In 1998, Activision released Tenchu: Stealth Assassins, a title which helped usher in the current covert action gaming craze and revolutionized the video game ninja in a number of ways. It introduced two heroes, the reserved Rikimaru and the effusive Ayame. Members of the honorable Azuma ninja clan, the shadowy duo performed a number of tasks, including assassinations on evil or corrupt men across the countryside. If players remained undetected, they could trigger a series of satisfying and incredibly brutal deathblows on targets. But perhaps most surprising, it established a cliffhanger by killing off one of its main characters. Although 2000 provided a nice prequel to the story, Xbox owners had to wait until now to get their hands on these two anti-heroes. Essentially remixing the PS2 title released last year, here comes Tenchu: Return From Darkness.
While a true sequel to the original title, Return From Darkness doesn’t assume that you’ve played any of the preceding titles (although it might help you understand some of the back story behind certain moments). The period of civil war and strife within the countryside seems to have finally come to an end with the defeat of Mei-oh a year before. Similarly, the ritualized period of mourning for the fallen ninja Rikimaru has also come to an end, and not a moment too soon. A mysterious warlord named Tenrai has started to hatch his own plans for the domination of Japan, gathering a number of rival ninja clans and demonic powers around him to strike down Lord Gohda and his followers. The Azuma Clan is quickly tasked with ending this threat to the country and Gohda’s rule.
Like previous Tenchu titles, you’ll have the choice to take either Rikimaru or Ayame into shadowy battle. There is a slight difference in how each character plays: Rikimaru is strong and punishing with his katana in direct combat with bosses or guards, but slower than his female counterpart. Ayame, in turn, is weaker than Rikimaru, but definitely faster, landing a lot of fast strikes with her twin blades. Aside from these character distinctions, much of the gameplay has remained relatively unchanged since the first Tenchu title. Players still receive a briefing about their upcoming mission, followed by a return to their equipment stockpiles to outfit their character for each level. Veterans of the game might remember some of the familiar items such as colored rice or smoke bombs and notice some of the newer ones like viper potions, which provide additional damage while taking away some health. Like the other games, ninjas are limited by the number of items they can take into the mission, requiring them to pick and choose their equipment carefully.
In a similar way, players will have to decide the best way to infiltrate enemy positions and accomplish your task. Each character has ten missions available for their campaign, each with three different layouts that they can explore, significantly augmenting the game’s replayability. Both ninjas can somersault, slide along walls and creep silently across open terrain as they flit from shadow to shadow. Sometimes, you’ll need to quickly and quietly get to higher ground to avoid detection or advance deeper into someone’s lair. The grappling hook, familiar to most Tenchu fans, lets the ninjas zip from rooftop to rooftop.
Flashy acrobatics aside, these moves are necessary to avoid detection by guards or other enemies. While the two ninjas are able to take care of themselves if spotted by one guard, calls for reinforcements can quickly overwhelm them. To that end, reliance upon the ninja’s Ki meter allows Rikimaru or Ayame to maneuver around while figuring out just how hidden or out in the open they are. If players are able to remain concealed from their prey, they can attack and perform a stealth kill. These are easily some of the more eye-catching moments of the game, with sprays of blood and decapitations merely punctuating some of the minor assaults. What’s more, triggering one of these executions fills up your kuji meter, which can earn your characters new abilities and increased damage for boss attacks. What’s more, it contributes towards your end of level ranking, which can unlock new items to take into battle as well. (Just make sure you don’t leave any bodies lying around, or you may find your cover completely blown.)
The leap from the PlayStation to a next generation console has definitely served Rikimaru and Ayame well, yet the actual transition from PS2 to Xbox really hasn’t changed much. Aside from some smoothing of textures, larger character models and brighter environs, this is practically the same title. Both characters look much better, with a much larger polygon count for each ninja’s model. Extending to their animation, the boost in graphical detail has also improved their movements, making their dodges, grapples and infiltrations seem much more realistic. Their stealth maneuvers are much bloodier as well, and it’s not uncommon to watch heads bounce off the ground, for example. Incredibly gory and seemingly ripped from an action movie, killing an enemy in this way never gets old, no matter how many times you see these death blows. This is highlighted by the numerous cutscenes that you’ll see featuring each fatality from different angles. Some of the environments are just as detailed, with realistic water effects and dynamic lighting.
