Ok Let's Begin!
Tenchu Stealth Assassin (TSA) is a third person stealth adventure. It was created by ACQUIRE Corp and was released 1998 via publishers Sony Entertainment Japan and Activision on the PlayStation. This game has a bit of a nostalgia kick for me. I remember back in the day stalking the victim from the rooftops or around the corner in the shadows. Then the relief and satisfaction of getting that stealth kill off, o just so satisfying. During my research into TSA I discovered a number of odd little difference between the three regional edition of the game for instance the European version doesn't have throwing stars in due to several countries banning them in media so this was changed to kunai instead, because those aren't dangerous at all. All three of them have various cheat alteration which I don't really understand why that was the case except maybe the Japanese version even so you'd think they'd be the same regardless of region. Also odd little things like enemy layout and one boss, Goo, having a bear with them in the American version but in the European version he's completely alone at least in my play-through he was🧐. Actually I know why this maybe the case. In my researching of the cheats I came across the layout cheat which shows which layout you played that level in, either A, B or C. So guess I got lucky and didn't have bear with boss layout. Still doesn't explain the extra enemy in the training section though, as that layout is fixed.
The plot revolves around the two ninja of the Azuma clan in service to Lord Gohda, Rikmaru and Ayame. initially it seems that Lord Gohda is just trying to deal with the corruption and enemies that are infesting his lands. Then as your missions progress you end up engaging with the villainous Onikage, your initial meeting is but a passing of words with Onikage leaving on a threat against you and Lord Gohda. As you continue on it becomes apparent that Onikage is responsible for a number of terrible on-goings. Not only is he responsible for the capture and torture of one of the members of the Azuma ninja clan, this changes depending on which character you choose at the start. He is also responsible for the birth of a dangerous cult controlling people's minds and attacking local towns and villages. Note these two incidences are strongly backed up by his appearance in the stages if you take the story as a whole you suspect him of much more. Eventually this planning and scheming culminates in a surprise attack on Lord Gohda's realm and after you fight with Onikage you discover that he is but the servant of the King of Hell, Lord Mei-ho, who seeks to destroy Lord Gohda and end the peace in the lands. Now I need to note a minor discrepancy here at least in the English version of the story. The opening Narrator for this stage explains that Onikage has assaulted the castle and taken over, meaning you have to infiltrate Lord Gohda's castle. This is however contradicted by Onikage when he says "what does it matter? by now, your Lord Gohda's castle will have been breached." This sort of suggests that Onikage is not actually in the castle, despite been in a castle like structure, when you confront him. The Narrator in the next stage then contradicts Onikage and I quote "While you were chasing Onikage in the castle. Mei-ho, the King of Hell, kidnapped Princess Kiku...". So it seems that there's been a flub in writing or in translation as it might of made more sense if Onikage was assaulting the town around Gohda's castle or the castle's outer wall. Whilst Lord Mei-ho breached what European castle builders would call the keep or the inner castle. Either way, Lord Mei-ho himself has lead an attack against the castle and stolen the princess Kiku away as a hostage to ensure Gohda's surrender. While others are in shock it comes down to the two Azuma ninja to rescue the princess and end the threat of Lord Mei-ho once and for all.
TSA has some wonderful atmosphere to it. It's music accompanies the clandestine feel of the the game-play as well as the settings and it gives you a real feeling of been in mythological feudal Japan. All missions are done at night which gives a really good sense of being an assassin or thief in the night, as well as a good excuse to hide the terrible draw distance. Not to mention the different locations and different weather textures such as snow and autumn make you feel a passage of time as the story progresses. It's not drawn on but the subtle change in background gives you the feeling that time has passed between missions.
Really fun items, each item in the ninja arsenal in TSA has a unique use and I really recommend trying them out, once you've built up a sufficient supply. Some will help you when things have gone terribly wrong and you need to vanish such as the smoke bomb. Others will help you out in boss fight such as the grenades / fire bombs and others are just interesting alternatives such as land mines and tracking dyes. I will say this a land mine is always fun to use even if it's not the quietest stealth kill.
