It’s a running gag between my husband and I that I love bad games. If a long-standing series has an entry everyone hates, chances are it’s high on my list of favorite games. That’s this series, which I’m calling “Pet the Black Sheep”. Part random musings, part retro review, all love and positivity. I’m going to tell you why these lonely games nobody plays really aren’t so bad, or at least, why I like them so much.
Today’s black sheep is Tenchu Z on the XBox 360.
Tenchu is a long-running series that follows the exploits of the Azuma ninja clan, working for their lord Goda in feudal Japan. They’re 3D stealth action games, and I’d consider them pioneers of the genre. These aren’t really ninja as they existed historically; these are more your garden-variety anime ninja. They can leap tall buildings in a single bound, they throw shuriken, they dress in black and are basically assassins by a different name.
Tenchu was always fun, but was never a very pretty series, always a step behind when compared to its contemporaries. Z is no exception to this. Probably the most glaring thing most people will notice (and count against the game) immediately upon starting it up is that it’s quite ugly, with very flat lighting and some really atrocious texture work, even in the menus. I’m not going to say it actually looks secretly good or something, as in my opinion it’s actually measurably worse-looking than some of the PS2 games. I guess the best you can say about this is that the graphics are so simplistic and flat that all of the information you need for the gameplay is plain to see? I dunno, I’m reaching here. It looks pretty gross.
The reason Z is worth playing despite how bad it looks is that, in terms of gameplay and customization, it’s easily the best game in the series. Every other Tenchu game locks you into playing as set characters, usually Rikimaru and Ayame, the two main ninja of the clan. Rikimaru is the boy, so he’s big and strong and slow (for a ninja). Ayame is the girl, so she’s small and weak and fast. Riveting! Z, on the other hand, lets you choose whether to be a boy or a girl, and lets you customize not only your clothing, but also your physical stats, your skills, even your basic sword combo. Nothing is set in stone except your gender; you can shift around what you have equipped between each mission. The idea here is that you’re a trainee in the Azuma clan. Rikimaru is present, but he just hands out the missions.
You start out with only an incredibly basic set of moves, no equippable skills or special abilities, very few points to distribute into your stats, and almost no clothing options. So, combined with how the game looks, I can easily see why people were turned off by the game. But this is a slow burn, it rewards time spent with it. There’s so many things to unlock, and that includes some movement abilities that make the game much more fun and your mission strategies more flexible. One of the later unlocks, for instance, is the ability to jump up and brace yourself against the walls in a hallway, Jean Claude Van Damme style. This gives you access to stealth kills from above in situations where you’d otherwise be caught red-handed by patrols, and is a total game-changer. This isn’t the only unlock that’s like this, either. By the time you get everything, it’s like you’re playing a completely different game, one where you have a lot more options at any given moment.
Of course, I happen to like the game even before you unlock all that stuff. That’s just the icing on the cake. Missions tend to be pretty simple, and they’re all like miniature ninja playgrounds to a certain extent. Ninja playgrounds, like most regular playgrounds, consist primarily of different scenarios in which to inflict harm on people, and lots of stuff to climb on. You’re dropped into a map with an objective (“Kill the Corrupt Monk”, “Steal the Gun Blueprints”, “Break Through the Checkpoint”), and it’s up to you to figure out where to go and what to do. There’s no mini-map or objective markers, just lots of patrolling, mostly-clueless guards, dogs, bears (!), noisemaker traps, trapdoors, that kind of stuff. Having grown up with games like Thief 2 and Hitman: Blood Money (both of which I really want to write about at some point), this is right up my street. The vast majority of missions are just assassinations. Your target is hiding in some part of the map, and your job is to go find them and kill them. The way the points and ranking work in this game, though, you’re incentivized to turn every map into an abattoir on your way there. At the very least, you’ll want to find and kill a special enemy called a Tomikichi. There’s one in every mission, and killing them is tied to unlocks. They like to hide out around the outskirts of a map, usually.
There’s all the usual stealth game staples you’d expect: you’ve gotta hide bodies, people think you’re a rat if they can’t find you, there’s light and shadow, there’s innocent people that will raise an alarm if they see you but you’re not allowed to kill without taking a penalty, all that stuff. You’ve also got noise levels to worry about, and smell. Unsheathe your sword too close to someone, and you’ll draw their attention as it rings out of its sheath. Kill someone and let their blood spray on you, and you’ll smell like blood until you go dip in the water and wash it off. You’ve got a variety of ninja-y items to deploy to help you, and you can buy more stuff between levels, or find stuff in each level and build up a stockpile that way. Stuff like healing drinks, shuriken, drinks that make you not stink (?), smoke bombs, Tuxedo Mask-style pinwheels that are also explosives, all that good stuff. Each patrolling guard is a miniature puzzle, and its reward is a satisfying kill, a spray of blood, and some points/gold for buying items and unlocking more skills and clothing, giving you more ways to kill people and look awesome doing it (well, as awesome as the textures will let you look, anyway).
There are 3 main stats, and you need to have certain thresholds in them in order to equip some abilities. The good news is, you can freely rearrange your stat points between missions. Think of it like tuning points from Armored Core 4 (another game I really want to write about at some point). You’ll have to have a certain amount of strength in order to parry, or a certain amount of agility in order to equip certain movements, etc. The stats also affect your movement speed, health, and combat damage (though stealth kills are just that: kills). This gives you a lot more flexibility than just picking Rikimaru or Ayame did in other Tenchu games.
There are 50 missions, more than any other entry in the series. The difficulty setting doesn’t change a whole lot about them. Mostly, it just ramps up the numbers on detection radii, AI search pattern time, that kind of stuff. Sometimes there’s extra guards, or different patrols. But even if it was just 50 different assassinations (which it isn’t), that’s a lot of fun times to be had. There’s a good variety of maps, plenty of different enemy types to overcome, even a few weird daylight boss battles (???). They really went all out and tried a lot of new things here. The story is nothing to speak of; basically, your country/lord Goda is on the brink of war with neighboring Ogawara, and you go around doing ninja stuff to help thwart Ogawara’s plans. There’s like an emo ninja guy that looks like he’s important, but he only shows up a few times for boss battles to break up the pace.
If you’ve got an XBox 360, and you like stealth action games, I’d really urge you to give Tenchu Z another look. Yes, the textures are gross. Yes, the controls are weird. Yes, you have to unlock some of what makes the game the most fun. But if you can look past that, and you don’t mind a little repetition, you’ve got a lot of fun stealthy stabby times ahead of you here. It can be really relaxing and oddly satisfying to pick apart of Tenchu Z’s many missions and find what makes each patrol tick, picking just the right moment to bring that sweet divine punishment.