The Backlog Review: Tenchu Z

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In today’s gaming world, there’s a lot happening. Titles are fired onto shelves at light-speed and bought, played, and forgotten about just as quickly. This fast-paced consumption and barrage of releases can often cause a lot of great titles to go by unnoticed. I’d like to talk about one specifically: Tenchu Z.

First released to Japan in 2006 before making it’s way West during 2007, Tenchu Z is one of few games that stand the test of time. The game hails from a long line of installments in the popular Tenchu franchise of ninja stealth-action video games. Given that it’s predecessors had a following of their own, it’s surprising to find that Tenchu Z went by virtually unnoticed by most gamers leaving only diehard fans of Tenchu aware of its existence. 

Straying away from the tradition of giving players a choice between one of two playable characters, this time the player is given their own ninja. The game places a heavy focus on the customization of your own ninja with a gigantic wardrobe of clothing options, accessories and styles to choose from. This, I feel, was probably one of the game’s strongest points. I’ve always been a fan of games that feature character customization, and if they feature swords, even better, and Tenchu Z delivers very well on that front. It seems to me that given that this title would be the first in the series to feature online play, they wanted players to have recognizable characters rather than cherry-picked warriors from the main story, to really let players make the game their own. A bold move, but if you ask me, they nailed it.

Typically, games that feature strong customization features tend to have the rest of the game feel lacking as a result, as if too much effort was placed on one specific part of the game leaving others to be rushed. Tenchu Z is, thankfully, not one of those games. A lot attention did go into the customization, but that didn’t detract from the rest of the game. 

In Tenchu Z, you take the role of a ninja who must sneak in and out of various camps, buildings and hideouts to assassinate targets. A lot of stealth games will try not to punish you too hard for being less stealthy, but Tenchu Z seems to hate anyone that wants to rush into battle with their guns blaring. This is made clear when you look at your points. Specific actions award you points and depending on how stealthy those actions are, you may get more or less overall. For example, running up to a guard and slaying him with a few good strikes may be fun, but it can attract attention and it’s not exactly the ninja way of doing things, so you only get a small amount of points for the kill. Were you to bide your time, sneak up behind and Stealth Kill in one fell swoop, you’d be awarded far more. Ultimately, points = gold, the in-game currency is used to buy items, weapons and more customization accessories. 

Buying items can often be the key to success in Tenchu games. So you need that gold. Players, once they can afford, will be able to buy all manner of useful tools before each mission such as throwing stars, bombs, disguises and discretionary devices, too. Keeping in with the focus of stealth, many of the items are used to either aid escapes when noticed by guards (such as throwing caltrops on the ground, hurting any who stand on them) or they help you complete your mission by disguising you as the enemy and cloaking yourself. 

The items were a relatively varied selection that each had their uses. It wasn’t the strongest feature of the game, but the ability to carefully select tools and plan ahead helped completed the “I’m a kick-ass ninja” feel. But they aren’t the only useful little feature to help you slay your enemies. In Tenchu Z, you can choose from a wide array of abilities and skills to aid you. Using gold to purchase them, players can gain the ability to be faster, stronger, to cling to ceilings and some of the harder to achieve skills can even make your ninja completely silent, thus even more deadly. There are skills that aren’t just for helping you be a stealthy warrior, though. There are many that are geared towards sword attack combos and defensive moves. Why would a game that’s so focused on stealth add skills to help players fight as unstealthily as possible? Two words: boss fights.

Sadly, I hate to say it, the boss fights are the weakest part of the game. They are literally the only time you can’t use stealth to your advantage. Though they are very far and few between, there’s no avoiding them. A typical boss fight pits you head-to-head against another rival ninja or samurai, meaning you need to use quick thinking and powerful offensive moves to take them down. It can be a fun challenge having to fight someone that can use skills, attacks and items just as well as you, but the problem is that the entire game has been driving one mantra into the player’s head: don’t fight. Up until the boss fights, you’ve gotten very accustomed to taking your time and not using your sword. Then they very suddenly thrust you into a battle where you have no choice but to get in a fight. It felt a little crowbarred in, and because of the juxtaposition in gameplay, it can make the fights a little harder, especially for players unfamiliar with the game. There are some very, very, very easy ways to exploit the AI in the game to make boss battles finish incredibly quickly, but they aren’t needed. Those curious about the exploit will need to go look for it themselves. All I’ll say is this: no one can swim for some reason. 

On the topic of flaws for the game, there is another minor problem I have with the game. The in-game maps can be quite repetitive. There’s only so many in the game, and you’ll be replaying them a lot. Sometimes you’ll play from a different starting point, a different way of coming at it, but it’ll be the same map. The game tries its best not to make you feel like the surroundings get stale by, like I said, putting you in different starting points or switching characters and things around, but you’ll still notice it. It does dampen the experience a little, but if you enjoy the game, you really learn to just stop caring. It’s annoying and repetitive, but it’s a small imperfection that can go by unnoticed given how strong most everything else is in the game.

Bad boss battles and repetitive maps aside, the game remains a favorite of mine. Its stealthy approach is refreshing and brings a new challenge to gamers. The gameplay as a whole felt solid, too. The controls are simple enough that new players won’t get too lost and the game itself is owes itself well to newbies and veterans alike. For the lesser skilled, the difficulty can be turned down to make guards, well, more stupid, but when you ramp up the difficulty it becomes a very challenging and rewarding game. You can’t simply Stealth Kill all in sight because at higher difficulties, there’s always another guard or obstacle that’ll get in your way. The game forces players to become planners, thinking ahead and plotting their kills in advance like a game of chess. 

So, overall, Tenchu Z is a game that is a diamond in the rough. A hidden gem. A … Uh. Jewel of some kind. It’s a great game, but there is one giant flaw: you’ll be playing alone. Sadly, no one has this game. The online multiplayer is a ghost town. If you can, though. Convince a few friends to pick it up (it’s incredibly, stupidly, ridiculously cheap now, I saw a copy going for 20p (roughly 30 cents) because it’s a very fun and challenging game that I can’t recommend highly enough. Try it out. 

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