Tenchu: Fatal Shadows
From Software's Tenchu: Fatal Shadows attempts to better past efforts, but does it succeed?
The Tenchu series could be the videogame equivalent of a Bond movie. A little bit of stealth, plenty of gadgets, a few pretty ladies and... a formulaic structure. So far, we've had two Tenchu games from Acquire, two from K2, and now we have one from From (fromfromfrom). Yet whilst that formulaic structure appears to be quite flexible in terms of delivery for the Bond films, with Tenchu: Fatal Shadows what we have is the same as what we have always had.
The first Tenchu game was good because it was so different to what had come before. It was a game that, in Japan at least, was arguably the spearhead for the whole stealth genre - pre-dating even the mighty Metal Gear Solid. Sure it was a bit rough around the edges, but as a pioneer that was forgivable. The inevitable sequel followed the obvious 'bigger, faster, more' route, but with the same rough edges still evident (and an overload of boss battles) it soured the taste for some, who subsequently moved on to other games in the now more established stealth genre. Original developer Acquire gave up the ghost and, for a time, all was quiet on the Eastern front.
A generation passed, and Tenchu was revived by developer K2 with the release of Wrath of Heaven on the PS2, and the remixed Return From Darkness for Xbox. These were really just fan service games though, as although some nice features were added (such as an interesting co-op mode and a ton of new moves), other series staples such as the unhelpful camera and dim-witted AI marked it out as one for the fans only. No real progress had been made.
Now a further developer jump to From Software, and a whole new dev team has to learn the engine anew and... there has been progress (hurrah!) ...but backwards as well (boo!). Even for long time fans this game should be considered as Tenchu lite; no Rikimaru, the co-op mode gone and still no technical progress. To be fair, the core premise is still enjoyable despite the long time issues with the series; the empowerment of being a silent assassin bounding between rooftops is a tangibly different feeling from any other stealth game out there. It's just that most people played this game about ten years ago, and have moved on to far more sophisticatedly developed examples of the genre - Splinter Cell, for starters.
Some specifics then: character models for the main characters look pretty good (Ayame's hair has never looked better), but the environments are still on the drab side. There is a fair bit of diversity in them which helps matters some, but nothing original for the series. Previous Tenchu games have already covered these same environments, exploring bear caves was covered in the first one, but to be fair they are representative of feudal era Japan.
The music is still of a very high standard - thankfully no change there then - yet the rest of the audio is still sub par. Sound effects just feel like they have been overly compressed, with a muted tinny quality, and the English language voiceover work is definitely not the worst we've heard but it isn't particularly good either. There is an option for the original Japanese speech with subs, but not selectable from the outset. Why on earth not? Enemy AI and camera control remain totally unimproved and when stealth killing fails you, the combat engine - while enhanced - is still inadequate.
This title isn't likely to bring any new fans to the series, which is a shame as it is probably now the best introduction to it, being a back-to-basics approach. Anyone who does play it can expect 18 levels (though some share the same map) of fairly enjoyable ninja 'em-up fun.
Each level can be played with up to three different enemy layouts and on three difficulty levels. There are some unlockable extras (boss fight time trial, movies, sound test mode), but nothing of great consequence.
Hopefully now though, the series has found a more permanent home, with Fatal Shadows being the first tentative toe in the water. That there is already a new Tenchu game in development for PSP is a good sign, indeed with proposed multiplayer and level editing features. Let's hope this is a newfound stability for the series - no more developer hopping - something from which it can be evolved and revitalised, and catch up with the competition.