Reviewed: May 2, 2004
Released: March 9, 2004
Tenchu: Return from Darkness is the Xbox edition of what PS2 owners were playing this time last year when it was called Tenchu: Wrath of Heaven. Normally, a typical port of a title doesnít take a year to reach a new system but Return from Darkness is not your typical port. The game has been retooled, upgraded, and enhanced with plenty of new features, not the least of which is the much-anticipated online gameplay.
For those that didnít get to play this game on the PS2 or the two Tenchu titles that preceded that one, this game revolves around stealth, tactics, and dispatching your victims with as much finesse as you can muster. You can draw comparisons to recently released titles such as Manhunt and Splinter Cell Pandora Tomorrow then throw in a touch of ninja flair to round out a challenging and original package.
Tenchu encompasses a rich story that involves three playable characters - two are available from the start and the third must be unlocked - and the game unfolds differently based on the perspective of the character you are playing. This is a much more rewarding experience that simply replaying the same level with a new character. You now get a unique path through the level with new encounters that will test each characterís diverse skill set.
Much like Manhunt, Tenchu is all about the stealth kills. Not only does it keep you out of noisy combat that can alert additional guards, but for every ten stealth kills you manage per level you can unlock new items that you can equip for future levels. While these items are not necessary to winning future levels it does make the job much easier.
Control is intuitive and pretty much what youíd expect from a third-person game like this. The camera tracks your movement with relative accuracy and manages to keep up with you when you are zipping up to ledges or rooftops. Going into stealth mode presents more of a challenge because the camera locks down to a fixed perspective and if the angle isnít just right it can be hard to line-up your kill. The white button does allow you to free-look but also negates your ability to move.
Combat is problematic, partly because itís overly simplistic with no sophisticated moves or combos, but more so because you cannot block and move at the same time. This really hits home when you square off against multiple opponents. YouĎll be blocking the attack of one enemy while presenting a motionless target for the rest. Youíll also find that once an enemy begins a multi-hit combo you are generally unable to interrupt or counter the attack.
One can argue that the game is designed around stealth and that you arenít supposed to engage in routine combat. In that regard, Tenchu shines with some of the best stealth-kill moves and sequences youíre likely to see in this type of game. Manhunt offers some visceral thrills but Tenchu is all about style and the art of the kill.
One of my biggest complaints with the PS2 was the enemy AI, both in its arbitrary ability to spot you and their total inability to find you if they did spot you. Since you are sneaking up on most of your victims you might be surprised at just how dense they are. Their line of sight is narrow and you can often remain undetected by simply staying crouched. If you are spotted you can quickly dart out of their immediate field of vision and they lose all interest in pursuing you. This eliminates a lot of the suspense and tension from the gameplay.
My other big complaint about the PS2 version of Tenchu was the unforgiving design choice where if you died during a level, anywhere in the level, you had to restart. Return from Darkness allows you to resume from an unexpected death at checkpoints within the level eliminating much of the frustration of the original. Purists might argue the decision but nobody is stopping you from restarting the level if you want.
Newly added for the Xbox debut of Tenchu is some excellent online gameplay, both for co-op and head-to-head stealth action. The co-op mode is definitely the better of the two since the game model doesnít really lend itself to versus mode. Itís just too hard to sneak around for very long and without the benefit of lame AI you canít stealth-kill a human opponent most of the time since they arenít just standing around waiting for it. The combat engine is so limited that you wonít want to play the versus mode just for the sake of fighting.
There is a slight but noticeable improvement in the overall graphics for the Xbox version of Tenchu. The resolution is higher, the textures are crisper and the levels are constructed with more polygons and realistic architectural details. The lighting is certainly enhanced taking advantage of the power of the Xbox, but even though the game is a marked improvement over the PS2 it falls short of the standards set by other games you might find on the same shelf.
The game supports HDTV 480p for some quality visuals for home theater buffs and the overall style of the game is unique enough to create an original gameplay atmosphere. The framerate is smooth which contrasts the jerky character animation, and the kill sequences are brutally real, but in the end I couldnít help but feel this game looked a bit dated.
The soundtrack for Tenchu is there merely to enhance the atmosphere and overall tension of the gameplay. Itís subdued and the Asian-influenced themes lie in the background allowing you to hear the sound effects, which are really the star of the show. There are unique sounds for the various weapons and the environments all generate realistic noises. There are also humorous sound effects attached to basic movements like jumping and using the zip-line.
The dialogue in the game is remarkably bad considering the quality of the story that is trying to be told. Itís the same poor acting that you may have heard on the PS2 and I really didnít expect them to recast or rerecord the dialogue so no surprises here.
A typical pass through Tenchu with one of the characters will take about 8-10 hours. You also have the locked third character plus the multiple layouts for each level will add even more time to your overall gameplay. Expect at least 40 hours to totally complete this title.
The online cooperative mode is certainly fun and much better than the split-screen mode on the PS2. The online versus mode might offer a bit of fun but only of the person you are playing is as dumb as the computer AI and stands still long enough for you to sneak up on them. Engaging in traditional combat will be nothing more than disappointing.
Tenchu: Return from Darkness is the same great game that suffers from the same critical flaws that plagued it last year on the PS2. The online component certainly offers some additional value and the single player game will entertain aspiring ninjaís for upwards of 40 hours if you plan on unlocking everything and playing as all three characters.
Had this game released last year it probably would have done better than it will now. Manhunt certainly offers a better stealth-kill gameplay model and Ninja Gaiden delivers more ninja action than most gamers can handle, but youíre still going to have fun exploring the wonderful levels and stylishly killing countless enemies. If you are a fan of the original Tenchu games or just looking for another outlet to hone your stealth tactics, Return from Darkness will more than fit the bill.