When Tenchu: Shadow Assassins was announced as a Wii game, a wave of scepticism came washing through the VideoGamer.com HQ office. The Tenchu series has, traditionally, been a somewhat hardcore ninja creep-about, allowing gamers to slice up samurai warriors with swords, shurikens and assorted sharp stabby items from the shadows. Tenchu has also, in times gone by, portrayed feudal Japan as a depressing, dark and eerie place. Not, you'd have thought, typical Wii material.
And so, the scepticism remained, even as the Ubisoft-sent preview code popped through the office letterbox and the disc whirred into action. Please, don't let there be Wii Remote-waving mini-games. Please...
Colour us surprised. Tenchu: Shadow Assassins is shaping up well. In fact, we've seen and played enough of the game to say that it'll probably turn out to be one of the Wii's best games for gamers. The graphics are great for a Wii game, there's affecting violence and Japanese developer Acquire has displayed a great deal of restraint with the motion sensing controls. Who knew?
The game begins with a tutorial, as is the way of the gaming world. An evil merchant (that's the game's description, not ours) has bought a shrieking girl off of parents desperate to clear their debt. Tenchu stalwart Rikimaru, of the Azuma Ninja, returns as the game's main man. A strange, disembodied voice acts as a guide, explaining the controls as Rikimaru inches his way through the shadows towards the evil merchant's lair.
What's clear, right from the off, is that Shadow Assassins retains the same shadowy assassination gameplay the series pioneered back on the original PlayStation. Hissatsu - or instant kills - are performed by sneaking up on an enemy and pressing A when prompted. A quick time event of sorts follows, where you're treated to a cinematic view of Rikimaru doing what he does best - snuffing out the life of lumbering guards in the blink of an eye.
Here are some examples: Say you're skulking about on a wooden beam above an unsuspecting samurai. Press A and Rikimaru will swing upside down like a bat and break his neck, but not without a shake of the Wii Remote and the Nunchuck. Mess up, and you'll be caught - or will have to start again. Swim about in water and inch your way towards the feet of an enemy and you'll be able to drag him down by the ankles and drown him - again with some well-timed shakes of the controllers. Most satisfying of all, creep up behind an enemy, press A, then push the controllers forward in a stabbing action, and Rikimaru will take his enemy's sword and run him through with it, before sticking it into the ground and moving on. There are loads of these killing moves, and discovering them all is part of the game's appeal.
But it's getting to the point where you can perform a Hissatsu that forms the core Tenchu: Shadow Assassins gameplay. Hayate - literally move like the wind - allows Rikimaru to speedily roll from shrub to shrub - all it requires is a flick of the Wii Remote in the appropriate direction. Like any good ninja, Rikimaru's got a few tricks up his sleeve. He can blow out candles to create shadows. By pressing the Z button you'll trigger his Mind's Eye ability, revealing the path you should take. He can chuck a shuriken to knock enemies backwards into wells, and even fire water to put out bigger flames. It's all about working out the path that'll allow you to kill everyone in sight, without making a sound.
Rikimaru's also got an interesting get out of jail free card. By flicking the Wii Remote when prompted he'll disappear in a puff of magic dust when spotted, allowing you to try again. This move gives the game an impossible to die feel, like the recent divisive Prince of Persia. Make of that what you will.
What won't be divisive is the cringe worthy Western voice acting. From the overly dramatic tones of the disembodied guide to the Azuma Ninja's Lord Goda and his cronies, it's all bad. Very, very, bad. Rikimaru himself, and alternative playable female ninja Ayame, are also disappointingly voiced, although less so than the other characters. Thank God the game makes up for it with a stunning score - with all the dark wistfulness you'd expect from a game set in feudal Japan.
In any case, the voice over work won't be the point for many Tenchu hardcore fans. For them, it's all about your score. At the end of each level you're told the time it took you to complete, the number of times you were discovered and how many Hissatsu you nailed compared with the number of guards. Achieving a perfect score will take time, practice, and, most of all, plenty of little grey cells. Tenchu isn't a combo-centred slash-em-up, ala Ninja Gaiden.
And that's why we like it, really. Shadow Assassins looks like a solid, if unspectacular Wii game that hasn't pandered to the console's mini-game, Wii waggling audience. Like Rikimaru surprising his enemies with a sword swipe to the gut, Tenchu on Wii has surprised us with its hardcore appeal. Keep a close eye on this one.
Tenchu: Shadow Assassins is due out exclusively for the Wii on March 6.