This is one of the hardest games I’ve ever played. It’s one of those games that manages to be both difficult and irresistible though, pretty much on par with the equally difficult Shinobi series on the Sega Mega Drive, only 3D, and ridiculously violent, but pleasurably so. There are a number of games in the series but whilst later games became unnecessarily complex, this was a perfect game for the time, offering something new and perhaps even unexpected, it was a ballsy game and actually an accurate representation of Feudal Japan.
Tenchu Stealth Assassins (PS1, 1998)
An action-adventure and stealth game, Tenchu: Stealth Assassins was created by Aquire and Activision and reinvigorated the stealth genre with its portrayal of Japanese history and mythology. One of the first stealth heavy games to implement the martial arts and Ninjitsu, it also allowed the player to choose from two different protagonists. Rikimaru is the cover character and by the games own account the main focus of the series lore. He is the servant and protector of Lord Gohda, and has obtained the sixth sense allowing special and unique vision. Then there’s Ayame, the loyal friend of Lord Gohda’s daughter, Princess Kiku. They are so close that they are sister like, however her obligation is also to protect Lord Gohda. Now, Lord Gohda is the leader and royal of the Feudal Japan setting. He has a counsel named Sekiya who provides the training of his protectors Rikimaru and Ayame.
The game’s plot is probably quite self-explanatory at this point, but it begins with Rikimaru and Ayame embarking on assigned quests, set by Lord Gohda. Initially sent out to end the corruption and wrong doing within their Lords province, Rikimaru and Ayame are soon faced with demonic sorcerer Lord Mei-Oh who wants to kill Gohda and take control, he tries to do this by unleashing his demon warrior Onikage whose sole purpose is to wreak havoc throughout the province. It becomes a battle of skill with both sides racing to make the first strike and the decisive blow. This is game that fully captures the atmosphere and aura of the Feudal Japan era, faithfully delivering a story that pulls you in with its emphasis on honour and loyalty, and the necessity of both good and evil, and their use od extreme violence to either restore lost honour and shame a fallen foe. It’s deep with lineage and accurate environments to traverse, and the story makes full use of these factors.
As far as gameplay goes, there’s quite a bit to divulge in so we’ll start with the basics, now the game heavily relies on the element of surprise, a steady hand and solid patience. Each level takes place at night and so is shrouded in darkness with only what’s immediately in front of you visible, you have to advance forward to reveal more of the area, this means being strategic in your approach as you’ll be able to hear enemies but won’t necessarily be able to see them until it’s too late to cover yourself, as far as the first level goes, dogs and guards are patrolling the area and you’ll have to rely on the rooftops to properly navigate your way around safely. Later levels introduce wildlife threats as you are exploring a wooded area in search of a captive ninja. The difficulty of the game increases with each level (of which there are 10) and mission goals range from executions to rescues to deliveries.
The choice between protagonists also requires a degree of thought as both have unique strengths and weaknesses, but also follow their own story arc, although completing the same missions, and and an interesting addition but perfectly precise detail is the fact that bosses will react differently in their dialogue and approach to battle depending on the gender of ninja you choose, so the appeal in playing through with both characters is certainly there. Rikimaru is the oldest of the two, armed with a Ninjato, he is considerably stronger than Ayame but also relatively slower. Ayame wields two Tantô, and whilst faster also knows more combo attacks which actually does rather well at masking the weaker power of her strikes. Each character is equipped with a grappling hook which allows for smooth transitions to higher vantage points or an alternative route of escape in tight spots. As far as inventory items go, there’s a healthy number of options without becoming overwhelming, with throwing knives, smoke bombs, caltrops, poisoned rice cakes, healing potions, grenades and mines all allowing for a variation of plans and styles, the selections don’t encourage an offensive or defensive play style with each item being equally useful but also more appropriate in certain situations than others so they never become overpowered and you can’t rely on these items to provide a solution to each and every encounter you face for a number of reasons. Number one is that you must select only a few before each mission attempt, and with only a few available per mission, the need to collect more throughout levels is essential in replenishing your stocks, you’ll need to be smart with your distribution and apply trial and error to your choices so that they may best serve you in your next attempt.
Before you begin the main game you are provided with a tutorial that not only tests your abilities in jumping, combat and the utilisation of your equipment, but will also set the tone for your level of challenge going forward as your overall performance will be graded. These grades are Thug, Novice, Ninja, Master Ninja and Grand Master, and depending on who you have picked to play as, either Lord Gohda or Princess Kiku will evaluate your performance and bestow you with your rank. If you don’t fare particularly well on your first attempt, the training level and all main game levels can be replayed an unlimited number of times, providing you with plenty incentive to return to previous missions and improve your rank, a perfect score is rewarded with incredibly powerful load out supplies, such as magic scrolls that allow for attacks that call upon elemental influence, such as fire and ice, and armour that allows you to absorb more damage, there are more efficient toxins that incapacitate enemies with little noise or threat to your visibility.
Player movement is different depending on your chosen character, Rikimaru is slower and less agile, requiring a greater level of control and discipline in stealth when within the proximity of enemies. Ayame is nimble and moves with a lot more fluidity, moving from rooftop to rooftop with ease and circling enemies when in combat. As combat itself, Rikimaru is the more powerful and precise fighter, taking less strikes to kill an enemy and being a lot more durable. Ayame makes up for a lack of power in her attacks with a larger range of them, boasting a quicker and more varied offense, but being more prone to taking heavy damage in the thick of a physical battle. As far as actual control response and sensitivity, the controls in the game are spot on, the camera is very competent and allows for easier jumps and navigation through levels, combat feels intense, with large amounts of blood highlighting the brutality of the action, and also worth mentioning are the very memorable sounds for blood splatter, adding to the already wonderfully exaggerated gore.
Graphically the game holds up well, it’s nothing ground breaking for the time and actually is quite limited in some regards, but it serves its purpose and captures the Japanese landscape very well, some areas are genuinely beautiful whilst others provide an uncomfortable experience, dark and suspense driven. The audio is great, sword fights sound awesome, and the voice acting deserves a positive word, with each character being believable in their role. The soundtrack is fantastic and there are a number of tracks throughout the game that are worth listening too on their own, the boss battle music is phenomenal and the games intro music, with the video package complimenting it is iconic. A beautiful piece of music that encapsulates the very feel of the game before it has even begun. The games cut scenes are spread out well, one at the end of each level and an extended one for completing the game, each cut scene dips into the characters personality whilst also revealing small pieces of their backstories, but still retain their mystique.
It’s a fantastic game that blends stealth with action and adventure and at the time was something completely new, never before had a game explored the genre in the way Tenchu did, and rarely was a game so difficult to complete whilst still being a joy to play, the reward was in the challenge itself, at a time where most games were straight forward and totally linear, came a game that provided controversial violence, varied environments and challenges and the need to explore and master a level before becoming a Grand Master and reaping the rewards of elite equipment. It’s a game that took commitment and the ability to constantly adapt, no two sessions were the same and it’s attention to its source absolutely paid dividends.
Overall Rating – 8/10 – Tenchu Stealth Assassins is a wonderful game. It suffers from being a bit harsh at times and sometimes even ridiculous, but the game had charm in abundance and provided the player with a genuine challenge that you just won’t get in games anymore, and it is an experience that I personally will never forget.
So there’s my revisiting of Tenchu Stealth Assassins. There weren’t many games that came harder than that one, and chances are unfortunately there never will be again, but it’s an essential for me and will always have a place in my library.
Image Credit – Aquire