TENCHU: WRATH OF HEAVEN / Activision / PS2

Wrath of Heaven is the third main game in the Tenchu series, though the title doesn't bother to denote it. It's fundamentally the same thing as the first two games on the PS1, with some improvements. Unfortunately some of the major problems are retained as well -- namely, the frustrating camera system, the sometimes cheap level layouts, and really punishing boss battles made worse by the problematic camera.

The game is the chronological sequel to the very first game and is back more to the look and tone of that one, with a simplistic story that re-hashes a lot of elements and resurrects damn near every character ever seen in the series to this point in some form or another. Even the very first level for Rikimaru is another jaunt into Echigoya's estate to Punish The Evil Merchant, though apparently it belongs to his nephew now and has been expanded quite a bit. (And yeah, Rikimaru has been resurrected ... like I said before, it's a major theme here.)

The level editor from the first two games has been dumped, but there's tons of gameplay if you dig the game's style -- there's (eventually) three playable characters each with about 10 levels, and three variations of each level that redistribute the guards, items and such. There's also a co-op mode and deathmatch for two players, and as you progress through the single-player story you unlock more characters to use in deathmatch.


The graphics are notably smoother and more detailed than those of the PS1 games and there's a good range of enemies with cool designs, I particularly liked the undead zombies that shuffle around in a disturbing way that is much better than anything ever seen in Resident Evil. Noriyuke Asakura returns for another ambient soundtrack based on traditional Japanese music, but the '70s brass influence of the first game is replaced here with more steel-stringed guitar and a sort of American West sound. The lighting tends to be dark, which suits the theme I guess, but it also leads to some murky environments and the textures are generally pretty uninspiring. It's a grade-up for sure from the first two games, but there's really nothing stunning to be seen in the visuals other than some cool-looking elaborate stealth kills.

One of the major weaknesses of the game is that it did not keep pace with stealth contemporaries like Metal Gear Solid 2 in the guard AI department. The guards still seem to have the same dopey routines and patterns they always have, being effective only when there's a gang of them together and they are pre-positioned so that it's hard to get by them. They'll still completely lose track of you when you run behind a pillar or rock or grapple up onto a rooftop, wandering around in a random pattern for a bit until they return to their original routine.

In spite of the guard's continued dopiness, however, the game is still hard. Unfortunately, most of this difficulty comes from cheapness and short-changing the player. The biggest issue is the camera system, which still hasn't really been fixed at all from the issues in the first game. Sneaking around and killing enemies is doable, but takes a whole lot of massaging of the camera by combining the press-up against the wall with the first-person view.

Much worse are battles, in which the camera seems determined to not show you the enemy as much as possible. Battles are slightly alleviated from the previous games in that blocking is now a matter of holding O rather than pressing back on the stick, and you can also hold down R2 to strafe which gives you a means of keeping the camera behind you and the boss in sight in front of you (though also restricts your movement.) It still leads to some frustrating moments, though.

Even worse than that are a slew of surprise deadfalls that instantly kill you, and ill-constructed jumping and grappling segments over lethal pits. If you die due to camera jank, or your character just deciding not to grab a ledge or do something else random, that can undo ten or twenty minutes of careful sneaking and kill-scoring and force you to re-do it all from the beginning.

I really did enjoy a few of the levels here, but I also found about an equal amount of them a chore, and I felt like I really had to force myself to the console to finish it all up and unlock everything. If they had just eliminated the cheesy deadfalls, that would have solved half of the problem right there - I can deal with the camera, which you can eventually get into a functional state once you get used to the game. For the third game in a series and moving to a much more powerful system, however, it's really inexcusable that they couldn't fix the camera. The game's story is also boring and there's way too much re-warming of old concepts and characters. It's not a bad game, but it seemed rushed, and really needed a lot more improvement and polish.


Videos :

* Gameplay Video



 

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