Reviewed: April 7, 2003
Released: March 4, 2003
Are demons infesting your neighborhood? Are evil lords crushing you and your kin beneath oppressive taxes and harsh laws? Then what you need is a good Ninja! And you can get one now, in Tenchu: Wrath of Heaven! The tri-quel to Tenchu and Tenchu 2, Activision brings us again into the lives of Rikimaru and Ayame, loyal ninjas from the Azuma clan. However, as Tenchu 2 was a prequel to the first game, this game takes place after Tenchu, so true fans may want to brush up on the first game to remember all of the plot nuances in the cinematic scenes.
Not surprisingly, Wrath of Heaven is very similar to the other games in style of play. It is still better to not be seen than kill legions of baddies. You can assassinate chumps, hang from ledges, zip-line to rooftops and do all of the things the first and second Tenchus allowed you to do. So what’s new?
Everything. Simply put, all of the little limitations and frustrations with control have been eliminated from this game. Here’s an extensive run-down of all of the improved things. The first, and most important thing is that open combat is now much easier. The preceding games were always frustrating because boss fights, or even the chump-fights once you were been spotted, were always supremely difficult due to play control. You couldn’t turn your character with any speed, visibility sucked, and your moves were so slow they were painful.
Wrath of Heaven is definitely a breath of fresh air after those excruciating episodes. First of all, your characters have actual combos that are effective and lethal. Even better, you can abort in the middle of your combo if you realize that you were a touch off of your timing, and that you are about to eat that blade coming for your head. Rotating your character takes only as long as it takes for your thumb to move the stick, and your visibility is a good 90-plus degrees, rather than the 20 degree tunnel vision that plagued your earlier incarnations. So the apprentice has become the master.
Ah, but not yet my young padawahn, Yoda’s not done with you yet. Your movement overall is much nicer as well. The old zip-line curse of not being able to grab the peaks of rooftops has been lifted. You have the legendary platform double jump as well, which can really get some good distance. Your stealth mode has nice rolls, and while is slow in movement, is still better than before. You can wall hug as before, and control the camera nicely for a good perspective on the world around you, and you can still hang unseen from ledges mere centimeters in front of guards. It all makes this game sound easy. Like shooting womp rats in Beggar’s Canyon. Riiiight.
Evening the scales with the better play control, this game just got a lot harder. To start with, there are new chumps for you to deal with. Dogs and wolves now prowl the scenes, and they have excellent senses. New girl-ninjas jump around, even landing on top of rooftops and bridges. Undead fire-breathing Ally McBeal babies disco on patrols, and undead samurai warriors stand vigilant guard. Monks and Carradine-clone martial arts experts defend home turf. Two dimensional paper-kanji wraiths moan through the forests. Wooden Chuckie-dolls and marionettes stalk the hallways. And what good would any den of evil be without demonic guards with eyes like eagles? All in all, the enemies are definitely nastier, reducing your already miniscule room for error.
The enemies are not the only way this game got tougher though. The levels themselves are just plain mean. First of all, there are new, tough objectives to accomplish, like sneaking past the guards without killing any of them, or stealing a key right under the nose of three partying guards. Then too, there are new nasty traps here and there. From the classic pit traps and falling spiked ceiling to the spear-throwing wall and fire spewing floors, you’ll need to pay attention to where you step.
The traps are just the beginning. The real bite is the level layouts. Sometimes, just figuring out where to go is the real challenge. When in doubt, look up. Chances are, that light square in the wall is really a hallway you need to zip-line up to to find your way. It does make you wonder though how can the bad guys find good help? Seriously. Half of them must die each week just getting to their posts. Can you imagine your trip to work including a double jump over a 40-foot rift, ninja rolling under a spear trap, zip-lining over a chasm of lava and dodging falling blades? All just to ask if they’d like fries with that.
For all of the difficulty, at least the designers included some rewards for your hard work. Above your health meter, there are nine faded kanji (Japanese symbols/letters). For each stealth kill you get, one of these light up. If you can light up all nine kanji on any level, you’ll gain a special ability. In all honesty, these are easy to achieve, and in truth, aren’t that valuable. The only truly useful ability was “Ninja Vision,” which is simply a zoom ability in first-person look mode. The other eight abilities are fun and nifty, but ultimately not needed.
In addition to these abilities, you also can unlock new toys if you rank high enough (Grand Master) at the end of each level. These toys too, are fun. Like the abilities though, with the exception of the Ninja Armor, the special toys are not really needed. Really, this game can be done without items. The items will only make the game a bit easier at places.
Now, for the cool factor, as if being a ninja wasn’t inherently cool enough. Proper stealth kills trigger a pretty tasty cinematic. Each character has five different kill scenes, which vary based on your approach angle. Ayame’s moves are certainly more spectacular than Rikimaru’s, but she doesn’t hold a candle to him in the brutality department. That is also the general rule for the two characters as well. Ayame’s combos are more extensive and flashy, but Rikimaru does the damage. Rumor and Tenchu MO also suggest that the third character, who can be unlocked by completing the game with Rikimaru and Ayame, will hit even harder that Rikimaru, but move with the speed of Eric Cartman at a track meet.
