Once a staple of the 8- and 16-bit eras of gaming, the ninja fell out of favor during the reign of Sony's PlayStation. Why remains a mystery, but it seemed like the ninja game had gone the way of the ninja film (a subgenre that was quite popular with B-movie fans in the mid-1980s).
Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, the ninja game popped back to life in the current generation. Gamers have been treated to updated versions of old favorites like Shinobi and Ninja Gaiden (both of which were strangely absent from the 32-bit era), as well countless other games that feature the masked masters of assassination in supporting roles. In fact, this generation has seen something of a ninja game renaissance.
The ninja weren't entirely forgotten during the 32-bit era, though. One game, Tenchu: Stealth Assassins not only brought stealthy ninja action to a new generation of gamers, it helped define the fledgling stealth gaming genre-a kind of game that would become wildly popular on consoles in the wake of this title and Metal Gear Solid.
Tenchu spawned two sequels, the most recent of which appeared on the PlayStation 2 with the subtitle Wrath of Heaven. Not wanting to be left out, the Xbox recently acquired its own port of that game, retitled Tenchu: Return from Darkness. While the titles may be different, the games are largely the same-flaws and all.
Return from Darkness is another stealth-action hybrid game. This essentially means players will alternate between playing through sequences where they must sneak around without being detected and areas where they simply must unleash their formidable killing skills on everything in sight. It's not something gamers haven't seen before and unfortunately, seen done better.
One of the best things about Return from Darkness is the story. While the plot isn't anything amazing in its own right, the way the game weaves it together is quite entertaining. The title features three characters to choose from (the third is unlockable) and rather than have each character running through the same areas and scenarios, each character gets their own unique perspective on the events unfolding in the game. Occasionally, the plots overlap at major points, but this is one of the few games where playing through as all three different characters is actually a beneficial part of the experience.
Also on the cool side of the ledger is the series' infamous "stealth kills." Sneaking up on an enemy allows players to execute a specially scripted kill of epically gruesome proportions-similar to Manhunt, only not quite so gross and with a ninja. These stealth kills just never get old for some reason-I enjoyed them as much late in the game as I did early on.
Another nice touch is that many things in the environment can actually alert guards to the player's presence. For example, a cat in the path may seem fairly innocuous, but if said cat reacts to your presence, things can get really bad, really fast. Stealth games continue to evolve, and touches like this are certainly a step in the right direction.
How sad is it then that Return from Darkness counters every one of these positives with a glaring negative that ultimately detracts from the experience?
If I had a dollar for every time I've had to mention a subpar camera system in a review, I could retire now. Tenchu's camera is particularly annoying since the game's stealth mechanics place a premium on being able to see. Cheap death abounds because the player can't get the camera to cooperate in the most important situations. This is not a good thing. The camera problems turn out to be particularly noticeable while in stealth mode, wherein the controls become extremely stiff and unforgiving. Switching to the first-person mode is a nice idea-except that you can't move while in it.
Just as disappointing is the enemy A.I. (artificial intelligence). Enemies in Return from Darkness are dumb. They're not so bad at visually spotting a character, but when it comes to chasing a spotted ninja down, they suck. I lost count of the number of times I was spotted and then moved a few feet away to a nearby corner, ducked around it, and conveniently lost my pursuers. Because of this, the game lacks tension. The best stealth games are intense affairs because being spotted means facing nearly insurmountable odds as punishment. Tenchu destroys this by allowing players to easily escape their pursuers whenever they screw up-making taking a cautious approach relatively pointless.
While Return from Darkness is primarily a port of the PS2 version, the game did get a few tweaks. As is normally the case, the Xbox version's graphics look a lot sharper than the PS2 release. They're not exactly breathtaking, but they're serviceable. The Xbox version also sports some online modes, although actually finding other people online to play with seems to be a real challenge (I looked once, didn't see anyone, and never looked again-this seems to be a recurring theme with a lot of the Xbox Live enabled games that aren't straight-up online titles). All in all, though, the tweaks don't really help the title rise above its numerous issues.
Perhaps the biggest problem with Tenchu: Return from Darkness is one of timing. Ninja fans are already flailing away at Ninja Gaiden with its slick action and stunning visuals. Stealth fans have picked up the newest Splinter Cell and the port of Manhunt-two games that do stealth better than this title. Because of this, Return from Darkness is a "me too" title in a sea filled with infinitely better games. Had the Xbox port released at the same time as the PS2 version, things might have been different, but nearly a year later, this title is already showing its age. Tenchu: Return from Darkness is a game that might have been better served by just staying in the shadows.
A film critic by trade, specializing in Euro-horror, cult exploitation, and Asian action cinema, Mike has written reviews for a diverse group of print and online publications. He covers horror news, movies, books, and games at TheHorrorGeek.com and Horrorsquad.com and spent two seasons as The Horror Geek on Comedy Central's pop-culture game show, Beat the Geeks.
Mike's childhood was spent playing videogames any time he got a chance. His parents had a Pong console and his grandmother had an Atari 2600, where Mike cultivated his skills by playing hour upon hour of games like Space Invaders, Berserk, and Asteroids. From those early experiences Mike learned one thing: he loved games.
In 1999, Mike became a staff reviewer at Cinescape Magazine's website where he spent a year learning the craft of game criticism. After internal changes led to Mike leaving Cinescape in late 2000, he joined up with RPGFan in 2001 and spent several years writing reviews for them. Happy, but looking for an opportunity to expound on a wider variety of titles, Mike joined GameCritics.com and hopes to help Chi, Dale, and the rest of the GC staff bring a higher level of respect to the field of game criticism.