Although Metal Gear Solid for the original Playstation is often sited as the first game to feature 3D stealth action on a home console, that honor actually belongs to Tenchu: Stealth Assassins, released in 1998 just 2 months before Solid Snake showed his polygonal face. Although the Tenchu franchise has never been as popular as stealth genre staples like Metal Gear or Splinter Cell, the game has maintained a loyal cult following throughout the past decade due to its authentic representation of ninjutsu, the art of remaining unperceived.
Probably the main reason the Tenchu series doesn’t resonate with the majority of gamers is the fact that unlike most ninja games, it basically discourages sword fighting altogether. While there are upgradeable combo moves one can fall back on in dire situations, these moves feel underpowered and clunky compared to the more sophisticated, stealthier components of the game. This emphasis on stealth is historically accurate, as ninjas were no match for skilled samurai warriors in open confrontations, relying instead on patience and timing to strike isolated enemies down with a single, deadly blow. Despite its authenticity, Tenchu Z’s representation of ninjas has a polarizing effect on action game fans; players expecting another action intensive outing in the spirit of Ninja Gaiden will almost certainly be disappointed, but fans of stealth action will find much to enjoy as they learn to master Tenchu Z’s sneaking system and sublime stealth kill mechanics.
Unlike other games in the Tenchu series, Rikimaru and Ayame are not the stars of Tenchu Z. Instead, you will create a male or female ninja and assign points to their agility, strength, and health. You will then create a sidekick, whose gender is the opposite of your own character, but he or she will only appear in cut scenes and is never playable. Seasoned ninja veteran Rikimaru will be your mentor who doles out your assignments and rewards you according to your performance. These 50 missions all involve making your way from one end of the map to the other, usually to kill a villain, deliver a message, or collect some items. Although you are not tasked with a wide variety of assignments, the level design and placement of guards are fairly diverse.
Once again, the story revolves around putting a stop to the nefarious Echigoya clan, who are now trafficking a drug called Shishi with the help of their militaristic Ogawara allies. Although the story is serviceable, it isn’t terribly compelling and lacks coherence. The only thing you really need to know when playing through any given level of Tenchu Z is that there is a town full of bad guys with swords, and you have to go kill all of them. Silently. Although there is no Metal Gear style radar to help detect enemy positions, players will rely on the ki meter which indicates if there are any enemies close to you, their proximity, and weather or not they can perceive you. Sound and light meters further assist players in remaining invisible.
As mentioned earlier, the basic combat engine in Tenchu Z is basic and underwhelming, but then again it was never intended to be a sword fighting game. (In the entire game, there are only 3 mandatory face to face battles.) It’s as though From Software consciously created a gimped fighting system as a means of discouraging head on encounters. Players are further discouraged from engaging alerted enemies via a new game play element: odor. Anytime an alerted enemy is wounded or killed in melee combat, his body produces blood stains on your clothing. Nearby enemies can smell these stains, and will seek out the source of the aroma. This makes it difficult to advance through levels unseen and will likely bring down a swarm of samurai as your ki meter flashes orange. Although this problem can be remedied by taking a dip in a nearby body of water or by using a special cleansing item which removes the bloody scent, it is far better to avoid head on swordfights whenever possible, as a ninja surrounded by angry guys with katanas has little chance of survival.