It’s been nearly ten years since Tenchu crept up behind our consoles, silently doling out death while Splinter Cell’s Sam Fischer was still in Osh Kosh Kevlar. But thanks to the Snakes and Fischers of this world artfully sneaking about and delivering the big sleep, Tenchu’s soft-footed warriors of quiet have looked a little meager by comparison. Tenchu Z hopes to right the slow but steady decline the series has been in since its inception by focusing on what ninjas do best: Ultra-stealthy bloodletting.
A ninja’s best friend has always been the things that cut, stab and kill. You’re certainly not without your swords, arrows and shuriken, but you’ll also find that shadows and bushes are also very worthy companions indeed. Tenchu emphasizes clandestine concealment over rampant killing, imploring you to holster your murderous instinct until it’s absolutely necessary.
To lend a hand, the on-screen display does a great job of conveying your sound, danger proximity and visibility - all of which you’ll want to keep to a minimum. If you’re not carefully silent, maneuvering amongst light and cover, you’ll quickly be spotted and dealt with. Even the reflection of a drawn sword can attract unwanted attention.
And though it’s been our experience that ninjas tend to need more of a reason not to kill, there’s even an inconsequential story just so you know you’re not ninja-ing for ninja’s sake. Most missions ask you to assassinate an official of some sort, with some sparse item recovery and checkpoint objectives.
For the most part you’ll be crawling around crouch to gravel, familiarizing yourself with shadows and bushes. You can even quietly roll into the water and use a reed like an antiquated snorkel. Be warned: The controls do require a strict memorization of an dauntingly, almost unnecessarily, dense combination of buttons. Hold this trigger while clicking this analog stick while using your tongue and ring finger to hit X and the D-pad - Whoa.
We kid of course, but once you’ve learned to stealthily navigate along walls and rooftops, you’ll be gracefully creeping up behind supposed samurai until you’re close enough for a promted pounce. Then you can either show an uncharacteristic amount of ninja restraint by bonking them unconscious or, more satisfyingly, introduce their insides to your blade.
Another reason you’ll want to avoid enemy detection is because combat ain’t all that great. There are purchasable moves, but most are unimpressive and are accompanied by repetitively audible “Hi-ya!” type exclamation that actually alerts more enemies to your presence. With enough patience you should rarely have to come to blows, and the game rewards pacifists with more points to spend on weapons, clothes and new abilities. But if we’re being generous enough to refrain from killing, we wish you could move those unconscious bodies. Passers-by can easily revive them, thus doubling an area's lookouts - and that’s the kind of thing that really brings a ninja’s blood to a boil.
While biding your time, you'll notice most guards are fairly unobservant and move in very predictable grid patterns. Showing a further lack of polish, we found you can easily murder in plain site as long as their backs are turned.
Other than the reward and ranking system, there's nothing to keep you from gunning it to your goal and jumping in the occasional shrub. And in a further blow to authenticity you can rush straight to your target, kill him, and the mission's over - no matter how many enemies you've attracted behind you. We're not sure if we'd actually want to fight our way out, but it should've factored in to a game such as this. It's nearly impossible not to be tempted to exploit these flaws, especially after dying at the rate of Kenny McCormick.