Tenchu 4

It seems unlikely that ninjas, swarthy grumps that they are, would celebrate anything as frivolous as a birthday. Can you really picture a group of masked revelers gathering around a cake or giving the bumps? We can’t. Not unless it was part of a cunning plan to off the daimyo with a glass of poisoned Cresta or an explosive party bag. No such excitement at the tenth anniversary event for stealthy ninja franchise Tenchu – just a new game announced, and a Wii exclusive to boot.

“Ten-who?” you ask, with good reason. Originating on the PlayStation in 1998, the blood-soaked assassination sim has yet to cross paths with a Nintendo home console – and any mention of the shonky DS version will be met with a poisoned dart to the neck. This absence is all a bit odd, considering ultra-violent decapitations and perforated bellies have always been so at home among Mario and co. Best pitched as Metal Gear Solid goes feudal Japan, the emphasis in Tenchu is on sneak and stab. It’s something of an odd franchise, never quite doing the awesome premise justice but winning enough fans along the way for continued attempts. Grab any Tenchu fan – you’ll find them lurking among the rafters – and they’ll tell you the series has been in decline since original developers Aquire left after Tenchu 2. Good news – Aquire are back and it looks like they’ve nailed the idea.

Burly Rikimaru or nimble Ayame: choose your ninja. The two series mainstays return, again looking to rescue kidnapped Princess Kiku. It’s hardly War and Peace, but as a reason to tiptoe around feudal manors on a guard-garroting spree, it’s as good as any. Your ninja is now viewed from a closer third-person perspective. You’re quite a sizeable presence on screen, and the shift lends a real sense of meat to your character’s action, with remote rumblings adding emphasis. The ideal plan works like this: observe the route to your target, note the movement patterns of the guards, make it to the target without getting spotted. Should a guard eye your stealthy antics, a mighty hullabaloo kicks off as you decide whether to fight or flee. Complete a level without getting spotted and you’re given the title of grand master and rewarded with a special ninja toy – anything from an animal-impersonating kazoo to a ninja attack dog. Yeah, real stealthy.

Of course, it’s easier to progress if the guard attached to each pair of eyes isn’t alive. Slink into the shadows – extinguishing lights with an A-button puff – and you can ready an execution (an attack cutscene not unlike Manhunt’s death blows). Dropping from rafters to snap a neck, aerating a windpipe, kebabing them on your sword – the world’s your bloody oyster as long as you hit the onscreen remote gesture cues. Offing guards is one thing. Getting to your target without another guard stumbling onto your trail of destruction is quite another. Aquire are looking to increase environmental interactions to create a more thoughtful approach to body disposal. You can now hide under water, while enemy bodies are also well disguised by dunking them in the ornamental ponds that litter the estates of the villains on your hit list. Travelling caravans make the perfect hiding place as unsuspecting traders wheel you that bit closer to the hit.

Evasive jumps and rolls are remote-flick controlled but other Wii-specific controls have yet to properly reveal themselves, although Aquire are working on ‘Wii-ing up’ all the classic ninja tools. A bit of pointer-aimed shuriken action is a sure thing, as are smoke bombs and caltrops scattered with Nunchuk flicks. Whether the spongy amazement of the poisoned cake will make an appearance is a mystery, but a Cooking Mama-esque minigame to ice a sick-inducing sponge as appetisingly as possible would be ace. If unlikely. (Perhaps if enough of us write to Aquire…) The best news? Ubisoft have snapped up Western release rights, ensuring we all get in on the ninja action. Rest assured we’ll be using our entire arsenal of ninja tricks to pursue a hands-on play in the not too distant future.

Aug 8, 2008