Thursday, 5 May 2022

Revisiting Tenchu Part 1- Thoughts on Shadow Assassins


A while ago I decided my new laptop must be able t handle a PS2 emulator and so I got one. Then I hunted down my favourite games and thought I'd replay some of them.  The first one I looks for was Tenchu Wrath of Heaven and I've been going through that enjoying it quite a bit.

Then with the usual casual research I do looking into things, I decided that I should have another crack at Shadow Assassins, the Tenchu that came out on the Wii and PSP.  Now I have this on the Wii, but at the moment, no Wii.  However, being a fan of the PSP and still having some unfinished games  on that, I decided to grab the PSP version so then I can avoid the waggle controls of the Wii.  Let's see how this goes shall we?

What I liked about Shadow Assassins is that it was a fairly focused game.  Whereas previous versions had a small open map for you to run around in, I often found myself zipping up to the rooves and dropping down to take people out, only to run away to the safety of the rooves again.  S.A doesn't have that option and as a result, you feel a bit more "ninja" yjam you did before.  The limitations of the hardware (?) means this game has a set path you need to make you way along the level while enemy placement and available tools make you decide how to do it.

In a way it's a puzzle game.

You can start almost any level with no items and there should be a way to get through it.   In this game, you don't have the option of hiding on the rooftops and so really have to sneak around, hiding in the shadows and surprising enemies.  This makes it unique compared to the other Tenchu games.

If you actually engage in melee combat with a enemy, a terribly boring minigame rocks up with you taking turns slashing each other and defending using directional inputs.  It truly sucks, especially with the Wiimote.  In fact the use of the Wiimote is what stopped me playing this game and made me decide to play it on the PSP instead.

A shot of a terrible Fighting system

Sneaking around requires the use of shadows to hid yourself in, certain areas have a black smoke that indicates useful shadows and when you bust out your ninja-vision, there are made more obvious.

I can see the smoke and the guard's line of vision.

Now I'll just sidle along the wall and break his neck.

Sorry bro, time for you to go.

Another change is now the old ki-meter has gone.  Before you have a number that would indicate proximity to enemies.  That has been replaced by a moon.  When the moon is shining and bright, you can be easily seen.  If the moon is black and covered in clouds, you a re pretty well hidden.  When you really close to an enemy a star will show up indicating their position, the stronger the star, the closer they are.  I rather like the moon option, it definitely provides good feedback on how well hidden you are.

Everyone can see me, yay!

You can hide in bushes and clearly see you are hidden.  In previous Tenchu games, there are bushes, however it is unclear how well you can be seen while using them as cover. This moon thing gets rid of that ambiguity.
Hiding in the bushes and I'm hidden.

The game has ninja items that you can use throughout it.  You can only carry three at a time though, so you have to be careful about what to take.  Some provide shortcuts by allowing you to climb walls, the good old shuriken is there for dousing candles, killing lookouts, annoying (but not killing) enemies.  Others are a fishing rod for grabbing out of reach items, swords for attacking breaking locks and sticking into walls, grenades, smoke bombs and cats as a small sample.

Some are way more useful than others.  The swords for example I would only grab if you see you need them.  If you get spotted with a sword, you're forced into the terrible attack minigame.  If you run and jump with them, they make noise, alerting guards and the moments when you are forced into fights with bosses (thankfully can be avoided a lot of the time) your character gets a sword during the cutscene.

While I found the sneaking through the levels, the craftiness, and the methodical and logical thinking of how to pass/kill the guards, the game is let down by reverting to terrible controls.  Tenchu 1's tank controls make an unwelcome return.  Limited camera  control and a very slow moving Ninja who can be awkward to move about is very frustrating.

One level requires sneaking behind an enemy and climbing into the rafters of a building.  To do so, you have to walk/jump up some boxes onto a book shelf, then onto the rafters.  Oddly, for a ninja, just jumping onto the box and bookshelf seemed to be a difficult thing to do.  Then to access the rafters, you have to inch forward, waiting for the prompt to come up, indicating that your ninja can jump up and latch on to swing up.  In the meantime, another guard is about to come around the corner while you jump about trying to land on a box, after having fallen off the bookshelf for the fourth time.

I want to climb on to the rafters there... but the deadliest of ninja enemy is in my way...

...boxes! and a book case!  Curses, let the awkward jumping commence!