As mentioned above, gameplay is where Wrath of Heaven has really improved over its earlier family members. The ease of movement is exponentially better than in the previous games, and you can finally turn faster than a semi truck with a fully loaded 53-foot trailer. There are two areas where the game play is lacking in Wrath of Heaven, though. The first is the lack of tutorial or practice area. There is, officially, a tutorial. However, it’s about as useful as an Iraqi jet in a dogfight. It is an all-text explanation of the moves available to you. Well that’s great and all, but I don’t speak Wookie. There should be just a simple, cheesy practice arena that allows you to both get familiar with your basic moves, and let you figure out how to properly use new items and abilities available to you throughout the game.
The second area of fault is the two-player cooperative mode. Theoretically, it works. Except for the fact that they split the screen vertically! Were the designers new at this? Did they even play test it once? Vertical-split screening has been de facto outlawed for ages. Of course, it’s fallen out of use for a reason. Your peripheral vision with the vertical split is just about nil. It’s like trying to be super ninja while looking through a cardboard toilet paper tube. It could be that they want to make it possible for you to actually sneak up on your opponent, but it’s really just too awkward to bother playing for any length of time.
The drastically improved gameplay is not all that has improved with this game. The developers have really outdone themselves with the levels, scenery, and buildings. The background scenery is really impressive. The highest marks go towards a lightning storm-behind-the-cliffs backdrop in the Ronin Village. It’s probably one of the best storm graphics out there now. The clouds light up, shadows spasm accordingly and the cliffs stand out in stark relief against the flash.
Also, the physical levels are much better. Buildings actually seem part of the environment, rather than suspicious landmarks or ninja-launching platforms. Water ripples with movement, and reflects the environment, regardless which way you face. Most importantly perhaps, the different aspects of all of the levels really blend together. In the previous games, it was almost a completely different to be outside, or in a building. Wrath of Heaven really blends them together; many boards actually incorporate both into the level.
Zoomed-in graphics can be a little “pixely.” That’s a fine line to cross, and it seems evident that with the sheer size of the boards and complexity of the moving characters that the graphics team had to draw the line somewhere. Too much detail would have required a long time to complete, and it’s a good bet that available memory would have evaporated with too much detail. However pixely the graphics get though, it only occurs if you’re really zoomed-in on something or face-to-face with it, and even then it in no way hinders the game.
Even more impressive, the camera is one of the smoothest tools in any published game to date. It almost never “hangs up” on a corner or post, and it was smooth and gave good visibility. There are times when you won’t quite be able to see where you want the camera to point, and likely as not you’ll wind up getting spotted for the trouble, but no camera utility so far is perfect. Hey, deal with it. Ninjas don’t whine.
The only flaw that the graphics takes a hit for is the fact that there are points where it is pointlessly dark. It’s not too bad, but it can be pretty frustrating to take the Nestea plunge to the Earth’s core because it looked just like the dark floor in the last room. If only one of the special items were “Ninja Night Goggles”…
Tenchu: Wrath of Heaven did an excellent job with sound. First of all, the music composition was really awesome. Each level has a distinct sound to it, so it never gets too repetitive. Naturally, it all has the traditional oriental sounds, including the twangy guitar thingy, reed flutes and more crashes than the Gong Show, but it’s very good. However, whoever came up with the dying gander sound in the music for Lord Gohda’s castle does have an accounting to give. Ugh. It sounds like an Ewok getting molested by a Wookie or something equally disturbing.
Additionally, the sound effects for the game are good as well. Swords ring when blocked, water splashes if you walk through it, and enemies make noise as they prowl about. It takes a little training to ignore the fact that enemies don’t respond to your regular-running noise, but they historically never have in the Tenchu games. The designers did, however, even include the trick noise-making floors (known to you historical mystery buffs as nightingale flooring).
The only surprising thing is that enemies groan and yell when you stealth kill them. What kind of ninja cuts a guy’s throat just to let him yell? It’s really disconcerting to be committing murder three inches behind another guard while you’re victim is groaning out his last breaths. Luckily, it counts as a stealth kill and the other guard obviously has too much wax in his ears.
Tenchu: Wrath of Heaven has a lot of good things going for it. While it does retail at a high-end $49.98 (USD) at most stores, it is still worth the cash. Playing the game through will take an easy 40 hours or so, and you’ll most likely sink more time into it than that. The designers did a good thing by adding three layouts for each board. While the layout of the board is the same as always, the new challenge of repositioned enemies is entertaining enough to take the effort to do.
Also, the additional third character that you can unlock also adds some good play time onto the game. All in all, any time you can average 1 dollar (or less) per hour into a game, I consider it a good buy. It’s a better entertainment value than the movies or a decent Geisha. Er, so I’ve been told.
For you Tenchu fans already out there, this game is a no-brainer. If you’ve never played any of the Tenchus, or were frustrated by the play control, this is the game to jump on the wagon. Spectacular kill sequences, a cool plot, cooler weapons and great levels all contribute to make this game the best of the Tenchu series, and one of the best first-person stealth games on the market. Besides, you’d better buy it. Or you’ll never see them coming…