Apparently even ninjas can fall flat on their face. Tenchu: Dark Secret, the new portable entry in the long-running stealth action series, bears a slight superficial resemblance to some of its great predecessors. But the gameplay itself is a mess--a confusing series of aimless, repetitive, and sometimes-frustrating missions that play like a mediocre Nintendo game from the 1980s. The action can still be oddly addictive for short bursts, and the game does have a few decent ideas that are new to the Tenchu series. But if the Tenchu name still means something important to you (or even if it doesn't), you'd probably be better off avoiding this one.
The best-looking part of this game is the character-select screen. You'll barely recognize Rikimaru and Ayame during gameplay.
Tenchu DS seems promising enough on first impression. It's got two playable characters, Rikimaru and Ayame, whom fans of the series will instantly recognize. You'll choose one or the other at the beginning of any mission. The game's also got a surprisingly long-winded story, involving a princess who's being stalked by a growing number of enemies for mysterious reasons. Rikimaru and Ayame are recruited to defend her and so must take on a series of missions to disrupt enemy operations nearby. After every few missions, more of the storyline unfolds--through screen after screen of text--and occasionally you must fight a boss opponent of some sort. But most missions simply involve killing everybody or rescuing someone (usually by killing everybody anyway). There are momentary flashes of variety every now and then, but so many of the mission objectives, enemies, and even mission maps are recycled over and over again that the greatest challenge of the game soon becomes having the wherewithal to keep going.
That's partly because most missions are painfully simple. You view the action from a slightly skewed, overhead perspective and will spend your time running up behind enemies and slashing them, which kills most foes in one hit. Should an enemy actually spot you, he'll give chase as a few more cronies run in from offscreen, but it's very easy to run away...and sure enough, your foe will forget you were ever there in a matter of seconds. It's also very easy to sneak up on most foes, since the Nintendo DS's touch screen provides you with a real-time map that gives away enemy positions and the direction the enemies are looking. Enemies' patrols are rigid, robotic, and slow, so finding an opening takes little effort. Then, once you land a killing blow, the results are disappointing. The Tenchu series' elaborate stealth-kill animations are replaced here by static images of guys looking surprised. There's no gore and no style to any of the killing, and in fact, many of the bandits you face early on die not with a scream but with a noise that sounds an awful lot like a burp.