Tenchu: Wrath of Heaven Review

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Publisher: Activision
Developer: K2

Platform: PlayStation 2
Reviewed on PlayStation 2

Veteran stealth assassin Rikimaru is joined by newbie ninja Ayame in the third installation of the stealth/action Tenchu series. Armed with a variety of weapons and a lifetime of training, two lone heroes must stop a madman from resurrecting an all powerful evil.

The Great Thirsty

Shrouded in mystery, the life of a ninja is something that has never ceased to fascinate people of all ages. In the Tenchu series, the video game audience has been allowed a window into that world of stealth and secrecy, but has unfortunately had to put up with shoddy graphics and an amount of frustration unappealing to most consumers. With the recent release of Tenchu: Wrath of Heaven, those drawbacks are a thing of the past. Superbly rendered characters moving through extensive levels create a feast for the eyes. The controls and the fighting system have been revamped, making the game easier on the thumbs. The addition of multiplayer also gives players the unique experience of cooperatively taking down the bad guys, or trying to out-sneak each other in a head-to-head ninja deathmatch.

Rather than one cohesive plot line, Wrath of Heaven is really three games in one. Players can choose at the outset to play either Rikimaru (the powerful male protagonist of the previous Tenchu games) or Ayame (a new, sleek, female ninja), leading to one of two different plotlines. Either way, you'll come into contact with Tesshu, a third character with his own unique story that can be unlocked after completing the game with the two starting ninjas. The situation is this: in 16th century feudal Japan, a local lord named Godha has employed ninjas for years to protect his people and dispatch with his enemies. Two of these ninjas, Rikimaru and Ayame, are particularly talented and powerful and aided Godha in defending his castle. As the game opens, Rikimaru has been thought dead since the last big battle some four years ago, when the evil forces of Lord Meioh and his wizard goon Tenrai begin to cause trouble again. Rikimaru comes out of hiding, Ayame goes out in service of Lord Godha, and the action begins.

The two starting characters in Wrath of Heaven each have a different feel. Rikimaru is a master swordsman, using the katana as his major weapon. He moves fairly quickly and can jump well, but would best be described as balanced. Ayame, on the other hand, is pretty much all speed and jumping. She prefers two small knives and a wide range of kicks to a single sword and dispatches her enemies in acrobatic displays of martial arts wizardry. Tesshu, the unlockable character is the other end of the spectrum, using a sort of kung fu/wrestling combination to eliminate baddies with pure power. Each character gains nine new abilities throughout the game, and a wide variety of items that allow for an even more extensive library of assassination techniques.

Tenchu's defining characteristic has always been its stealth kills. Accomplished when attacking an enemy unaware of your presence, stealth kills take the form of slit throats, a poison dart or in Ayame's case, an acrobatic neck breaking. A small meter in the lower left corner of the screen lets you know how aware of your presence the nearest enemy is, and how good your chances of stealth killing him are. There are several animations for each character, corresponding to which side of the enemy you're on, and whether or not you're jumping. Stealth kill animations add a great deal of satisfaction and purpose to the stealth which is usually just used for survival in other games. These kills play an important role in the learning of new abilities, which are given as rewards for performing nine of them in any given level. A rating is also given on your performance in each level, ranging from "amateur" to "grand master," based on the number of kills, number of times you were detected and items collected. Also, in multiplayer mode, double team stealth kills add a great amount of entertainment and general "cool" value to what could otherwise just become a parallel playing of a level.

In addition to the huge graphical improvement, the characters and camera are controlled smoothly and allowed to move very freely throughout the environment. Some problems can be encountered due to camera angles, but a simple tap of the L1 button is all that is required to set things right. Also, holding R2 places the camera firmly behind your character and allows for quick steps in any direction, as well as a 180° jump that allows you to get the better of enemies who think they've caught you. The basic controls are just that: basic; and with a little practice, even a complete novice can learn to master the game's moves, stealth kills, and items.

And there are plenty of items to master. Twenty-four of them become available throughout the game, from throwing stars to poisonous blowguns to spells that render you undetectable. The rarer items, such as spells and armor, are rewards for earning a grand master ranking on a level. Before each mission, you are presented with all the items you have collected thus far, and you can select up to six of them to bring with you through the level. Also, items are randomly placed throughout the level, often placed in hidden or difficult areas to reach. Two new weapons can also be found for each character throughout the game, and usually have a special ability associated with them, such as inflicting poison damage or dealing more effectively with the undead (Yes, ninjas do indeed fight zombies during the course of this game).

Tenchu: Wrath of Heaven is one of the best stealth/action games released thus far. From the general storyline and overall feel of the game to the tiniest details of weather effects and lighting, Wrath of Heaven is challenging and fun throughout. The three characters, twenty six single player missions, five multiplayer missions and deathmatch mode create a deep and continuously interesting game-play experience. Slight camera problems and a high level of violence may turn off some players, but, for the rest, secrets of the way of the ninja are begging to be discovered.

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on March 26, 2003 5:57 PM.

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