IGN Review of Ninja Gaiden 2
If, as many have said in the past, Ninja Gaiden on Xbox is the greatest action game ever made, then Ninja Gaiden II on Xbox 360 is just a sequel. It won't redefine the way you look at action games. It won't make you cry tears of joy. Don't let that dissuade you. Sequels to such outstanding games often have difficulties living up to expectations and that may end up being the case for some with Ninja Gaiden II, but those that go in looking for some pure action will leave all smiles…and perhaps with a controller broken out of frustration or two.
Once more, we find our badass hero Ryu Hayabusa confronted by the Black Spider Ninja Clan and supernatural fiends the likes of which would cause most men to cower in fear. Ryu is no normal man. He's a ninja that thinks stealth and shadowy motion is for chumps. If a confrontation doesn't begin with a full frontal assault and end with a pile of bloody stumps, something went wrong. From one gore filled assault to the next across 14 stages, the last of the Hayabusa clan is our only hope against the resurrection of the Archfiend.
Of course, the story along the way makes no sense. If you thought the last Ninja Gaiden game was confused, be prepared to be amazed. The plot has something to do with the CIA, defeating Greater Fiends and the resurrection of the Archfiend. One of the Greater Fiends is named Volf. He's a werewolf. Volf the wolf. That should tell you about all you need to know. But who are we to complain about plot in games when Hollywood blockbusters have endings like the latest Indiana Jones movie? This game makes at least as much sense as that flick did and fans of the Ninja Gaiden universe will find a few welcome surprises along the way. In other words, don't worry if you haven't played the last game before picking up this one.
This isn't a game about story.
The adventure begins with the Dragon Blade and a limitless supply of shurikens before the arsenal expands to eight melee weapons, a host of projectiles and several devastating Ninpo magic spells. Each melee weapon can be upgraded, unlocking new combos and adding even more depth to an already robust system of combat. Some old favorites are back, some have been dropped, and a few new weapons have been introduced to the mix. The theme here is obvious: speed and gore.
Slow weapons have no place in Ninja Gaiden II. Even the massive Eclipse Scythe moves in streaks and flashes. The faster weapons like the Tonfas and Kusari-gama are a blur as you rack up massive combos. It begins simply. There are two buttons for attack, a fast and a strong move. Hold down the strong attack and you can absorb karma (most projectiles can be charged now, too) from dead enemies and unleash a devastating ultimate technique. Learning how to string the two attacks together and perform combos allows you to dish out death with vengeance and will surely win the affection of any love interest watching you play. It's just plain sexy.
Each move in the game has a percentage chance to remove a limb from one of Ryu's adversaries. A quick counterattack with the wolverine-esque Falcon's Talons might leave a foe without an arm. A slash of the massive Eclipse Scythe could remove both legs. No sharp blade on your Lunar staff? No worries. Blunt objects can literally crush body parts into explosions of flesh. Charge up your bow and arrow and the projectile can actually make an enemy explode. Even with the copious amounts of blood this sprays around the walls and floors (occasionally the blood textures hit odd surfaces and leave splotches floating in the air, but for the most part this effect is done with great success), this does not mean the battle is over. With nothing but bloody stumps, Ryu's attackers will limp, crawl and flop their way onward looking to drag the Dragon Ninja with them into the hands of Death. Ninja Gaiden would occasionally leave an enemy without a head. Here, every single fight is a fountain of blood, guts and limbs.
A wounded enemy is the most dangerous, but he's also the most vulnerable. Anything that is missing a limb or two is open to an obliteration technique performed with a touch of the Y Button. This new addition takes the stylish gore to the next level with beautiful camera cuts designed to show off some truly fantastic finishing moves. Even the boss fights can be ended in obliterations. I highly suggest it.
With all of his weapons, slick moves and killer techniques, you'd think that nothing could stop this ninja. That's true, to a point. Ninja Gaiden II sports four levels of difficulty, two of which must be unlocked, to test your merit. Even the lowest level will pose a challenge for the amateur gamer -- this is still very much a game for those willing to invest time into it -- but the learning curve is friendlier at the bottom this go around. The new regenerating health system is a boon to beginners, but adds to the stress levels at the end of the game on harder difficulties as your maximum health slowly shrinks with each successive fight. Most of the bosses have had the "cheese" factor turned down a notch. There's nothing as unforgiving as Alma was the first time you met that witch in Ninja Gaiden. Even on the harder of the two starting difficulties, most bosses can simply be overpowered by an onslaught of attacks.