That is where many of the games' problems come from, waiting for/activating the button prompt.  Movement ends up being slow and awkward.  Even stealth kills have a massive button prompt.. Great, that one works ok, but general movement is terrible.

Just a small sample of button prompts.

So eventually I managed to finish the game.  I did it, but wouldn't really say I enjoyed it.  The clunky controls were extremely annoying and some movement abilities seem to be a bit random in the way they work.

A key manoeuvre option is the "hayate" a sudden ninja-dash to cover.  If you do it, your character should zip to some shadow area or somewhere to hide. Great hey?  

The problem is, sometimes its awesome and cool, and sometimes its just Rikimaru/Ayame doing a little dance move shuffle. Sometimes they'll cover a couple of metres of space to get to a bush.  Sometimes they'll move a foot closer to the wall and still be in the open.  Sometimes they'll dash from bush to bush in a shadow of silent terror.  Sometimes they'll do their funky dance step and stand up, exposing themselves for all to see.  There is no way to really tell how it will work in any given situation. It often feels like you have no control over where they go.  You might want to "hayate" between some bushes to get a dude, and they are laid out in a line, indicating that's what you are meant to do, but when doing so, you'll just zip between the same two bushes with the camera reorienting itself so you are not sure where you're looking when you finish.

Occasionally if you string a hayate  for 2 or 3 zips in succession, you get an easy kill where you jump out of the bush, stealth kill a dude and hide in the bush without being seen.  I'm not sure how, as the kill isn't quiet and looks excessive, but it works right.  

Prime bush zipping possibility.  Later on there is level that requires you to zip to one bush which enables the bush ninja kill technique.

But then sometimes, you can do it after one zip.

While the moon indicates your hidden ability really well.  Movement and other abilities are not indicated at all.  Well, they are, its just, why do I have to wait for a prompt to tell me that he can grab the rafters?  Why can I stick in some corners (indicated with a prompt), but not other corners?  They all seem to consist of the same 90 degree angles...

I found this inconsistency extremely frustrating.  Why am I able to zip kill this guy, but this other is a no?  It doesn't really make much sense...

The story is also rubbish. The two main characters spend their entire time running away and towards their castle, getting fooled by a guy who is obviously a bad guy.  Its so corny and the end is total bollocks as well.  One level has you sneaking back into your own castle, which is full of guards, and you're encouraged to kill them all.  And the ending, aw jeebus, it's total bullshit.  I suspect they planned a Shadow Assassins 2 along the lines somewhere, but they obviously didn't look very well at 

a) the gameplay.

b) the family friendly console they were putting this on. 

You also seem to be set to go out and kill everyone in your way.  One level has a not ninja lady (ie usually an innocent who you'd try to avoid killing) that you can take out with no penalty, as I mentioned before, Rikimaru plows though his own castle killing guards with no remorse at all and this is all fine.

The enemies are repeated adnauseum and they all have the good old gravelly deep, serious voices that seemed to be VERY popular at that time.  In fact, it sounds like they employed maybe two people to do all the voice work for the entire game.  

Story and voice acting aside though, I did mostly enjoy the game and approve of the "visibility" meter (the moon).  I also think the level design and forcing you to sneak about corners and be  really careful about how you approach each section is a good idea.  It definitely feels more guided and refined as to how one should play the game.  It's just a shame that your ninjas feel to clunky to control, with their slow movement and insistence on button prompts for everything.

I also like that depending on the level, you can skip a sword fight;  For the last level you have to kill a particular character who is calmly sitting in a burning room in a burning castle (!),  I managed to coax them out of their room by throwing a grenade at an armoured bad guy and then waiting for the target to get up and look around, then I chucked another grenade at the target. Boom, down. Cut scene ensues.

I suspect, since they had a sword, I'd be forced to have a terrible sword fight with them had I not blown them up.  Things like that I like.  This guy below was the one.  When I went to get this screenshot, he actually walked into a burning piece of floor and died rolling on the floor on fire.  Glorious.

Sitting calmly in this room is fine, everything is fine.

While I'm glad I played it and finished it, I don't see myself going back to it like I want to do with Wrath of Heaven and Fatal Shadows.  I think if improved, it could work well and wouldn't mind seeing some parts of it adapted for other Tenchu games, but more of the same game? No thanks.

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