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Tenchu: Wrath of Heaven

Review By:  J. Michael Neal

 
Developer:   K2
Publisher:   Activision
# Of Players:   1-2
Genre:   Action/Stealth
ESRB:   Mature
Online:   No
Accessories:   Memory Card
Date Posted:   5-7-03

It’s been an unusual year so far for the PS2. Highly anticipated titles, like The Getaway, Devil May Cry 2, and to some extent Xenosaga, have disappointed many, while sleeper titles like Dark Cloud 2 and Guilty Gear X2 have come out of no where and delivered some of the best gaming in years. Well, it looks like Tenchu: Wrath of Heaven has done nothing to buck this trend, as it too falls drastically short of expectations and will please all but the most diehard Tenchu fans.

Wrath of Heaven is the third game in the Tenchu series and the first to appear on the Playstation 2, however it doesn’t appear that way. The problem with Wrath of Heaven is it suffers from the sort of problems that a longstanding series should have shaken off by now. Horrible camera system, flaky controls, brutally unforgiving AI, sloppy two-player, and outdated save system are all the sort of problems that can be excused in a first effort, but are unacceptable in what should be a highly polished franchise by now.

If you loved every Tenchu up until this point, Wrath of Heaven probably won’t disappoint you. It still has all the rooftop running, throat-slitting, rice-poisoning, ninja goodness you’ve grown to expect, but with a visual facelift. Rikimaru and Ayame are once again the focal point of the game, and you’ll probably be overjoyed when you get your hands on the new playable character and discover his “unique” way of killing people (let me just say, “protect your neck”). Additions like the ability to pick up any dropped enemy weapon and new items for all your stealth killing needs will probably just be icing on the cake for you. However, those of us who aren’t as easily pleased will find much to dislike in this game.

First and foremost is the absolutely atrocious camera. It is quite possibly the worst camera ever seen on the Playstation 2. It makes 90% of the game utterly unplayable and your “control” over it seems only illusionary. It never lets you see what you want to see, and even worst, never lets you see what you need to see. The frustration gained from constantly fighting against the camera alone is enough to make all but the most hardcore Tenchu fans turn off the game in disgust. Anyone familiar with Splinter Cell will long for a completely manual camera.

While nothing else in the game is as bad as the camera, a few things come close. The controls, for example, particularly while trying to huge walls, are incredibly twitchy and will often cause you to reveal yourself to the enemy unintentionally. Leaning against walls were done much better in Splinter Cell, and moving along them was done much, much better in Sons of Liberty. See, crotch and lean are both handled with the same button, but you are far more likely to crotch instead of lean, even if you are pressing up against a wall. At best it can take two tries to finally hug a wall, but there have been occasions where it’s taken a good six seconds. In a game where one bad move can cost you the entire mission and a second of bad judgment can mean the difference between life and death, this is unacceptable. Not to mention when you do finally lean against a wall moving along it is bizarrely disorienting. Sometimes if you press right on the analog stick you will move along the way, but other times you will let go of the wall and run to the right. I don’t even need to tell you how much trouble that will get you in. Games like Wrath of Heaven and the Getaway just go to show you that adding intuitive sneaking to a game isn’t as easy as you would think.

Being seen by enemies and ruining a mission wouldn’t be so bad if the game had a decent mid-level saving system. Many don’t see a lack of one as being a flaw, but I do. They feel that it makes the game more challenging, which it does, but the game should at least have the option of saving your progress mid-mission, even if only in some controlled form. Splinter Cell had a checkpoint system, and Hitman 2 and Solider of Fortune 2 gave players a limited number of saves per level, whose quantity depended on how high you set the difficulty level, and those games are plenty challenging. A save feature would be a godsend for those gamers who don’t feel like replaying a 45 minute mission from the beginning for the 5th time just because some guard caught them by surprise because he was obscured by the appalling camera. In fact, including an in-game save feature could give the developers and opportunity to offer players a bonus if they finish a mission without saving, just like the bonuses you get for finishing a level without being seen and such.

The single-player story mode isn’t the only source of frustration, though, as the multiplayer is equally flawed. In this case it isn’t a lousy save feature, but poor planning that hurts this mode. Although there are characters and maps to unlock from the single-player game to use in the multiplayer, the whole mode still feels sort of tacked on, like little thought was put into it. It suffers from an even worst camera than the single-player game, since the screen is now split in half, and no modification was made to the playing mechanics to make it intuitive for the multiplayer experience. Longtime fans of the series, though, will probably enjoy it just as much as the two-player in the past games, but with such incredible multiplayer games on the market as WWF Smackdown: Shut Your Mouth, War of the Monsters, TimeSplitters 2, and so on, its hard to justify spending any time on this mode.

