Rikimaru and Ayame, mainstay ninjas for Lord Gohda, return in another Tenchu adventure. This time, they're tasked to rescue a princess who has escaped from the clutches of her evil husband. They soon found themselves trapped in a village surrounded by enemies who're after the girl. To get out of the situation, the ninjas will have to rebuild the village by performing over 30 missions in and around the village.
The above, in a nutshell, tells the story of Tenchu: Dark Secret, another obligatory big-name arrival onto the dual screens of the DS. Unfortunately, while challenging stealth sequences and sweet attacking moves are commonly associated with Tenchu on various consoles before this, its DS counterpart doesn't exactly enact the same kind of adulation. True enough, Dark Secret tries to make you do a lot of things, especially with the variety of items that you can use to inflict pain on your enemies. However, weak enemies undermine that intention, and supposedly highly skilled ninjas in the game end up becoming one-trick ponies, simply because the enemies just aren't worth their salt.
The half-baked enemies in Dark Secret are a result of some fundamental gameplay issues. If you didn't already know, the Tenchu series adds stealth elements to the traditional ninja action genre. Quietly taking out your enemies is therefore part and parcel of the game. Now, if you've played a stealth action game, you would have experience the pressure of patiently waiting for the right moment to kill an enemy. Where should you hide so that he won't see you? When will he turn his back towards you so that you can sneak up for a kill? Will he do a sudden u-turn when you're sneaking up? All these experiences ensure that you will get a sense of achievement when you successfully perform a kill. Sad to say, these stuffs are almost non-existent in Dark Secret.
While the game still encourages stealth play (you get more points if you remain invisible throughout a level), the horrendous AI means that you will most probably breeze through the levels with ease. To put it bluntly, the enemies in Dark Secret are either too blind, or too stupid. They seem to have mastered the art of being oblivious to the surroundings, and will not notice your presence even when you are standing right beside them. The enemies' span of movement is also very limited. In the unfortunate event that you do get noticed, you can easily retreat to a far away area for hiding. The guards will usually let you go, and will forget that you even existed when you resume your sneak attack. As a result, despite the game's wide array of inventory at your disposal, you'd find no incentive to use them.
Nevertheless, if you want to derive more fun from this title, you may still want to try out these items, which are categorized by types. A trap type item like bamboo traps, for example, can be laid in the path of an unassuming enemy. A trick type item like a poison dumpling, for example, is commonly used with the intention to immobilize an opponent temporarily. A projectile like the shuriken is often used for attacking someone from a distance. You can also combine the use of items to create combo attacks. For example, a directional timed-bomb can be used to propel an enemy towards a desired direction. By placing another trap in that direction before hand, you can inflict further damages on the unsuspecting victim. Sadly, the weak AI puts all these good ideas to waste - why should you bother to lay a trap when you can easily slash these buggers till eternity?
To be fair, the game does attempt to make you kill your enemies with different methods. It has a reasonable selection of enemy types, including bandits, samurais, rival ninjas (in both gender), crazy bears (!) and the occasional bosses. Whenever you effectively kill one of them, you will "collect" a picture for your Kill Gallery. For example, if you laid a bamboo trap on a crazy bear, and successfully killed it, the picture will show the poor bear being "bamboo-ed" to death, together with the Japanese/ Chinese character "Pierced". Since there're many ways to kill an enemy, a completist may find it compelling to collect all these pictures by experimenting on these many ways to kill. Some of these methods are easy to achieve, while others are a little trickier. For example, I accidentally killed a bandit when he stepped onto my bamboo trap, and jumped in pain into the water. He eventually drowned to death, earning me a "Drowned" picture in the process. These pictures can also be sold in exchange for money, so that you can buy items from the shop. If you don't intend to do so, you can use materials that you collect during the missions to create these items. You'll have to learn to make items though, and the learning process usually takes place after you rescue a villager who has the skill in making a certain item.
These distractions aside, Dark Secret is essentially just an average game. The experience is further made worst by the lack of variety in the missions, which can be summed up in one sentence: kill everyone in sight. You may be asked to protect a villager, or prevent enemies from invading your territory, or infiltrate an area, or kill a boss. Regardless of the mission purpose, you will end up killing whoever you see on the map anyway. After half an hour of going through the motion, you will probably be glad that each level takes at most five minutes to complete.
The game also utilizes the double screens of the DS effectively. The fighting action takes place on the top screen, which is also used for cut-scenes. The touch screen will usually show a handy map during a level, interrupted only when you earn a Kill Gallery picture. During a cut-scene, the touch screen also shows the written text, which makes up the bulk of the story-telling. On the topic of cut-scenes, you may want to note that they are presented in manga-style static drawings. I believe that most people would prefer cinematic cut-scenes, but I find this approach rather refreshing, even though some may call it cheap. The over-the-top brush stroke writings also provided a nice wuxia feel to the overall presentation.
It's therefore a pity that the in-game graphics pale in comparison. The action appears pixelated, and the landscape doesn't alter from a very limited selection of maps. If the game wants you to go through the motion for 30+ missions, it should at least provide more diversified environments for you to do so. The audios in Dark Secret aren't any impressive as well. The game uses some random Japanese-style music in an attempt to match the Ninja theme, but they end up sounding boring and forgettable. Voice-overs are limited to unintelligible groans and moans, and sound effects are so standard that you won't notice them.
Like many games in the market right now, Tenchu: Dark Secret has also multiplayer and online features. A Wi-Fi marketplace, which provides the opportunity for you to trade items online, is included. The game also has a multicard versus feature that allows up to four players to participate wirelessly in some mini-games. If you really enjoy stealing rice dumplings from your friends, this would be a chance to boost your dumplings count. Otherwise, the features feel rather run of the mill, and are not exactly inspiring.
To summarize, I'm rather disappointed by the quality of this game. It isn't exactly a failure, but it just didn't produce a more engaging playthrough. The game shows some good potential with its inventory system, but it wasted it away by being lazy with the other aspects of gameplay. If you are a Tenchu fan, the best way to approach this game is to treat it as if it had never happened.