‘Tenchu Z’ Hands-On Preview

Normally a videogame preview is fluffy, happy and espouses all things great about an upcoming game. People get excited about a game’s premise, gameplay or graphics, and they want to share with their friends (or readers) what excites them so for the game’s release. This preview for “Tenchu Z” will be no such article.

“Microsoft and From Software” sounds like a great combination, a tandem of big-time publisher and a solid niche developer, but the execution of this would-be stealth ninja game is broken from the beginning. Yeah, yeah, we’ve heard it before: the game’s an early build, and there are a bunch of improvements scheduled for the weeks and months ahead. That’s nice, but we can only preview what we’ve played. And what we’ve played so far of “Tenchu Z” is a stinker.

When we last saw the Tenchu franchise, Activision was running it into the ground with a playable martial-arts-practicing dog and a campaign that felt identical from one mission to the next. With this latest iteration, From Software (of “Otogi” fame) is trying to resurrect the franchise, but it seems as though Activision put a nasty hex on all things good for the series.

The game touts 50 stealth ninja missions, but the ones we’ve played imply that when they say “50,” they really mean “experience bland-mission déjà vu 50 times, right in the comfort of your high-def living room!” As a ninja, players are supposed to be as stealthy as possible, moving from shadow to shadow and crawling underneath dojos in order to find the object of their next assassination. In some instances it’s clear the developers like “Splinter Cell,” but it’s not the gameplay or quality or tension that feels reminiscent, but the stealth meter that tells players their level of concealment.

The Ninja combat in “Tenchu Z” also leaves you wanting more, and it doesn’t seem reparable between this preview build and the retail version. The sword attacks are limited to one basic jab, special items and weapons (bow/arrow) are used inaccurately via the left bumper, and the combat mechanics on the whole are riddle with such stiff animations and slow response times that it’s like watching a battle between drunk paper dolls. Believe me, it’ll leave you wishing you were drunk, too.

As each mission concludes, players are given a rating based on their stealth kills, normal kills, the number of times they were detected and their completion time. Commensurate with that rating come a few gold coins, which players use between rounds to buy new weapons and items, or stockpile until they feel the need to buy more-expensive wares. Players can even buy perfumes and other items to cloak smells, which can come in handy considering the stealth meter also accounts for anything turd-like you may have walked through. Seriously. We can’t make stuff like this up.

The redeeming grace, if there is one, is that “Tenchu Z” includes online co-op for up to four ninjas. This adds a bit of strategy to the mix, as players can decide in the lobby which route and tactics they’ll be assigned. The only problem is, the core gameplay is still just as troubled, which means the fun of playing with three other players will quickly delve into the fun of seeing which of the four of you can come up with the best one-liner about the game itself.

From Software could very well turn it all around and make “Tenchu Z” into a shining resurrection of a years-dead franchise. But with the frustrating gameplay elements, Xbox-caliber graphics and inability to bring anything “new” to the stealth action genre, the chances of that are slim. Maybe the ninja General Store has some extra smell-hiding potion somewhere; this early build could sure use a dose.

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