Luckily for everyone Tenchu isn’t an ugly game. It’s not the prettiest game on the block, but it has a nice style, which goes a long way. It even has a few bright spots, like the cool glint of Rikimaru’s blade or Ayame’s character model. It does, however, have some issues that need addressing. For one, natural textures (like brick walls, rocks, and grass) are horribly blocky and repetitive, and there are also some serious frame rate issues if you try to experiment with certain weapons (try throwing two smoke bombs while three or more enemies are on screen and watch your system grind to a halt). Overall, though, the game has a nice look that goes a long way when a game has this many strikes against it.

While the visuals are nice, audio is probably this game’s strongest asset. It has a nice soundtrack, some cool effects, and fitting voice acting. Fitting meaning cheesy, but cheesy like dubbed martial arts films cheesy so it actually works in the game’s favor. But any game with a traditional Japanese soundtrack always gets a plus in my book, although they could have left out some of the electronica flares. Breakbeats and shamisens do not mix well. Just ask Way of the Samurai.

Too bad the AI isn’t as likeable as the visuals and audio, though. In the beginning of the game enemies are dumb as posts. You can be doing an Irish jig two inches behind them and they are completely oblivious. However, later in the game enemies have the ability to see you from across the map, or hear you from several yards away, and when combined with the bad camera and flaky controls, means the game is much harder than it should be near the end of the game.

One of the most noticeable problems with the game, however, even above and beyond the camera, is how the game “feels”. This is something much harder to quantize, but it is very important to how much you enjoy a game. In order for a game like this to “feel” right, killing enemies has to “feel” right, and in Tenchu, it’s all about the stealth kills. However, its something about stealth killing that just isn’t as fun as it should be. Creeping up behind someone, covering their mouth, and quietly slitting their throat should be the most satisfying kill ever seen in a game, but it isn’t. Neither is ripping their heart out, or breaking both arms before you finally snap their neck. Why? It could be because there is no skill required for a stealth kill. You can be as far as three paces away from them, at just about any angle, and even get spotted right before you execute, and you can still get a stealth kill with a single push of a button. You get no satisfaction from that. There is no sense of accomplishment after you discover just how easy they are to pull off. Its not like the other stealth-based games out there (Splinter Cell, Hitman 2, Metal Gear Solid 2) were quietly taking out an enemy requires patients, skill, and expert timing. It could also have something to do with the character animations and jarringly over-the-top gore that makes their deaths seem more cartoon-ish than realistic. Or, it could just be that there is no level of control over exactly how you’re going to kill them. Regardless, stealth killing is something that is only fun for the few four or five times. After that you don’t even feel it.

If the killing in this game felt better, other problems, like the camera, AI, and lack of saving, could probably be overlooked for the sake of fun but in this case... well, maybe not the camera, but at least the saving… anyway, they could probably be overlooked for the sake of fun, but in this case putting up with all the game’s flaws isn’t worth it. Die-hard fans will probably find much to like. There seems to be much replayability in the single-player game with three main characters, each with their own story, multiple layouts per level, and many skills to unlock as rewards for sneaky behavior, and die-hard fans with friends will probably enjoy the multiplayer as well, but anyone else will find the game more of a choir than a pleasure and little incentive to even bother playing through. It’s just too many great games out there to spend precious time and money on a game as flawed and unsatisfying as this. And when a series that is three titles old, and spans two consoles, shows the kinds of problems Wrath of Heaven does, problems that are usually polished away by now, it is disappointing. When you look at the sort of progression a game like Hitman 2 made, or TimeSplitters 2 made, or Dark Cloud 2 made, between just the first and second title, it’s hard to excuse Activision for letting a series like Tenchu remain so unevolved.

HIGHS:

  • Nice visual style.
  • Cool soundtrack.
  • Everyone loves ninjas.
  • It has multiplayer…

LOWS:

  • … multiplayer sucks…
  • … so does the camera…
  • … as does the lack of mid-game save feature…
  • … and the controls…
  • … and the brutal AI.

FINAL VERDICT:

Wrath of Heaven is just more of the same for the Tenchu series. If you are a total ninja/Tenchu/anime nut you will probably love this game and everything about it, and easily overlook its many, crippling problems. Everyone else, however, will probably find the game frustrating and unrewarding, and would do better spending their time and money on something less flawed.

Overall Score: 6.5

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