Tenchu Z

In some games, nailing the stealth sweet spot is like trying to hit a hummingbird with a throwing star. If enemies are too tenacious, sneak-and-strangle missions devolve into trial-and-error pandemonium. But in Tenchu Z's case, the bad-guy AI swings too far in the other direction. Samurai sentries have the memory of a calculator watch. When caught in mid-creep, an assassin just needs to roll around a corner or slither into a conveniently spacious crevice in a nearby wall and wait. Within seconds, the rent-a-ronin go back to their rounds, practically inviting players to insert katanas between their vertebrae.

There's something to be said for this kind of zero-resistance game design. Silently subduing and snuffing evil henchman can be immensely satisfying. The fact that they're easy pickings means that there's less friction between players and their gruesome goal. To make up for this ease, there are 50 missions, which would grow tiresome were the game's stalking grounds less lovingly rendered. Period villages, castles, and harbor towns make excellent ninja playgrounds. Nimbly leaping from wall to wall and creeping across ornate rooftops by the light of the full moon is a hoot. Tenchu isn't a total pushover, though: The guards are as thick as a sack of sumos, but every so often, players will encounter a vigilant mongrel or a noisy rooster that will raise the alarm.

Beyond the game: Rich character customization allows for tons of ninja cosplay fun. A vast wardrobe of outfits, creepy demonic masks, and other exotic paraphernalia can be purchased. The new hairstyles and robe patterns are much more compelling than the skill upgrades.

Worth playing for: Tenchu's best kill is a shadow play. The silhouette of the target, projected by candlelight on the fusuma door, pauses just long enough for a lightning sword strike through the paper divider.

Frustration sets in when: Ninja are usually encouraged to slay from behind, but Tenchu Z frequently forces a face-to-face duel. The game's clumsy swordplay makes those a real bummer.

Final judgment: Instant ninjitsu for gamers who don't have the patience to struggle with an unforgiving actioner like Ninja Gaiden.

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