In my nearly twenty years as a gamer, I've learned some universal truths about the gaming world. What Ninja Gaiden taught me on the NES in 1989 was that, simply, ninjas must die. Ninjas are a constant threat in the world of gaming, and it is your duty as a player to take them out one by one. It is upon this fundamental truth that the template for many other ninja games have risen and evolved. However, in recent years, ninja games have declined in both quality and quantity. Team Ninja's outstanding remake(s) of Ninja Gaiden on Xbox and PS3 notwithstanding, there haven't been a ton of options for the average gamer to get his or her ninja fix on.
Enter Tenchu Z for the Xbox 360. For all of Ninja Gaiden's awesomeness, it doesn't really reflect the lifestyle of an actual ninja. While Ninja Gaiden's focus has always been on uber-difficult, balls-to-the-wall action, Tenchu has always aspired to be something more of an actual ninja simulator. The Tenchu games have usually demanded that you stalk your prey from the rooftops and shadows, striking when the moment is right. Unfortunately, while Ninja Gaiden has evolved to today's standards, Tenchu is stuck firmly in the PlayStation era.
You begin the game by creating your own ninja character using a player creator that features about as many customization options as the average sports title circa the late 1990s. You're also given a second ninja to customize, but they only periodically show up in cut-scenes here and there. What I found funny about the secondary character is that you will complete a mission, and then the cut-scene will show your secondary character slicing up the target. I'm used to over-zealous thirteen year olds with chatty headsets stealing my kills on Xbox live, but the last thing I ever expected was to have my kills stolen in a single player game.
One of the fundamental problems plaguing Tenchu Z is that the AI is simply broken. I don't think it's a stretch to suggest that Tenchu Z features some of the worst AI I've ever seen in a game. At the very least, the enemies are stupidest I've encountered on any new generation system. Enemies in this game will ignore you as you are disemboweling the person next to them. Even if you get caught in their line of sight, usually all that is necessary to escape detection is to climb the nearest rooftop or dart around the nearest corner. Once you do that, the enemies will wander around looking for you for about five seconds before going back to their pre-scripted patrol routines. They'll also ignore bodies covered in blood left in plain sight. The sheer stupidity of the AI is an insult to you as a gamer.
With that said, the stealth portion of Tenchu isn't that bad. Successfully sneaking up behind someone and liberating their insides onto the ground is quite exhilarating, and makes it impossible to completely hate on this game despite its myriad problems. There are a few neat little touches to the stealth engine that are supposed to add more depth. A meter in the bottom left corner of the screen lets you know how well lit you are, how much sound you're making, and how badly your character smells (Although the meter could just be describing the game itself). If you get covered in blood or fall into a cesspool for example, the smell will give you away. However, even these cool ideas are completely moot as there is a glitch in the game where performing a stealth kill resets your character's smell levels, rendering the whole "smell engine" useless.
The back of the game box boasts that there are fifty missions to complete in the game. This is a bit of a misnomer as while there are fifty actual missions, you'll notice by the tenth mission, that maps and layouts are already being recycled. The mission descriptors might as well be; "This guy moved into the house that your last target inhabited. Kill this new guy too." I'd hate to be the real estate agent for these locations. "Yeah, only the last four or five inhabitants were sliced up by ninjas, but check out this sweet garden!"
The missions are also obscenely short. Since the game doesn't technically punish you in any meaningful way for not being stealthy, the game becomes a total cakewalk. You can literally dash from the starting point to the last guy, with an army of guys behind you, and as long as you get to the mark and kill him, the mission is a success. All the enemies that were on your tail two seconds ago will then sheath their swords and leave you alone as you do your victory pose. As least these idiots are gracious losers. If you decide to play the game the way the designers actually intended, then there is a bit of challenge and fun to be had, but it's extremely difficult to resist the temptation to take advantage of the poor game design.
