Back in '98 there was what could only be described as a "stealth boom." Three games came out that year that, apparently by coincidence, all featured sneaking as their main gameplay and subsequently ushered in the age of stealth gaming. Metal Gear Solid, with its military espionage theme and arcade-style gameplay, is probably the most famous of the bunch. Thief: The Dark Project, with its eccentric steam-punk aesthetic and meticulous level design, is probably the least. The third one, however, falls right in between the two. Tenchu: Stealth Assassins, was more complex than Metal Gear yet more accessible than Thief, and, while it garnered neither the popularity of the former nor the critical acclaim of the latter, managed to gain a cult following as one of the better examples of stealth-based gameplay on the market.

I recently had a discussion with someone who claimed that Tenchu was the greatest stealth game ever. It isn't. However, there is something that both the original Tenchu as well as its new PlayStation 2 incarnation, Tenchu: The Wrath Of Heaven, do better than Metal Gear, Thief and the many games they have inspired in the five years since their release. They provide concise, satisfying gaming experiences than can be picked up and put down comfortably. Unlike these more ambitious games that demand steep time and energy commitments, Tenchu actually works in small doses yet somehow manages to seem no less satisfying in retrospect.

Wrath Of Heaven is actually the third game in the Tenchu series, following the original Tenchu and its prequel, Tenchu 2: Birth Of The Assassins, on PlayStation. As before, the player can choose between two characters, Rikumaru and Ayame, who are ninja in service of a feudal lord. Unlike Tenchu 2 which featured a seamless, adventure game-like structure, Wrath Of Heaven brings the series back to the mission-based design of the original game. The player can choose either character and play a series of self-contained missions. Although each character's abilities differ slightly (Rikumaru is stronger; Ayame faster) they have the same basic skills that the player can use to complete the level: a blade or some sort, a grappling hook, and an array of optional ninja items such as throwing stars, blow guns, etc. The goal of each level is different and involve anything from assassinating people to escaping prison. The means by which to achieve these ends, though, always involve the same basic behaviors: using your bag of tricks to sneak past and/or kill enemies as you progress through a level. At the level's end, the player is rated for their level of mastery at being a ninja, usually being awarded with special items for avoiding detection and killing efficiently.

This will all seem familiar to anyone who played the original Tenchu. In fact, the first thing players may notices is that Wrath Of Heaven could almost pass for a remake of Tenchu 1. Even its story, which begins with a mission to assassinate a corrupt merchant, at first appears to be identical to the first game. However, it isn't long before Wrath Of Heaven begins to distinguish itself as an engaging game in its own right.

There have been several improvements to the basic formula of the original game that raise it above being a simple rehash. The biggest is the addition of "ninja abilities" that Rikumaru and Ayame can learn. Each one corresponds to a level, and if the player successfully performs a certain number of stealth kills in that level, he/she gets a new ability added to his/her character's list of moves. This may not sound too exciting, but the trick is that these abilities are actually fairly substantial and fundamentally alter the way the game can be played. For example, the player might learn how to hang from the ceiling and drop onto unsuspecting enemies or master a kick that has significant strategic use in melee combat. All the abilities have actual, concrete uses that permanently broaden the player's vocabulary of actions. In other words, the player can actually make the gameplay expand to greater depth if they so choose. This makes for an experience that, while built on the same basic framework as Tenchu 1, feels fresh and interesting. Players will no doubt want to spend hours just trying to learn all the moves just to see what new and interesting ways they achieve mission goals.