That doesn't mean this game won't cause many of us to blow a gasket or two. I know it caused me to lose it once or twice. Ok, more than once or twice but the point is that the game is most often rewarding in its challenge. Rarely do you feel as if the game is cheap -- you simply aren't good enough yet and the game's relentless artificial intelligence and swarming enemies are letting you know. Only once did I feel like the game was punishing me without recourse. There is a boss that explodes without warning when you kill it…and takes you out with it if you don't know what to do. You won't the first time, or maybe for many extended times, which is never a good design choice. It's as if Team Ninja sat down and said, "How should we reward players for beating this tough part of the game? I know! Make them do it again." Lame.
Perhaps the only thing that can ultimately compete with a ninja like Hayabusa is the camera in Ninja Gaiden II. Once more, Team Ninja has opted for a viewing angle that seems better equipped to show off the action stylishly than to give the player the whole picture. You can re-center the camera with the pull of a trigger or manually move it with an analog stick, but in the heat of the battle these options are not the easiest to take advantage of. If you're prepared to face the challenge of Ninja Gaiden II, be ready to battle the camera as enemies attack you from off-screen…or worse. At times the camera can lose a worthwhile view entirely, leaving you effectively blind.
Still, Ninja Gaiden veterans won't find the camera as frustrating as it has been in the past. For starters, there is less platforming here and what does exist is easier to vault through quickly. The level design further aids the struggling camera by opening up the playing field a bit. Small hallways and caves are in the minority, largely abandoned in favor of sprawling streets and interior caverns. With less geometry in the immediate foreground, it's easier to keep the action in front of you and away from pesky walls should you so choose. The larger playing fields are a bit of a double edged sword though. Sometimes the world ends up feeling a bit empty as you run down the eerily barren streets of New York City or wander through majestic halls that have nothing occupying them save for a few fiends.
The same can't be said of the backgrounds. Though you'll tread familiar ground in places like Hayabusa Village, the backdrops to the action here are truly a sight to behold. Team Ninja games have always been a visual tour de force and Ninja Gaiden II is no exception. Filled with motion and exceptional design, especially in the later levels, these are places that will have you stopping to pan the camera around and take in the scenery.
Add in some fast moving combat with silky smooth animations and blood flying everywhere and you have the equivalent of playing through a Kill Bill flick. It's sleek, elegant and will have you jumping out of your seat in excitement. The only trouble is that our review build had trouble maintaining a solid framerate throughout the adventure. Quite a few times when there were explosions on screen the game would start chugging. Late in the game when the levels toss huge numbers of enemies at you the game would crawl. Occasionally this was actually cool -- when things move a bit slower you can actually appreciate the artful movements on screen -- but more often it left me a bit disappointed that the framerate wasn't locked down.
The music matches the game's feeling, adding to the sense of style. A mix of rock anthems and ambient tunes do a good job of adding a little extra emotion to areas of the game where the action is about to ramp up. Aside from the sounds of clanking blades and limbs being sliced, you won't even notice most of the game's audio, which is a pretty good thing considering the number of times you'll likely get kicked back to the game over screen to start anew at the last save point.
Even with a technical hiccup here or there, Ninja Gaiden II is a sight to behold and a great deal of fun to master. And yet, the game doesn't feel as special as Ninja Gaiden did. Let's face it, Ninja Gaiden Black left us a bit spoiled as far as the complete package goes. In terms of straight action and stylish, deep gameplay, Ninja Gaiden II succeeds on nearly every front. What it lacks is the fat -- that extra something on the meat to give it flavor. You can hunt down crystal skulls for achievements and try your hand at a series of Tests of Valor (extra arena style challenges sprinkled throughout the game) for more achievements, but this game is a straight shooter. Levels are kept largely linear to keep you moving from one confrontation to the next and focused on the action.
There is one new feature that is a great addition. You can now turn on Ninja Cinema at any point to have the game record everything you do. There aren't many replay features, you can only add an old-timey filter and there aren't any options for fast forwarding, but the upload and share function is sure to be a hit amongst the elite players. And of course, there's always the leaderboards for those willing to string together ultimate techniques and massive combos to rack up the karma points.
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