TSA has variety in its missions from message retrieval and delivery, infiltration to assassination and not everyone of them requires you to kill, though many do require you to defeat a boss, killing the goons is secondary to completing the mission. Though if you do want the higher ranks and you don't have the right equipment your going to struggle to not remove some goony obstacles with there watchful eyes. Another boost to the games variety is the fact that you have two characters that handle differently in combat. Rikmaru is powerful when striking but lacks the speed and mobility that Ayame offers so the two feel quite different when playing the game. I will say that I always felt better playing the game as Ayame the mobility just allowed me to escape situations that went bad. Another point giving variety is the three different layouts of each stage. Which are chosen at random when you play the stage these change up the enemy patrols and item positions within the level keeping you on your toes during each stage.
TSA's stealth mechanic was one of a kind at the time and really does give you the feeling of a ninja assassin. The stalking of your pray, waiting for the right moment to strike, laying out traps, getting to understand your terrain, particularly on the larger less confined maps, and all done concealed within the shadows creates a wonderful sense of tension and achievement when your plans pull through. Extra reward can be added to this, especially when you pull off any one of Rikmaru or Ayame's signature cinematic stealth kills. In fact in order to do these I believe early motion capture technology was used to recreate the motions.
TSA story is also quite unique as it's a bit of a slow burner, it isn't as simple as just knowing your enemy from the start, rather as you progress through the levels more and more information is gathered on who is truly behind all of these events that have required the Azuma ninja's to be deployed in a land supposedly at a time of relative peace. Eventually this all accumulates in a battle against the servant Onikage and eventually his Master Lord Mei-ho. Depending on the characters you play you also get small variations in the story. Rikmaru for instance is less curt then Ayame and shows his enemies honour especially those who are worthy of it. Ayame however is less respectfully and is more libel to end on a cutting remark or joke. The choice of character also results in enemy bosses treating you differently. Usually Rikmaru is treated respectively as an equal and Ayame is treated with belittlement, sexism and disdain. This is most apparent in stage 5, Execute the Corrupt Minister, where you have to deal with a corrupt finance minister, Kataoka. After defeating his body guard you search for him finding him in the archery range. If your Rikmaru then Kataoka will be convince to honourable take his own life. Though from my understanding of Japanese seppuku, Rikmaru kind of knackers this up by completely decapitating him. That said it could have been quite a challenge to leave a head hanging by a thin layer of neck muscle with such limited polygons. With Ayame however this plays out quite differently with Kataoka saying "I may have made mistakes but I allow no women to scold me like that. You shall die by my arrows!" and Ayame then retorting resulting in a full on battle. This difference in the two Azuma ninja and there interactions with others in the Tenchu universe only became more divergent as the subsequent games were made. This lead to some interesting plot threads, though that's for another review to discuss.
TSA is an early 3D game not the earliest but it does have issues with controls especially when your coming back to it from the modern age of gaming where controls have almost been completely standardised. The most stark contrast is that the game doesn't use analogue input but digital for movement, for those who don't know what I mean it's basically the difference between an analog stick and a a D-pad. Analogue movement allows for more versatile motion such as running forward then changing to running at an angle seamlessly. Now if you try to recreate that using a D-pad you'll just see yourself running straight then stopping turning slightly on the spot then taking a few more steps, stopping and turning again then run again then rinse and repeat till you complete the whole motion. This isn't to say you can't do a curve, but the curve will always be, whether holding forward and right or forward and left, a perfect circle. So was this bad, well yes and no. Mario 64 had been out since 1996 and it used analogue control and arguably had what would almost be the standard of fluid motion in three dimensions and PlayStation had analog controls for the system in 1997. So why wasn't TSA, released 1998, given a analogue control scheme? I can see at least two reasons actually, the first is TSA isn't the first iteration of the game, it had a prototype game before it's creation based on a more modern to futuristic setting. This could suggest that TSA was built using this original game as a basis and thus controls were kept the same or similar through the development process of TSA for simplicity. Another reason could be that PlayStation actually announced the discontinuation of it's Duel Analog controller in 1998 only to release it's successor later that year known as the DuelShock controller. These are but speculations but you could see how these could result in the developer sticking with the controller that wasn't in flux namely the cheaper standard non-analogue controller. This is also I suspect why other early games on the PlayStation were slower to adapt the use of analogue control. As a result, for the console, TSA's control system was actually