwing knives) is most effective against enemies in front of wells, or sitting up high on platforms and observation towers (usually enemy ninja or musketeers). You can also take out hidden enemy ninja (who won't show up normally as anything other than a black silhouette, so watch out!) with a well placed throwing weapon. Otherwise throwing things at enemies will only alert them to your presence - this isn't Shinobi, after all!

The last bit of combat to learn is the most challenging: sword fighting. In the event you're discovered and carrying a ninjato you'll be prompted to wave the remote to engage your blade and switch to a first person mode where your on-screen blade tilts in real time to match your Remote positioning. You have around a second after being shown the direction of the enemy attack to tilt your Remote in the opposite direction, with an image of your Remote to act as a guide. Quick reflexes are required to parry enough times to charge up your "Tenchu" metre for a counter attack. Good parries are indicated with a blue flash; bad ones with red (which also does damage to your sword). When fighting normal soldiers a sword break or failed parries will result in restarting the section after a dramatic exit; during a boss fight either of these will result in death with the option to restart the fight.

Counter-attacking consists of waving the Remote around to slash at your opponent; if you manage to slash in the direction indicated by a blue flash you do extra damage, but the motion detection fails here typically so it's rare to get your slash registered properly; the attack will still do damage, but your fight will last a bit longer as a result. It's definitely the weakest part of the game and would have benefited from Wii Motion Plus, but at least it actually works and can be mastered with practice. You're only required to sword fight once in tutorial and then again in four different boss fights, so it can be forgiven for not being a lot of fun; especially given how excellent the rest of the game is.

If sneaking up on people and stabbing them in the back all sounds a bit underhanded, that's because it is. The art of the ninja has nothing to do with honour beyond fulfilling your obligations and not leaving a trace: fighting fair isn't part of the deal! Interestingly Rikimaru is portrayed as somewhat conflicted: he often apologises to soldiers right before killing them and two of the bosses openly call him out as a hypocrite for killing innocents in his pursuit of justice - accusations to which he has no response. Ayame by contrast is portrayed as a bit more cynical and just gets on with the job. It's noteworthy that the game creators don't shy away from the moral ambiguity of the main character and makes the story more interesting. From dialogue in cut-scenes the main bosses appear to be characters that appeared in previous Tenchu games and are known to Rikimaru, but not being familiar with earlier parts of the series is in no way a barrier to enjoying the story or the game itself.

Visually this is one of the best-looking games on the Wii with good lighting and rain effects and excellent set dressing in the form of storage rooms filled with odds and ends and kitchens with cooking fires and utensils. You will see occasional object clipping; mostly in the form of boxes that can be thrown partially into walls, but this is pretty rare and never game-breaking. Motion capture has been put to good use, though there's obvious reuse of animations and character models amongst the enemies. There are several types of soldier with different appearance, voice and behaviour so it doesn't get too repetitive. Death animations are well executed with enemies slumping against walls or twitching slightly after being killed - a nice detail, if a bit morbid.

The camera works well for the most part and is generally positioned behind the character. The only time glitches in camera movement are seen is when using the mind's eye whilst sitting in a corner, resulting in it moving less smoothly around the character when it hits surrounding walls. Even in those situations the camera doesn't get stuck or clip through walls which is quite welcome. PAL gamers should note that despite the box cover claiming 480p/60Hz presentation, Tenchu is actually shown in 576i/50Hz resolution.

Characters move RE4-style with left and right on the stick rotating them in place (B can be held to maintain facing and strafe). Graduated movement has wisely been eliminated - nothing is worse in a stealth-based game than running because you pushed the stick a little too far. Holding B whilst pressing forward will cause your ninja to break into a sprint (great for rushing an unsuspecting enemy and knocking them to the ground). You have a choice of four control schemes, the only major difference between them being whether or not to use a Nunchuk shake or a Remote shake to perform a 180-degree turn or re-mapping jump from C to an upward movement of the Remote or Nunchuk.

You can also customise motion sensitivity and invert the stick X/Y axes in throwing mode, which brings us to the oddest choice of control by the developers in the game. The D-Pad is used to toggle through items, drop items or activate them. When selecting an item which has a ranged effect such as a shuriken or a bamboo tube, the game switches from 3rd-person to 1st-person view. A cursor is displayed for targeting what you want to use your item on with a sound and visual cue indicating when you have a valid target (if the action will result in the death of a targeted soldier/ninja you'll also get a flash of blue on the screen).

Given that this is a Wii game, you'd think the Remote pointer would be the obvious method of controlling this - indeed why not use the pointer for the mind's eye free-looking? But no, instead you use the control stick as if you were playing on one of the "other consoles." The only reason for doing this that makes any sense is eliminating movement from a shaky hand or poor Remote calibration, but surely use of an ample dead zone could compensate for this. As a consequence eliminating lights and enemies can cost a few extra seconds through having to line things up with this more cumbersome interface. It's not game-breaking, but it does slow things down a bit; it would have been nice to at least have the pointer as an option for these parts.

The Story Mode missions provide a good single player experience that will take most people 10+ hours for the initial play through. Replay incentive is provided by having each mission being available to play on its own to better the highest score shown in the Mission Select screen. After completing a mission you're graded according to three criteria: time taken to complete against par, number of times discovered and number of hissatsu out of the possible total. This will be shown to you after completing each section of a mission as a guide so you know how well you're doing. You're graded in each section with a rating from E up to S and then given an overall letter score with a ranking from Amateur to Grand Master.

In addition to bettering your scores there are higher difficulties, as mentioned earlier. These increase the number of opponents and change environmental conditions; often radically. In the starting mission on Normal difficulty, for example, you begin outside a gate guarded by a stationary guard. Increase the difficulty and you have a patrol of three approaching you with only seconds to extinguish the torch in front of you to get hidden from their sight. Replay is also encouraged by giving you map pieces to find. There are 20 all told, hidden in a couple of sections of each mission; if you find all of them you will get a "nice surprise!"

Outside of incentive to replay Story Mode you have Assignments, which are simple standalone missions that act as training exercises for the various ninja arts used in the game. All of these are ranked like Story Mode missions and provide a good way to work on technique if you're having trouble with different aspects of the game. There are 10 available initially with more to unlock. They're not that deep, but it's a nice diversion and good bonus content to have in the game.

Conclusion

Tenchu: Shadow Assassins is a game that will be welcomed by many: good attention to detail and largely well-implemented controls combine with a compelling story to create a terrific cinematic gaming experience. Lack of pointer control renders shuriken-throwing a bit more clunky than it could be and the sword fighting will put some to the test, but the game delivers where it counts with solid play mechanics that invite multiple replays. Ubisoft have done an excellent job in localising a game which should please stealth action fans everywhere.