If you happen to die in the game, there is no restart option. When you die you have to sit through a lengthy load time as the game dumps you back at your base. Once there, you have to re-equip everything as your inventory gets emptied out. Once you've re-equipped everything, you have to sit through another lengthy load time as the mission reloads. Luckily, this isn't that huge of an issue as I completed a good 85% of the missions on the first try.
If you actually play the game the way it's meant to be played, you're rewarded with cash that you can use to acquire new skills and items. These are completely useless. I got through more than half of the game without ever purchasing a single item or skill. It's an unfortunate side effect of having enemies with the intelligence of lettuce, and I mean no offense to lettuce. Speaking of which, can anyone tell me the meaning of having landmines and explosives in a stealth game? You're supposed to be a sleek and efficient ninja, a stalker of the night, and you're going to use loud explosive devices to take people out? Aside from the healing flasks, the rest of the items are about as useful as a snow cone in the middle of winter. If the designers wanted to give us something useful in terms of item and weapons selection, why not give the player the option to use a main weapon other than a katana? I seem to remember that the first Tenchu game gave you the choice to use dual daggers or a katana blade.
The controls for the stealth portions are functional, if not needlessly complicated. However, there's an annoying bug with the crouch button in which your character doesn't stay crouched, no matter how hard you hold the button down. This can result in getting spotted several times over as your character will appear to be doing squat thrusts over and over again. You can also sneak under houses and up against walls with ease, and the character moves through the levels at a satisfying pace.
Combat is a whole other can of worms that borders on completely broken. You can lock on to an individual target like in Zelda, but the lock on doesn't work half the time. It also doesn't help that your agile and efficient ninja becomes slower than molasses in January when fighting face to face. Also, when fighting mano-a-mano, your enemies can take a lot of punishment before going down. You're given a few rudimentary combos to execute, but they're all too slow and plodding to be useful. Believe it not, to block an attack requires holding down both triggers and the X button. Why did it have to be so complicated? All in all, combat is best avoided, considering the ease in which you can lose your enemies.
The game features some Xbox live and system link co-op multiplayer, but as of this writing, the servers are sparsely populated, and most of the players are the typical pre-teen jerks that run around like chickens with their heads cut off and ruin the experience for everyone else. When one player dies, the game ends for all the other players as well, so there is an incentive to work together, but most of the players I got matched up with wouldn't allow that to happen. Besides, the bland single player levels are just as bland when playing with a partner. To make matters worse, every game I played also featured a disconcerting level of lag and choppiness.
Graphically speaking, Tenchu is bland and unimpressive. Tenchu Z looks like an Xbox launch title, and even the original Halo has more impressive graphical effects than this game does. There are lots of clipping errors, including visible shadows of the inhabitants when you crawl underneath a house. There are only about three or four different enemy models, and none are rendered with any sort of noticeable detail. The faces in the game are very poorly done and have a creepy, deformed look to them. The environments initially look decent, but once you're running through the same ones over and over again, it becomes as visually appealing as a bowl of oatmeal. Even the gore effects are pretty lousy. Whenever you kill an enemy, blood comically sprays in every direction, accompanied with a silly geyser sound. At least the frame rate stays pretty smooth.
The audio in the game is sparse. The game features the standard ninja game soundtrack that is relaxing and boring at the same time. I can't comment on the voice acting since the whole game is in Japanese, but if it's anywhere as poor as the writing for the uninteresting and disjointed story, maybe that's a blessing in disguise. The rest of the audio such as the sword clashes and footsteps are serviceable, but nothing to write home about.
Yes, sneaking around as a ninja in dark and eviscerating your enemies is good for a bit of fun in short bursts, but Tenchu Z's gameplay is so broken and poorly designed that even the parts that the designers got right are lost in the shuffle. I actually went into my back catalogue of games and popped the original Tenchu into my PS2 for a comparison. The original actually controls better and has better AI than this mess. If you're a Tenchu completionist, then perhaps you will find enough here to compel you to play through the game, but all others are advised to steer clear.