Reviewed on: PS1
1998 was a good year for gaming for a lot of reasons but for me the biggest one was the birth of the 3D stealth genre. Tenchu: Stealth Assassins, Thief and Metal Gear Solid all launched that year. Each game was great and innovated massively in terms of what games could do but Tenchu has to be given the credit for being the first true 3D stealth game because it preceded those other two by a few months.
Tenchu is a third person stealth game that lets you play as one of two of the Azuma Ninja clan, either Rikimaru of Ayame. The game takes place in feudal Japan during a period of unrest where merchants are greedy and corrupt, armies plot to invade your region and something far darker than civil war is stirring. You serve Lord Ghoda and work to protect the Ghoda region from threats both from within and without. You begin with the simple task of assassinating a greedy merchant but by the end of the game you will have uncovered a plot involving myth and fantasy and will find yourself fighting not only ninjas but also hordes of the undead and even the Lord of Hell himself.
The story may become far fetched and utterly ridiculous but it features some great characters and, despite a couple of iffy plot points and shocking voice acting it manages to be absolutely bad ass and is a great story to just get lost in. You fight the Lord of Hell as a ninja! What more could you possibly want?!
As I said before you can play as either Rikimaru, the male ninja who is relatively slow but deals a lot of damage, or Ayame, the female ninja who is fast as lightning but relatively weak. Each have a set of 10 missions and each offer very different play styles. Ayame has to rely more on stealth and the use of a ninja’s tools due to weakness and boss fights with her are certainly tougher but her sheer speed makes for some exhilarating kills. Rikimaru on the other hand allows for a full force, balls-to-the-wall type of playthrough but also works well with stealth. Either way its definitely worth playing the game as both characters. The only real downside is that the majority of the ten levels are the same for each character, Don't get me wrong the two play styles differ enough to keep things fresh but still, different levels would have been nice and it would have been a great opportunity to create a complex narrative that interweaved between the two characters. Never mind, I guess saving that for sequels was a good idea in hindsight.
What the game is really about though is the gameplay. You can use a variety of ninja tools, such as a grappling hook which lets you scale the rooftops, smoke grenades which blind your enemies and let you disappear and even poison which can be the downfall of many unaware guards. You have a Ki meter which tells you if the enemy is unaware of you, thinks he/she can see you, knows you are there but cant find you or can see you and is going to come and carve you to bits. This meter is essential to the success of a stealthy playthrough and is something that remains throughout the entire series of games. If you sneak up on an enemy and catch them unawares then you can enter one of three mini-animations and watch as either RIkimaru or Ayame perform deadly and gore ridden executions. Its a shame that there are only three of these and it can get repetitive having to stop and watch the animation but its still pretty badass to see the blood fly from a guards’ throat.
Control wise the game provides a lot of flexibility. You can run, crawl, climb rooftops/walls, roll, flip off of walls, backflip, block, stealth kill, do regular attacks and lunge, as well as make use of the myriad items. The game does a poor job of explaining the finer points of the control scheme, such as how to block or how to do a double forwards jump, but when you master the controls the game allows for great control of your character. The only issue with the controls other than the lack of explanation is that they do not support analog controllers and so movement can be stiff and awkward. But stick with it because this game is worth it.
The other issue I have with the gameplay elements comes from the enemy AI. These guys are stupid and blind and it can really ruin the feel of being a stealthy badass. You can be stood a few feet from an enemy and the Ki meter will tell you he suspects something is there, duck down but still be in plain sight and all of a sudden he can see nothing. In a fight with an enemy? No problem, go into the next room and hide in a corner and he will spin round aimlessly on the spot before the Ki meter tells you its all clear. This sort of fault is understandable due to the limitations that the hardware of the time featured but still, with our modern day standards this sort of AI can be very jarring.
The graphics of the game only serve to add to this problem. You see not only is the enemy AI immensely flawed but so is your view. All of the levels take place at night so as to remove any need for huge draw distances but the draw distance your are given is still awful. So an enemy may be able to see you but you might not be able to see them unless you stop moving and peer into the distance. This can lead to a very stop/start gameplay experience that can get frustrating in long play sessions. Fortunately the combat animation, character and level design are all pretty good and hold up better than a lot of other games from this period.
On a technical level its definitely the sound that holds up the best. The soundtrack to this game is incredible and the boss fight theme tune is one of the best of all time. Add to this the awesome and now iconic sound effects (listen to the blood flow!) and you have a truly great sound experience for this game. The only issue with the sound is the voice acting. The voice acting and script is, most of the time, appalling. It wouldn't be so bad if this game didn't come out a few months before Metal Gear but still. Listening to Ayame in particular is cringeworthy. It isn't enough to ruin the story but it can be pretty painful at times.
On a technical level the game lacks in many departments but the gameplay, once gotten used to, is fun and it did help spawn a genre. Add to this the cool level design, fantastic story and one of the greatest villains of all time (Onikage) and what you have is a fantastic and important game that still holds up well today despite its technical flaws.