Replay Value: 10
I guess it is time I confessed: I am a stealth junkie. Some people dig sports games, some people love shooters, but not me. I get down by jumping out of the shadows and snapping necks. The sub genre of stealth action has really taken off in the past 5 years, with hit titles like Metal Gear Solid and Thief getting a lot of praise and attention. However, there is another franchise that has been lurking in the shadows since 1998. Tenchu tells the story of ninja assassins in feudal Japan, putting you in hostile environments with nothing but your sword and your wits to get you through. The first two installments of Tenchu were fairly popular, though not nearly as big as other games in the genre. In Wrath of Heaven, developer K2 pulled out all the stops to create a superb sequel that excels in every aspect.
In Wrath of Heaven, you take on the role of two ninjas named Rikimaru and Ayame, each with their own unique story revolving around the same events. After picking your character, you'll set off on your quest, which begins with the mysterious disappearance of young village women throughout the land. However, the story in Wrath of Heaven is rather disjointed, rarely making sense. All you really need to know, though, is that there are a bunch of bad guys out there, and only you can stop them.
Graphically, Tenchu is very good looking, and while not one of the best titles on the Playstation 2 from a visual perspective, it certainly holds its own, sporting loads of atmosphere that really immerse you in the world of feudal Japan. You'll come across forests, villages, cemeteries, castles, caverns, and more, and each has a unique atmosphere. Some of the levels in particular really shine, however, with incredibly artistic weather effects. For instance, the Bamboo Forest level doesn't just look like a snowy place, it actually feels cold; you can almost see it in the air, with the way the developers layered certain surfaces with a subtle bluish tint. In Ronin Village, the rain pours down unrelentingly, creating puddles of mud and pools of water, with leaves floating on the breeze all around you.
There are some visual drawbacks in Tenchu, though. While Rikimaru, Ayame, and most of the main characters in the game look very good, some of the enemies and support characters not only fail to fit in with the overall design scheme, they also look quite poor. There are also some aliasing issues, but it's not so bad as to detract from the overall presentation. All in all, Tenchu is a remarkably good-looking game.
However, it's not the graphics that make this game stand out. It's the amazingly smooth and fun gameplay that will keep you coming back for more. Fans of stealth action will feel right at home in Wrath of Heaven, as it utilizes the same basic premise as games like Splinter Cell and Metal Gear Solid: stay in the shadows, strike without warning. Every level in this game is full of bad guys, ranging from demons to ninjas to undead priests, and they're all waiting to rip you to shreds. Knowing this, you'll have to rely on your superior ninja skills to come out alive.
The one big departure in the Tenchu series, compared to other stealth games, is the time period. You don't have nifty gizmos like radar, scopes, and sniper rifles. You do, however, have shurikens, blowguns, smoke bombs, caltrops, and more. You can also unlock special items such as magic spells, tiger traps, mines, etc. Overall, there are 30 different items and weapons in Wrath of Heaven, and while most aren't really necessary, they are all quite fun to use. Of course, being a ninja, you can't lug around 900 items, and so Tenchu limits you to just 15 items per mission. You can pick and choose what you want, but you'll never be able to take everything you want with you, forcing you to rely on your sword, your speed, and your stealth for most of the wet work.
Staying out of sight is really important in Tenchu, and fortunately, the gameplay cooperates, allowing you a plethora of moves to aid you. You can slide along walls, hang from ledges, duck, roll, and much, much more. You also have a grappling hook, which is easily the most important item you'll carry. With this, you can reach almost any place you want very quickly, giving you more flexibility than most stealth-based games. Learning these moves is important, but also incredibly fun. You can also earn bonus techniques in each mission, such as the ability to hang from ceilings or use your grappling hook as a weapon.
The biggest part of Tenchu's gameplay, and by far the most intriguing, is the 'stealth kill'. If you are successful in sneaking up on an enemy, you can execute a stealth kill, eliminating them in one swift move. Each character has their own unique stealth kill, and the animation for it is different depending on what angle you approach your prey from. All the stealth kill animations are extremely well done, and extremely graphic. You'll see heads severed, bowels eviscerated, limbs broken, and more. Every time you successfully execute a stealth kill, your Kanji Meter goes up. Once you acquire 9 kanji, you unlock that level's special skill. Not only are stealth kills the easiest way to eradicate your enemy, they are also crucial to your success. If you draw too much attention to yourself, you'll wind up in a losing battle in no time, as enemies will swarm in from all over the place.
To aid you in your stealthy endeavors, Tenchu employs a system known as the Ki Meter, which is a visual representation of the probability that you will be seen. It doesn't pinpoint enemies on a map, or anything of that sort; it's just a circular meter that expands outward the closer you come to being spotted. If you get too close, the Ki Meter will show a "!", noting that you have been seen, but not yet assessed as an enemy. If the meter shows a "!!", you have been assessed as a threat and are in big trouble indeed. There is a third indicator, "!?", meaning that someone has heard but not seen you, and is on the lookout. While the Ki Meter works really well for the most part, it often goes into that "!?" phase of warning for no reason, or you'll find you've been spotted even when the Ki Meter is really low.
The only thing better than the gameplay in Tenchu is the replay value this game offers. With a total of three available characters, you can play the story mode from a fresh perspective multiple times without losing interest. In addition to that, each mission has three different layouts to choose from. After beating a particular mission, you can go back and do it again, only this time the guards and certain geographical areas are laid out differently, forcing you to find a different path to your goal. In other words, you can play the story mode 9 times over and still have a fresh experience every time through.
In addition to the multiple story modes for each character, there is also a multiplayer option with two separate modes. You can engage in one on one death matches with your friends, or team up for some serious co-op action. The Co-op mode is especially fun, since you can execute double stealth kills together if you work right as a team. Not many games like this provide that kind of replay. In fact, aside from the Tenchu series, I can't think of a single action game that is as deep as Wrath of Heaven.
The controls in Tenchu are probably it's biggest weakness, though that isn't saying much as the controls are quite steady for the most part. However, using certain items such as the blowgun can be problematic at times, especially when trying to nail a target from a long distance. All the projectile weapons have distance drop, although the level of drop is not consistent, leading to lots of wasted ammo in certain scenarios. Also, moving through tight spaces is a real pain, because you're forced to use both analog sticks whenever crouched, and the two sticks don't really work well together at all. Fortunately, instances in which control becomes a problem are few and far between, so any problems you may encounter shouldn't be too big a deal.
The sound in Wrath of Heaven is above average, if only a little. The tracks in the game are the usual blend of Japanese melodies, ranging from woodwinds to strings, with a few heavy metal riffs thrown in here and there. Each level has it's own track, and most of them do a fairly good job at enhancing the atmosphere, even though the songs loop, and not very smoothly. The voices in the game are a bright spot as well, as most gamers will recognize a lot of the voice actors in Tenchu, such as Cam Clarke, Quinton Flynne, Barry Dennen, and Jennifer Hale, all of whom starred in Metal Gear Solid 2. These veterans provide a lot of authenticity to the acting, giving credible performances that compliment the game nicely.
It seems the sub genre of stealth action is getting a lot more attention as the years pass. However, it's always nice to see the father of modern day stealth gaming make a return appearance, and a damn good one at that. With great graphics, amazingly fun gameplay, and tons of value, Wrath of Heaven is a must have for any Playstation 2 library, and anyone who was a fan of the action in games like Metal Gear Solid or Splinter Cell will feel right at home with Tenchu: Wrath of Heaven.