Another big improvement is the melee combat. Unlike Tenchu 1, Wrath Of Heaven actually requires the player to fight at certain points. This is a good thing, since the combat engine is much more robust. With the addition of a lock-on function and a several more moves, the combat in Wrath Of Heaven doesn't seem like combat in a stealth game. Rather it has more the general feel and variety of a fighting game and provides a welcome compliment to the already polished stealth gameplay. Speaking of which, the stealth gameplay has some minor enhancements such as the addition of several more "stealth kills" which never fail to satisfy. Even though they are still essentially cut-scenes of your character killing someone, it is uncanny how much it feels like something you are doing with elegance and skill. This stems from the fact that the actual gameplay, the build up to this moment of silent attack, is so effective at creating tension. After you've spent several minutes following a guard, jumping from rooftop to rooftop, lurking in the shadows, the reward of a seeing a spectacular kill never fails to invoke a cathartic climax. This is what Tenchu 1 did beautifully, and it's just as effective here. Add to this the additional combat depth and you're practically got two games in one: a good fighting game, and a great stealth game.

There are, however, some things I'm ambivalent about in Wrath Of Heaven: the level design for one thing. In the original Tenchu the levels were big, sprawling environments that the player could choose to progress through in any fashion. If the level was a town, the whole town was one big area that the player could play around in. Tenchu 2 seemed to take this concept to an even greater extreme, opting for a world so huge that the PlayStation hardware couldn't effectively handle it. I remember thinking at the time I played Tenchu 2 that the series seemed to clearly be going in a direction of being more expansive in its level design, and all they needed to make the ambitious design philosophy of Tenchu 2 work was the PlayStation 2 hardware. This is why I find it puzzling that Wrath Of Heaven takes what would seem like the opposite approach. Rather expand on the free-exploration philosophy of its predecessors, the designers of Wrath Of Heaven have instead curiously design the levels in a maze-like fashion more akin to Tomb Raider. The result is places that often look realistic but otherwise sport the kind of obtuse logic only a game designer would impose on architecture. Houses and temples frequently seem like they were designed so that only a ninja with a grappling hook could get through them alive, and the few levels that do sport some more open environments to explore are always separated in to three or four major "areas" with load screens in between. Although all these levels are well-designed from the standpoint of providing compelling gameplay in terms of enemy placement, item placement, etc. (as well-designed as the original, I'd say) they lose the "this could be a real place" edge that was previously part of Tenchu's appeal.

Another odd problem with the game is the lack of graphical polish. To be fair, this really isn't a change from the rest of the series since both Tenchu 1 and 2 (especially 2) were never exceptional on a visual level. However, on PlayStation 2 the mistakes seem all the more sloppy and especially so when they infringe on the visual believability of the game. For example, when Rikumaru or Ayame's back is to a wall and their arm will sometimes stick out around the corner even though they are supposed to be sneaking, pretty much breaking any suspension of disbelief that they really wouldn't be seen in this situation. Fortunately, this doesn't affect the gameplay at all since enemies around the corner still don't actually notice you; however, it does tarnish the general ambiance of the game in ways that seem silly and could have easily been avoided with some more attention to detail.

These really are minor criticisms, though. At first I found it annoying that I was getting lost for the first time in a Tenchu game or that I had to pretend that my arms were invisible at times, but once I got the hang of using the map and began to realize how spot on the gameplay was regardless of how it looked, I had to admit it: this was a damn fun game. Even without the open-ended level design, it was every bit as absorbing as the first game was at its very best and then some. And because of its mission-based structure that allows for quick access to all unlocked levels, it became a very hard game to put down. If you get stuck on a mission there's always something else to do, such as going back to try and get a perfect rating on a previous mission or trying to get the special ninja abilities for each level. It's all brisk, concise, and consistently engaging. This is precisely what makes Tenchu: The Wrath Of Heaven so special. Although I have played games that explore the notion of stealth with much greater depth and creativity (Thief or more recently Splinter Cell and Hitman 2) and with much better commercial presentation (Metal Gear Solid 2; Sly Cooper) there's something about Tenchu's "pick-up and play" quality combined with its stylish aesthetic of deadly martial arts that remains uniquely appealing. If you ever wanted to feel the sinister high of being a superhuman assassin with animal-like physical prowess, Tenchu: The Wrath Of Heaven is the one and only game to play. Rating: 8.5 out of 10.

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