However, the Tenchu camera curse still plagues Return From Darkness, which is simply inexcusable since they could’ve learned their mistakes from Wrath of Heaven. Instead, they simply repackaged the old problems in a new wrapper.. While a majority of the time you can re-center the camera behind you to provide the best possible view, there are an inordinate number of times that you’ll need to change the angle to get a better vantage point and the camera simply won’t let you. Peeking around corners to perform a stealth kill or getting assaulted by enemies on later levels are simply two examples of this crime. Even worse, the preponderance of pits that will automatically kill you and force you to start a level over again necessitates a better camera, and unfortunately Return From Darkness just can’t deliver it the way you need it to. This means that you’ll have to get used to a ton of resets to pass some levels.
For a game that places a premium on silence and stealth, you’d hope that the sound effects were solid. Return From Darkness certainly doesn’t disappoint, with impressive effects found throughout the game. From the whoosh created as a ninja ascends to a rooftop via grappling hook to the bubbling sounds of rushing water, effects feel appropriate to the onscreen action. Appropriate, that is, with one exception. Footsteps across certain surfaces should alert some enemies to your swift, even sprinting approach to murder them, but for some reason, the sound effects during these moments aren’t valued as highly as other times. Again, this problem should’ve been discovered and stomped out as the game was being ported from the PS2 to the Xbox, but it was left in and screws with the gameplay. This is remedied somewhat by the juicy sounds of stealth kills when the blade slices through opponents, though just barely. Voice acting is pretty good throughout, and can be played in either English or Japanese. If you wait for a few moments before you kill an opponent, you might hear some interesting one-liners or dialogue, although they do have a tendency to repeat themselves when they’re actively searching for you. Music, like all other Tenchu titles, is easily one of the better technical facets of the game, with a gorgeous mix of traditional Japanese and modern elements that enriches each level.
The inclusion of a third character, Tesshu, extends gameplay significantly within Return From Darkness, and is definitely worth playing through both of the main character’s campaigns to unlock. A doctor by trade, Tesshu is also a deadly assassin whose hands are lethal weapons, and who essentially is a mercenary element that adds an additional layer to the plot. In fact, while Tesshu doesn’t have as many missions as Rikimaru or Ayame does, his adventures fit into and complete sections of the story that you wouldn’t otherwise see. What’s more, he’s got his own way of dispatching opponents, including breaking limbs or inserting pins into people’s skulls.
Multiplayer has also been added to Return From Darkness with the inclusion of versus and co-operative play, as well as the Xbox Live support. While there are a limited number of multiplayer maps, the challenge presented is substantial, and will give even the most experienced Tenchu fan some difficulty. Even cooler, co-op play allows for combined stealth kills between your two characters, letting both players truly slaughter an opponent. Thanks to Xbox live, you can use the headset to speak to your fellow ninja, coordinating your combo kills much easier, though it in no way lightens the difficulty of the co-op mode. The versus mode, however, feels somewhat removed from the actual tone of the game. Although you can choose from a number of characters from the game, including bosses, you can’t perform a stealth kill, which essentially makes the game devolve into a weak fighting game with weaponry. The only redemptive value is possible having the entire Xbox live service to find potential opponents.
Perhaps the worst facet found within the game is the somewhat sketchy enemy AI. This is the last time I’ll say it: this should’ve been fixed during the port from Wrath of Heaven, and yet it wasn’t. In fact, it seems to have been degraded, even allowing you to kill some guards in front of their allies without raising an alarm. What about the times that you can stand perfectly still in front of alerted enemies and not have them see you? This is simply pathetic and indefensible with the time they had to port this game over, and these designers should have a visit from the Azuma clan for their sins of a bad port job in this respect. Like I said earlier in the sound section, it’s possible to run across “noisy” environments without a sound to kill opponents. However, land in water, throw a shuriken into a wooden timber or make some other sound and the guards are on instant alert. What’s up with that sketchy hearing? Even worse, when detected, the guards exert the barest effort possible to find you as a threat, allowing you to simply run away or climb a rooftop to avoid battle. Since they will rarely check rooftops, it’s then easy to drop down and stealthily murder this idiot, which doesn’t feel realistic. There are even some moments where you’ll intentionally draw guards off simply to kill them when they don’t follow up on what they see (or what they think they see). This is completely contradictory to actual combat, especially later in the game where ninjas or other foes will block your standard attacks or perform tricky moves that damage you almost as badly as you damage them.
Return From Darkness is somewhat of a blessing and a curse. It’s great to see Xbox owners get their own version of the great Tenchu series, and the inclusion of Xbox Live could’ve provided a great arena for this game to thrive. Additionally, the inclusion of two new levels to sneak through is a nice little bonus. However, Return From Darkness is merely a basic port of a PS2 game without any significant tweaks or fixes to its problems, which is uncalled for given the Xbox’s improved capabilities. If you’ve never played Wrath of Heaven or only have an Xbox, then you might want to check out this game, but if you’ve played or own the PS2 title, you’re not missing much.