Alright, so perhaps it’s not quite old enough to be considered ‘retro’. But at eleven years old, Tenchu: Wrath of Heaven stands as one of the last generation’s great examples of stealth-action gameplay done right.
As the series’ third entry and first of Activision’s Edo-period stealth-em-up’s to grace the PlayStation 2, Wrath of Heaven took full advantage of the system’s powerful new hardware to deliver a well crafted, uniquely Japanese, ninja experience.
The story revolves around previously deceased series vet, Rikimaru of the Azuma ninja Clan. He and fellow kunoichi Ayame, are tasked with stopping the evil sorcerer Tenrai and his ‘Lords of Darkness’ from acquiring three ancient jewels of power… for reasons that aren’t exactly clear.
Plot details are hazy at best and Wrath of Heaven’s narrative is by no means it’s strongest feature. Whilst the main arc is always present, each of the game’s main missions function perfectly well as stand-alone scenarios, and it’s easy to forget Tenchu’s central storyline. Unlike similar titles in the genre, what Tenchu offers is an arcade-like experience, driven by gameplay as opposed to narrative.
A wall of scrolling text provides the explanatory fluff behind your character’s objectives before each level, and you can even choose from three different enemy/patrol layouts to keep things challenging on repeat playthroughs. This, combined with a performance scoring system and post-mission ranking breakdown are what help to distinguish Wrath of Heaven as a game designed with short pick-up-and-play sessions in mind, rather than narrative-heavy marathons.
From the off, there are two characters to chose from, and successfully completing the story with both, unlocks series newcomer, Tesshu Fujioka. Each ninja boasts their own unique combat style as well as personalised kill animations and unique unlockables. Rikimaru offers the most balanced approach of the three, whilst Ayane is more acrobatic and agile, and Tesshu is just plain lethal, making use of his dayjob experience as village doctor to deliver Mortal Kombat style x-ray kills.
Play can be further customised with the help of disposable items. Before embarking on each mission, you’re given the option to equip your character with a variety of game-changing weaponry and gear. While purists might be inclined to play with nothing more than the compulsory, standard-issue grappling hook, the variety of extra equipment on hand is great fun to play around with. These range extensively from garden-variety foods and ampules for healing and damage buffs, to disguises, skin-changing armour, lethal poisons and (at the more ridiculous end of the scale) fireworks, sticky bombs and a summonable, support shiba inu. The basics can all be procured on-site during missions, but special items are only offered as rewards for top-ranking scores and come with the added caveat of being single-use – making the decision to use them genuinely tough one to make.
As the game progresses, whichever character you’ve chosen to be your agent of darkness unlocks a variety of stylish ninjutsu-techniques. Beginning with your basic ceiling-clinging and ninja-grappling hook combos, it’s the moves unlocked late in the game that are the most interesting. There’s a slightly awkward-to-pull-off but hugely satisfying mind control skill, and even a brutal, but effective feign death move, offering an opportunity to strike any enemy curious enough to peer over your character’s bleeding ‘corpse’.
The final unlocakble skill for each character is the titular ‘Wrath of Heaven’. A high stakes signature move with an impressively flashy finish if you can successfully land it, and lethal consequences if you don’t. Once acquired, pushing down on the X and circle buttons together initiates the Wrath’s wind up as your character summons glowing gold kanji in the air in front of them. Providing you’ve not been interrupted by enemy attacks, your ninja blinks forward and any adversary unlucky enough to be caught in their path is insta-killed by a ki-powered sword blow and heaven-sent lightning bolt for good measure.
Regardless of whether the move connects or not, it leaves you with a singular health point to continue on with. It’s a hugely satisfying payoff, especially when used against the game’s shockingly tough boss-enemies, making for some great last resort, risk vs reward gameplay moments.
Whilst Wrath of Heaven boasts some great combat and stealth mechanics, it’s the game’s level-design which is most deserving of praise. The ten unique maps that make up the backdrop of the main story are nothing if not diverse. Each level delivers a rich, authentic atmosphere and fits Wrath’s 16th Century Japanese time frame perfectly. Notable areas being the rain-sodden, rural, Ronin village, the eerily-lit, pitfall-laden crystal caves and the snow-covered bamboo groves in the late-game’s mountainous hot springs. The graveyard level on it’s own would give most modern-day survival-horrors a run for their money, boasting a genuinely discomforting atmosphere track and hostile creatures worthy of the creepiest Asian horror flicks. Even the generic guardhouses are surprisingly detailed and immersively decorated, with iconic ukiyo-e wallscrolls, illustrated sliding doors and embellished paper lanterns.
That said, Wrath is certainly not without its flaws. Enemy AI suffers from a Metal Gear Solid ‘Genome soldier’ level of stupidity, which occasionally (and inadvertently) creates the perfect defence by having guards revolve on the spot at their posts. The difficulty curve is horribly erratic and you’ll often feel like the game’s unnecessarily awkward camera gets you caught out more times than any enemy samurai.
In short though, Tenchu: Wrath of Heaven is still one of the very best titles in the niche, ninja-stealth genre. Some excellent aesthetic and audio design, coupled with a solid stealth/combat system more than make up for its shortcomings (which are only to be expected for any game of its generation). Wrath offers a tonne of replayability, with a decent number of maps and three variations on each of them. Even the local multiplayer feels fleshed-out, boasting a huge number of playable characters and both vs and cooperative game modes. With HD remakes of Metal Gear, Silent Hill, DMC and the like, it’s a real shame Wrath of Heaven and its sequel, Fatal Shadows, haven’t resurfaced on current-gen tech. But it’s still well worth a go if you’re in the mood for some ninja-themed, satisfyingly stylish, arcade action.