Artificial intelligence, eh? Who'd have it? Not the guards in Tenchu: Time Of The Assassins, that's for sure. Picture the scene: you're infiltrating an enemy hideout and spot a guard. You toss a bowl of poisoned rice directly into his path. Now, instead of drawing his sword and running to check the shadows from which it was clearly thrown, he picks it up and devours it. He starts convulsing from the poison, so you step out from the shadows and kill him - and get a big fat 'stealth kill' points bonus, despite actually being as stealthy as an ocean liner.
It's this sort of thing that undoes an otherwise welcome PSP ninja outing, because otherwise there's lots of fun to be had from sneaking around and killing people. Missions are usually about five minutes long, making it easy to pick up and play, and there are several characters, each with their own stories - and fans of the series will be pleased to see their Rikimaru and Ayame again.
There are several problems, though. For starters, the graphics are poor, with glitchy scenery, repetitive textures and as many right-angled edges as Tomb Raider on PSone. The camera is particularly bad, repeatedly pointing at the ground. You can hold both shoulder buttons to enter 'free look', but as this is constantly necessary and rather uncomfortable, extended play sessions can be painful. And even when the camera does point the right way, the draw distance scuppers your view, with every level featuring darkness or fogging about 25 yards in front of your character. As a result, you have to rely on a number in the bottom left of the screen to tell you how close the nearest guard is.
Don't worry, though, they're even more short-sighted than you. Several times we walked straight into the sight-line of a guard, freezing in clear view, while he seemed to stare straight at us. After ten seconds, though, he ignored the big ninja-shaped silhouette outlined against the sky and walked away. And thin trees may as well be brick walls - guards won't spot you. It's like when Top Cat used to hide behind lamp posts.
Also, every guard has the same pattern of behaviour when you approach him - even if you've died and restarted - which means that although you can tackle different routes through the level, trial and error can be far more effective than trying to be stealthy. When you can run into open space because you know without even looking that the brainless guard's not watching at that time, a lot of the challenge is lost.
However, stealthy play does have its rewards. While sword-fighting will get you through a level with a 'thug' rating, undetected play results in 'grand master' status, which opens up new items for you to use in your quest. It's all interesting enough to keep you playing and trying these new items is fun, especially when they provide new ways to tackle levels. The best, however, is the grappling hook, which lets you effortlessly scale buildings. Available right from the start, it offers a real feeling of freedom.
The Story mode catalogues the usual life of a ninja, with curses, potions and moments of bloody massacre never far away. It's pretty well done and the cut-scenes are OK, although when the plot results in a game-friendly mission objective of 'don't let anyone see you', it seems a little contrived. But any game which subtitles an evil laugh and writes "Mwa ha ha ha!' is OK by us.
Then there's the Level Designer mode. This allows you to place scenery found in the main game and populate it with guards, items and objectives. You can then use the results as a co-op or versus map online, or get your mates to download your fiendish creations.
In the end, the game is a bit like a bowl of rice. It doesn't look that appetising, but there's plenty of it and it tastes OK... even though you could be eating fillet steak for the same price. So not really that much like the rice, then. Sorry.
Sneaky ninja fun scuppered by duff visuals and stupid artifi cial 'intelligence'. But Time Of The Assassins can still be rewarding if you can tolerate its many eccentricities.