Tenchu 2: Birth of the Assassins
(Activision for the PlayStation)
by Eric Johnson
Tenchu 2: Birth of the Assassins is the disappointing prequel to one of my all-time favorite games, Tenchu, which came out two years ago. The original takes place in feudal Japan and has you running Ninja errands, which basically means sneaking around and performing hits for your shogun – a stealthy little courier of death. It’s great because the enemies are smart, the pacing is perfect, the concept is simple, and sneaking around adds a tremendous sense of tension and payoff that kept me coming back for a year after I initially finished it.
Tenchu is a three-dimensional action/adventure game that places you in the shoes of a Ninja assassin during the violent civil wars that ripped through fourteenth century Japan (the same time period depicted in the PC strategy epic, Shogun Total War). Taking on the role of one of the three Ninjas that serve local Daimyo (land holder) Lord Gohda, you act as hired killer and courier in a culture that managed to raise assassination and subterfuge to an art form. Ninja are hardly unstoppable killing machines: in a one-on-one fight they can hold their own, but they’re completely screwed if outnumbered. Your best friends are the shadows, and the more you stick to them, the longer you’ll last. Survival means a lot of sneaking, peeking, and zipping from place to place with the help of a cool grappling hook that might seem more appropriate in the Spider-Man game than this one. To enhance your awareness of the situation, there’s a sensor next to your health meter that alerts you to the presence and mental state of adjacent individuals. The basic premise is rather simple: get from point A to point B, kill if you have to, but it’s more important to remain unseen. The enemy is smart, perceptive, and suffers from a bizarre form of ADD that makes them calm down rather quickly after being attacked. But their intelligence makes the game challenging and occasionally breathtaking. Sometimes as you sneak up on a man, he’ll see something but not identify it as a threat. As you stand still, your thumping heartbeat can be felt through vibrations in the controller. If he sees you and attacks or goes about his business, the experience of stalking your prey like a panther is completely engrossing, as is the payoff when you saunter up and slit his throat.
All of these elements are brought to the prequel, as are the obscenely jagged graphics, stupendous sound, and beautiful music. So its still a great game when you’re immersed in it, but there are flaws in the plot, presentation, and level design.
Among the issues that I have, the most difficult to ignore is that more levels have been stuffed into the game at the expense of quality. In the original, an assault on a rival warlord takes place in a completely rendered castle. You begin on the outside, and the path you choose is totally up to you. In contrast, rescuing the daughter of Lord Ghoda from a burning castle in the prequel begins with you already inside the palace, and the resulting mission is far more linear.
A second grave error involves the decision to make this game a prequel with Ninjas being depicted as macrocephallic adolescents rather than full grown adults. The resulting character development seems inane and childish. Why would one of feudal Japan’s most powerful Warlords entrust fourteen-year-old apprentices with such vital intelligence-gathering missions?
Character control has been changed somewhat as well. The ubiquitous grappling hook that could get you out of just about any jam in the original is now rather difficult to use. Fighting has also been slightly modified, making it considerably more difficult to engage an enemy at an angle to you. The subsequent gap in your defenses can easily get you killed by the lowliest guard and jacks up the frustration level of trying to complete a mission. Finally, many of the missions now take place during the day, a really lame development as it casts a blaring spotlight on the game’s graphic shortcomings. These problems will not seem as bad to those who’ve not played the original, but for me, it seriously compromised what could have been a great game.