quite innovated and complex when compared to it's compatriots that used digital control. This been said those other games weren't asking you to sneak up on your opponent and kill him unseen and that's what makes this control scheme frustrating. Having to run at your enemy only realising you've over shot and then having to turn slowly just hoping you get him before he turns to face you. If he spots you, you know at best it'll result in a single one on one fight, or this is going to result in a calamitous cascade of point sapping errors marking your incompetence in great detail in your final rank. The worse case though is this results in your death, meaning all the work and items you accumulated or brought with you will vanish and you'll have to do it all over again minus the items. This previous point in particular can be frustrating with the addition of death traps and pit fall which are instant death, and there's no Prince of Persia-ing your way of these vile abomination of rage inducement. There are also two odd control mapping choices which in themselves make logical sense, but then you realise that this may give you issue while making precision platforming manoeuvres or just maintaining your footing in precarious battle situations. I'll explain the obvious first, the long jump. To make a long jump you tap up, up been walk, twice then jump in quick succession. This seems easy until you do this next to an edge. You see failing to pull this manoeuvre off with precision tends to result in a dash forward because double up is the dash forward command useful in itself, and logical to map it in with the long jump, but next to a instant death precipice this makes the long jump command a very tense action to pull off. The final one is the block, this two makes logical sense because you push down to block and pushing down equals stepping back as well, when not blocking. The problem I have though is that although this is logical in a tournament fighter sort of way, it tends to make fighting in tight or precarious places awkward. As going backwards on a cliff tends to leave you falling off it or in a tight corridor or room you end up hemming yourself into a corner.
Item acquirement can be a little difficult in TSA. Items are not bought or constructed rather they are scavenged and rewarded. In each level there is usually an item or two left around. There usually in hidden or hard to reach places such as inside a mountain waterfall over a bottomless cavern, yep not risky at all. The items in levels also tend to be additions to the basic items like smoke bombs, health drinks and fire bombs. If you want to get the weird and wonderful stuff such as lighting scrolls, disguise kits or armour then you need to get higher ranks as these rewards are always tied with high level ranking. So you have a bit of a dilemma here you either risk your rank by chasing down the items on the map or you fore go the items found in the map to focus on the objective to get the rare reward item. This makes you really regret using items in the game, as they are rare commodities, meaning at least for me I spend most of my games not actually taking any items to missions. You see it was just to risky, especially since you can loose them so easily to pit fall death or death in general as items on your person get lost and aren't recoverable after death. This sort of forces item use to be a sort of after game fun affair or last ditch attempt to make the frustrating mission ahead that bit easier. My recommendation is to just keep playing it without the items until you've accumulated enough inventory to not care about losing them. To help further I also recommend that when you take an item don't fill your pockets as you'll be very disappointed when your character dies and you lose all your stuff.
Nerdy C's Nerd O Metre Rating
A slightly biased, High 4 out of 5
I have to give this game some props it was unique at the time. I don't know any game with this kind of stealth mechanic and variety on a console of the era. Even Metal Gear Solid, another stealth based game, was not similar to TSA in setting, story or atmosphere, though arguably could contend in complexity. It was clearly popular especially in Japan which saw it having a re-release in 1999 under the title Tenchu Shinobi Gaisen which also had a map editor built into it. This map editor actually resulted in the creation of a stand alone DLC called Tenchu Shinobi Hyakusen, which was a combination of 100 missions created in the map editor by fans. The maps were chosen by the games creator ACQUIRE Corp in a competition they set up. ACQUIRE Corp also hid a further 22 secret missions in the game with other bonus behind the scenes content such as the early prototype play demo of what eventually became TSA. Other than the games control scheme really I have no major arguments and with some patients the controls become manageable. The only things I could bring up against it now would be superficial and unfairly comparing it to modern standards of gaming. Even things like the sexism in the game don't seem out of place for the society and era it's depicting. My final real oddity/gripe with the game is with its voice acting. All the enemies and NPC characters in the game speak in a Japanese accentuate English but both the Azuma ninja's seem to speak proper English without accent. So do I recommend Tenchu Stealth Assassin? Yes it's worth a go. Seriously if you enjoy stealth games, planning your way through a maze of enemies in a mystical Japanese settings and can stand pre-millennium graphics then TSA is one to own and play. The beauty of enjoying this game is that you have at least another four brilliant to ok European games to enjoy in the series and probably more internationally.