The Tenchu series may not contain the best stealth ever devised, but it's certainly near the top. When the first game debuted in 1998, I was blown away by its sneaky gameplay, the freedom to roam rooftops, and bloody assassinations. (Incidentally, it was the first stealth game on consoles, though totally overshadowed by Metal Gear Solid one month later.) After being barraged with the same formulaic genre offerings, Tenchu: Stealth Assassins was something truly new under the sun. An excellent example of how the 3D revolution could usher in original and exciting games previously not possible, it earned my complete respect and admiration.
Fast-forward to 2003. In my eyes, Tenchu: The Wrath Of Heaven is a far better game than the fatally flawed Tenchu II, but the developer has avoided any potential risks by returning to very familiar territory. I can understand the desire to re-elevate the franchise's viability after the poor showing in Birth Of The Assassins, but the latest installment doesn't bring many new elements to the table besides the enjoyable ninja powers and the limited two-player modes. It may be smart to "play it safe" from a business perspective, but it's a bit disappointing to find that the disc is just a basic update.
That's not to say the game is poor by any means—in fact, it's quite the opposite. Crouching on a precipice and waiting for the split second when two guards each turn their back requires patience and timing. Pouncing from above, landing between, and dispatching both guards undetected is a satisfying and immediate payoff for the tension that Tenchu can produce. It's also a big plus that developer K2 has made the stories and levels different enough for each character to warrant completion with all three. (Definitely take the time to unlock the newest face, killer-for-hire Tesshu. His stealth kill animations are incredibly amusing to say the least.)
As a straight return to form, Tenchu: The Wrath Of Heaven is solid entertainment for fans of the stealth genre, but it does have improvements to be made. I agree with Matt's assessment of the rough edges, the foremost being the contrived and abstract level design. Most of the areas are warrens of twists and turns, following no logic or architectural philosophy. The designers seem so intent on giving players enough corners and nooks to hide behind that they completely destroy any sense of believability. One of my favorite aspects of the first Tenchu was that you could intuit how areas were laid out based on your own knowledge of the real world, and make up strategies on the fly. With The Wrath Of Heaven, there are restrictive linear paths through the nonsensical lairs, making the game more about eliminating enemies room by room than using your stealth skills in a holistic way.
I was also a bit put off by the limited actions your ninjas can take. While completely understandable and forgiven when the series debuted, it's been nearly five years since then. More effort needs to be put into opening the game up and giving players greater freedom to act out their black-pajama fantasies. For example, you can't pick up and move bodies, which has become par for the course in stealth these days. You can't lie completely flat or squeeze through "unauthorized" narrow spaces, and you can't drop caltrops and run at the same time. If it seems logical and possible by ninja standards, steps should be taken to make it so. Any future Tenchu entries need to move past the stiff framework of abilities established on the PlayStation hardware long ago.
There are also a few other areas that need polish like the wonky camera and the serviceable graphics. But despite all the areas that could (and should) be tweaked, Tenchu: The Wrath Of Heaven still manages to deliver an undeniable amount of very compelling gameplay. There's just something incredibly attractive about stepping into the role of a mysterious shadow warrior to dispense your own justice. Since grappling from rooftop to rooftop never gets old, newcomers and fans alike are sure to be enthralled with the game's throat-slitting, shuriken-tossing action. Hopefully K2 will set their sights for the series just a bit higher in the future, though.