Title  : Tenchu 2: Birth of the Stealth Assassins
Platforms  : Sony PlayStation
Publisher  : Activision
ESRB Rating  : Mature
Game Rating  : 8.1
Review by  : Ken Gagne

Tenchu, a PlayStation game from Activision, moved as quietly as a ninja, sneaking onto store shelves and into gamers' homes. The resulting success was fantastic and unexpected, making Tenchu the sleeper hit of 1998. 

The prequel, Tenchu 2: Birth of the Stealth Assassins, made a grander appearance, lacks the finesse possessed of its predecessor. 

Tenchu 2 puts players in the role of Ayame or Rikimaru, two young Azuma ninja in service to 14th century Japan's honorable Lord Gohda. Their various missions, from assassination to rescue, must be accomplished by stealth. Enemies who are unaware of the ninja's presence can be slain with a single blow, such as beheading, gutting, or dismemberment. (Hence, the game's Mature rating.) The "Ki" meter alerts players to the enemy's proximity and awareness. A dead body or chiming bells, for example, can alert a sentry, who may attack or call for reinforcements. 

Instead of the disparate missions of the original Tenchu, each stage in the prequel is part of a larger "Act." Ayame and Rikimaru play different roles and are assigned to unique missions as the game develops and storyline branches occur. 

This method of storytelling has the unfortunate side effect of allowing the ninja to play more important roles in the plot, and of allowing the player to better know the characters. Neither is appropriate; ninja should be dark, mysterious characters, carrying out their orders without concerns for morality. 

More than the ninja's roles have grown; their repertoires are larger than before, but only slightly. Water can be swum or, by using a breathing reed, hid under. Such stealth isn't possible when your weapon is drawn; put it away when not engaged, but be prepared to draw at a moment's notice, or else be caught defenseless. And for disposing of lifeless remains, corpses can be dragged out of sight. Standard controls include moving, sneaking, jumping, and using items such as a grappling hook, shuriken, and smoke bombs. 

These functions are easy to control, but general movement can be a pain. The ninja turn slowly, which can be fatal in the middle of a battle. Some walls inexplicably cannot be pressed against, or can only in certain sections. Moving up and down terrain with precision is difficult, often causing one to move a step too far and into an enemy's line of sight. 

When battle does occur, it often degrades to a simple exchange of sword swings. The enemy rarely relents long enough for the player to escape, so it's defend, attack, defend, attack. Most levels have bosses that won't fall to the first onslaught, so if you like a good challenge, you've found it. Between this and the two playable characters, there's plenty of replay value for the interested gamer. 

Enemy AI has not improved. Soldiers will quickly forget any foe as soon as something obstructs their view. Vertical vision is nearly non-existent, so standing at the base of a slope at an enemy's feet can be quite safe. 

While hiding behind that slope, notice its pixelated nature. The graphics are not detailed, with polygonal walls and clouds that can turn transparent at the wrong angle. Though the scrolling environment doesn't appear to require much processing power, slowdown can occur even when there are no other characters on the screen, Despite these flaws, character faces, though angular, are detailed and able to give a good sense for the emotions experienced by the characters. (Should ninja even have emotions?) 

The graphics may not be much different from the original Tenchu's, but after two years, one would hope for some improvement. But at least the graphics are still on par; the audio has definitely suffered a few setbacks. 

Since Tenchu 2 is a prequel, the characters are younger, and the voice acting portrays them more like spoiled brats than disciplined warriors. Some enemies sound like little more than comic relief. Background music is completely gone, except to accompany battles and specific dramatic moments. 

Tenchu 2 is a nice expansion of the original game, but it may not sate gamers who were expecting better. An included mission editor allows the creation of custom levels, which, for the ambitious player, may justify the purchase of the game. Others are recommended to approach this game with stealth and caution. 


This article is copyright (c) 2000, 2007 by Ken Gagne. All rights reserved. Not to be distributed without permission.

Original publication: Sentinel & Enterprise, 21-Aug-00