Let's be honest. Tenchu: Return From Darkness is not the only ninja game in town. For one thing, it's mostly just a straight port of Tenchu: Wrath of Heaven, a great PlayStation 2 stealth action game that's been available for a year. For another thing, the release of this game arrives in the wake of the superb Ninja Gaiden, which rightfully has many Xbox owners overjoyed and very busy. There goes the first and last gratuitous Ninja Gaiden reference, anyway. The fact is, Tenchu: Return From Darkness is a very different type of game--sort of a "ninja simulation"--insofar as its gameplay involves staying out of sight and moving in for the kill rather than taking on armies head-on. This new Xbox version of the third Tenchu game includes a few new features and enhancements not found in the original PS2 version (most notably an online multiplayer mode), but the game hasn't aged all that well, so it's not like it was worth waiting around for this version. In fact, the PS2 version is still available for a fraction of the price of this new release. Still, if you've never played the PS2 version, don't have a PS2, and have a hankering for some more ninja action, then Tenchu: Return From Darkness will do you right.
Tenchu: Return From Darkness is the Xbox version of the third installment in this genre-defining stealth action series.
As in previous Tenchu games, the main characters in this one are a young male and female pair of ninjas from the Azuma clan, the strong and disciplined Rikimaru, and the lithe and lightning-fast Ayame. A number of other old characters make returning appearances, and while the plot doesn't necessarily expect you to be familiar with them, it won't make a whole lot of sense either way. Actually, this Xbox version of the game attempts to elaborate on the story a bit more with some additional cutscenes, but the additions don't succeed in making the plot any more coherent. The connection from one mission to the next is vague, and the story introduces a lot of details that aren't really fleshed-out. Suffice it to say that both Ayame and Rikimaru are on the trail of a couple of bad guys, and what other excuse do you really need to step into their shoes to try to silently slay everything from lecherous samurai, to renegade ninjas, to potbellied demons, to festering zombies, to weird automatons, to evil monks? This isn't lighthearted stuff, since both Rikimaru and Ayame are equipped with a good variety of moves designed to deal swift, painful death to their enemies. Like in previous Tenchu games, Rikimaru and Ayame can kill any foe with a single attack if either can sneak up on that foe. If detected, though, each can still hold his or her own in a head-on fight.
The game's story mode initially lets you choose either Rikimaru or Ayame, each of whom has a good-sized campaign for you to fight through. A handful of new single-player missions are available exclusively in the Xbox version of the game, and they seamlessly fit in with the others. It's a nice bonus, but it's not enough to justify revisiting the experience for any but the most hardcore fans of Wrath of Heaven. Once you finish the two primary campaigns, a third not-so-secret character--a martial artist doctor named Tesshu--also becomes available and has his own slightly shorter campaign. As a ninja, Tesshu isn't quite as conventional as the other two and fights bare-handed. He generally hits his enemies' pressure points or dislocates and breaks their limbs as necessary--with plenty of dramatic flair, of course.
Each character's campaign has some replay value due to the game's multiple difficulty settings and because there are three variations on each level that change around the layout of enemy guard patrols. The campaigns are all somewhat similar, meaning you'll revisit mostly the same locations from one campaign to the next, though your objectives in them and your path through them will be different. Nevertheless, while Tenchu: Return From Darkness does have a lot of missions and a lot of variations on these missions, you'll get to know the game's relative few locations--from a bizarre castle filled with traps, to a ronin village, to a cemetery--very well by the time you've gone through all three campaigns.
The settings and objectives of each mission do vary, but each one plays out roughly the same way. You control your ninja from a third-person perspective and must work your way through each large, sometimes mazelike, level while dispatching enemy guards when their backs are turned. Your ninja can see farther than your enemies can, and moving about while crouched often allows you to remain completely invisible to your enemies even when you'd expect them to be able to see you. Your character is virtually silent too, so it's possible to run right up and murder an enemy who's looking the other way. An indicator representing your ninja's heightened senses informs you of when enemies are nearby and of which stage of alert they're in so that you know when to tread carefully or when to actively stalk for prey.
Furthermore, your ninja can use a wide variety of gadgets and items in each mission, from poisonous rice balls that can distract and paralyze enemy guards, to explosives, to throwing stars, to bear traps, to mind control devices. However, most of these--with the exception of the healing potions that restore you to full health--aren't essential. They can still be a lot of fun to use, though. Potions aside, the other item that often comes into play is the grappling hook, which lets your ninja both scale high walls and grab onto otherwise unreachable ledges. You can use the hook to latch onto most surfaces, and this not only serves to make your ninja seem extremely mobile but also gives the level designers of Tenchu: Return From Darkness license to create big, multistory environments rather than purely flat ones.
Fans of the series will be familiar with main characters Rikimaru and Ayame, as well as some of their old foes.
The thrill of the hunt in Tenchu: Return From Darkness can be quite thrilling indeed. The characters have different stealth kill moves depending on whether they catch the opponent from behind, from the side, from the front, from above, and more, and all these motion-captured animations look quite good. Certain types of opponents can be quite tough if fought head-on, so there's definitely incentive to get the stealth kill, especially since landing enough stealth kills in one mission unlocks a new special move for your character. Actually, this version of the game features a few new moves not found in the original, but again, these are nice for variety's sake but aren't so significant that Wrath of Heaven players ought to go out of their ways to check them out.