Monday, June 16, 2008

Tenchu Z: A ninja game that is NOT Ninja Gaiden

I'm obviously doing research on ninja-related game play. Tenchu Z is a completely different beast than Ninja Gaiden. It's about stealth (similar to Thief, Splinter Cell, and other stealth based games) where you try to avoid conflict as much as possible.

Accordingly your character has very weak combat abilities to start the game with -- and if you alert more than 2 guards you'll quickly die. Not very fun as an initial experience, but it sets the tone that this is more about sneaking around and less about combat right off the bat.

The stealth part is a little bit exciting once you give up on having fun in combat. Once you realize that this is a game about not being seen until you assassinate the final target then sneaking around the levels makes for some tense gaming moments.

Unfortunately you only start the game with two basic options: Sneak around hoping no one sees you; and if the enemies are alerted, run away until they stop looking for you. Yes there are some gadgets that you can buy later on to help set diversions and slow down pursuers. But the equipment system is already hard to use and the enemy AI is so bad you hardly feel like it's worth investing in equipment when you can literally just turn the corner and duck to get away.

The movement, jump, attack, defend, and grappling hook controls are mediocre at best. I never really felt like a ninja in any aspect of the game. Not only are the animations sub par, but the visuals are generally lacking, the levels are boring, and ranged items (like the grappling hook) aren't that fun to aim.

The game shell UI is a mess (all sorts of weird confirmation dialogs; the save game path is confusing) and the on screen UI takes a little while to figure out as well.

As far as initial experience goes, the game forces the first time player to run through a little tutorial. The tutorial is not really a "learn as you play" but more of a read the billboards as they cover the screen and block your vision. The billboards are only slightly context sensitive and they're hard to activate (and reactivate) reliably so you can read them again if you need them.

All in all it felt very much like a smaller version of Assassin's Creed in that I felt like I was playing the interface (watching the stealth meter/alertness bar) while holding the "make me walk slow button" for the entire level. Occasionally I'd gut someone from behind with my sword, but otherwise I'd just try and sneak around and avoid combat altogether. Moreover, there was no real investigation part of the game -- yes you explored the map, but there were no people to interact with or clues to gather. Just wander around until you find what you're looking for (or move to the indicator spots on the map for some missions).

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