TENCHU 2 / Activision / PS1
Tenchu 2 is a really tough one for me to rate, man. You've got the same solid ninjer action that made the first game such a blast, along with a number of improvements - better graphics, characters with more depth, a more intricate story with much better dialogue, and a surprisingly deep yet easy-to-use map editor. However, there are also some tweaks that are not for the better, and the two most glaring problems of the first game - the wildly jerking camera and slippery control when in combat - have not been addressed at all. In fact, they're a little WORSE here than they were in the previous game.
So you wind up with more of the same, really - mostly fun levels when you are sneaking around making stealthy kills, but that devolve rapidly into a headache when you are detected or when you run into a boss battle.
Dude, pants. Srsly.
The game is a prequel to the previous - you play as Rikimaru and Ayame, but they have just become full-fledged Ninjers with the Azuma clan. Their bud Tatsumaru is also along for the ride this time, a more mature ninjer who just took the reins of the Azuma clan from the old Sheng Long dude who had previously been the Master. You don't get to play as Tatsumaru right off, though - you gotta clear all of Riki and Ayame's levels first.
Those levels are actually more varied than they were in the previous game. You tend to go through the same maps, but you'll start and end at different points, and sometimes each character accesses portions that the other can't. They also get unique layouts of enemies and items, and sometimes one takes place at night while the other is during the day. They also get completely different bosses, and their storylines are different but interwoven.
They also have the same relative weaknesses that they did in the previous game. Unfortunately for Ayame, this means that certain boss battles are nearly impossible on her, since her weapon range still blows. She basically has to load up on healing potions and sub-weapons to get through some of them - but then you have to hope you don't lose 'em all by dying in the level somehow. Combat is made much tougher due to the camera's insistence on picking the absolute worst angle possible in any given situation, usually refusing to actually show you the nearby enemy. Since seeing the enemy is a requirement to parry their attacks (still, maddeningly, done by pressing back on the control stick instead of a button), they basically get a ton of cheap hits on you, and most bosses can do 3 to 5-hit combos now that chop nearly half of your life bar off at once. They also like to stand over your carcass, and take advantage of your slow "getting up" animation to get moar Free Chops in on you - in fact, once they start doing this there's basically no escape unless they manage to screw it up somehow or show some mercy and let you dart away. Even the common enemies also seem to be loaded down with an endless supply of smoke bombs, poison darts, shurikens, and grenades, and a maddening tactic that most of the bosses like to use is to stuff a poison dart into you while you are up close (and can do nothing about it) and then hack the life out of you while you are coughing and disabled.
Another point of frustration - most of Tenchu 1's levels focused on using rooftops to sneak around and get the drop on people, but that's actually barely present here. Tenchu 2 goes with constant changes in elevation, making you use ledges and terrain to sneak up on foes. This would be fine if the points where tiles join weren't handled in such a janky way, and if collision detection when you are up close with the enemies wasn't so weird and random. Enemies sometimes spot you when you are behind them somehow, or instead of executing a stealth kill, you swipe right through them mysteriously. Even better if you are near a ledge, as you'll likely not only set off an alarm but also plunge right over a cliff instead of getting your expected stealth kill.
Also odd is that the excellent soundtrack from the first game does not make a return appearance. The boss battle theme is a riff on the original one, and actually is a little better, but what little other music there is in the menus and such is basically generic butt rock. In the levels themselves? No music whatsoever - just ambient noise.
The level designer is fun, and the game has plenty of other qualities to appreciate. But when the gameplay and the engine are so broke, and so often maddening, I just can't call this a great game. Spending the better part of an hour sneaking through a level, getting a great score and exploring to find the endpoint, only to get offed by a boss due to some cheesy technique or the camera fucking up constantly is not my idea of a great game. If you've taken on the first Tenchu and crave Moar, you'll probably do best to just skip this one and go straight to Wrath of Heaven for the PS2.
* Gameplay Video