Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Nostalgia or Notstalgia? - Tenchu: Wrath of Heaven

The title is lame, I know. This is my feeble attempt to create some kind of themed series thing, in which I’ll be playing through games that I loved in my childhood and seeing whether or not they hold up to the incredibly high standards of modern video gaming or if I just loved them because I was a child and children are stupid and love anything.

Tenchu: Wrath of Heaven is a stealth game released in 2003. It's almost unique amongst stealth games in that it features ninjas, which is somewhat perplexing as ninjas are not only known for their stealth prowess but are also fucking awesome and should be featured in everything but whatever. The game follows the epic tale of two ninjas, Rikimaru and Ayame, in their quest to stop an evil guy from being evil; this is exactly the kind of plot you’d expect from a game set in feudal Japan, an evil spirit called Tenrai is seeking to destroy the world or take over the world or steal all the sushi or something using the 3 “totally not Dragonballs and we don’t even like Dragonball anyway so go away” Jewels. The presentation of the story is similar to something like Resident Evil 2, we see similar events from the perspectives of both of the characters and the canon is a mixture of both. I’m fully aware that this is a sequel and I’m sure that the events of the previous games do have some bearing on the plot of this title but it seems to stand up well enough on its own, making only subtle but noticeable ‘winking at the camera’ references to past events.

The atmosphere of this game can charitably be described as inconsistent, it seems to be attempting to maintain a dark and epic atmosphere but undermines this somewhat with all of the guards speaking with hilarious stereotypical Asian accents, the kind your parents come out with while pulling their eyelids and singing the Chopsticks theme, and the several out of place comedy cutscenes, the implied molestation gag at the start is HILARIOUS and totally fits. Overall though, the tone matches what most people would imagine feudal Japan to look like, the buildings all have screen doors and lavish golden ornaments and pictures of dragons on the walls and especially later in the game, when shit’s getting real, the general feel of hostility and intimidation on the part of the game increases. I certainly understand the need to sucker people in with bright lights and rape gags, the developers understand their audience at least, but it’s also pleasant to see a gradual shift in feel as the story progresses. The music is particularly worthy of praise. Despite being what one might call standard sounding traditional Japanese music it’s done so well that you can’t fault it, I’d certainly want this soundtrack playing at all times if I were a ninja!

You’re given a choice between the characters to begin with but there are only very subtle differences between the two of them. Rikimaru is slower but stronger and Ayame is faster but weaker. You know, the same distinctions that Capcom always make between genders. Likewise, their mission sets are very similar, it pulls the same trick as Devil May Cry 2 in making you play all of the male characters levels in a different order and do some of them backwards as a female; I guess everyone decided in 2003 that games just weren't long enough but didn’t have the commitment to do anything about it that didn’t involve copy and pasting. There’s also a third bonus character to unlock when you finish the game but that’ll just be a nice surprise for when you get there. The gameplay itself is actually fairly strong; the controls are simple third person fare, a moveable camera on the right stick, the ability to press yourself against a wall by running into it, an easy to aim grappling hook. Bread and butter stuff, but you’ll certainly never get yourself caught because you’re too busy messing around with complex control schemes *cough*MGS*cough*

Most of the gameplay is focused on sneaking through a variety of levels including villages, fortresses and castles but Tenchu makes the same mistake as many other stealth games in that the stealth is not mandatory. There are a few levels in which you’re not allowed to kill anyone or all of the enemies are undead but for the most part killing patrols is not only a viable option but seemingly encouraged, given that dispatching enough enemies with obscenely violent and thankfully varied “Stealth Kills” in each level unlocks an extra ability. I’d have thought that a ninja game of all things might have a mandatory stealth focus but I’m not a professional game developer so what do I know? I’m not saying that the heavy focus on killing isn't fun of course, just a little out of place with the general theme of the game.

The game also gives you the option to indulge in a vast array of gadgets, ranging from blowdarts and poison rice to mines and flaming shuriken. I have to say though, as nice as it is to have a little variety with my weapon choices, many of them are somewhat cumbersome and difficult to use and it’s often a far simpler option to just stealth kill an enemy than it is to place poison rice in their patrol area, escape to a safe distance, wait for them to eat it and then watch them slowly die. Of course I appreciate the enthusiasm on the part of the developers in creating such an array of tools to use but I never found myself using more than health potions and a few darts to get through the actual game and everything else got relegated to bored piss-about fun. But, you know, they’re there if you want to use them. A somewhat disappointing aspect of this game is the boss fights. See, the controls are far more suited to sneaking and killing enemies before they’ve seen you than they are to heavy combat. There’s very little strategy involved other than “attack the thing” and too often the fights become exercises in button mashing. I maybe would have preferred some clever stealth-based puzzle-type bosses but maybe I’m just too demanding, who knows?

Overall, I’m probably not as in love with this game as I used to be but it hasn’t lost too much of its charm over the years and is still a very enjoyable experience. Plus, ninjas. Ninjas, man!

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