Tenchu: Wrath of Heaven is an inarguable classic, to me. We all have games that are special to us - titles that, curiously, aren't mere entertainment or distraction. Games that we dedicate ourselves to mastering. Games with more than a modicum of depth. Games that capture our imagination, often without us noticing how special they are until years later - long after they've slipped out of (and back into) our collections.
Such is the case, for me, with Wrath of Heaven.
Rikimaru, Ayame & Tesshu
First off, there are three campaigns - three stories that, together, tell the central narrative. Rikimaru is the middle-ground of speed and power, Ayame is fleet-footed, and Tesshu is a lumbering powerhouse. There are ten (very different) stages - the level design is one part easygoing platformer, one part beautiful period recreation and, in some stages, one part creepy supernatural atmosphere. For each stage, each character has three layouts to choose from.
Tesshu's campaign is only six stages, but still - seventy-eight layouts - that's a ton of possible gameplay, if you're the completionist sort of gamer.
But what grabs me (and holds me) about Wrath of Heaven isn't the quantity - not by a long shot. I love the levels (a bamboo forest, towering fortresses, ronin villages, a merchant's estate). I love the music - even the screen for choosing your inventory has a catchy, authentic-feeling sound. I love the sharpness of the character designs, the incredibly detailed textures, and the fact that the whole thing runs at (a pretty steady) sixty frames per second.
There are two audio tracks - English and Japanese with subtitles - a must for any self-respecting not-quite-pretentious consumer of Japanese media. And while the gameplay, at first, feels a little unresponsive, over time one discovers it is incredibly fast (uniquely fast, for a stealth title), with perfectly tight control. With a little practice, you're soon leaping from rooftops, dashing between stealth kills and canceling out of the instant-kill animation to zip across the room and take out a second enemy before he can turn and discover your handiwork.
At first, what makes anyone sit up and take notice of Tenchu are the stealth kill animations. It is one of the most gloriously violent (but beautiful) games I've ever played. Each of the three player characters have unique styles and methods, and six different animations each (front, back, left, right, airbourne, and the-enemy-is-on-an-incline). Rikimaru's style is (relatively) straightforward, while Ayame's is a combination of brutal acrobatics and speed.
I still remember the first time I did a pike-flip from a rooftop, fell a hundred feet and landed with my knees around an enemy's face with Ayame. With a twist of her torso, she snaps the ronin's neck, and flips off his backwards head. Eugh. And yes!
Tesshu is just as brutal - favoring a well-place needle to the base of the skull, but his most spectacular is probably when he grabs the enemy's left arm and pops the elbow socket. Then he grabs the right arm and repeats. But just for laughs, he finishes it off by grabbing the guy's head, twisting it one-hundred-and-eighty degrees, and letting the mangled body walk for a few paces before collapsing. Eugh! And awesome.
And this spectacular violence never comes at a cost of gameplay. It never allows boredom either, as you can instantly cancel out of the animations whenever you wish - you only see these gorgeously choreographed deaths when you want to.
I suppose all this gushing and meandering has made me lose sight of my point: Tenchu: Wrath of Heaven is the closest I've ever come to a perfect ninja simulator. It is a stealth game, to be sure, but it's also the quickest stealth title I've ever played - and its depth isn't merely a result of memorizing enemy locations. It comes from all the little techniques one discovers over time - like tapping the crouch button as you hit the ground from a jump, negating the impact and allowing you to instantly transition into a stealth kill.
Like the fact that, along with your blades - and even with almost forty additional items and weapons available to you - all you ever really need to take into a level with you is a single ball of rice.
It looks great, it sounds gorgeous, and it plays better than any other stealth series I've gotten my mitts on. You should try it - it's awesome. That's why.