There will be blood…lots and lots of blood.
There are action games, and then there is Ninja Gaiden. Fans of Itagaki’s revered franchise already know what to expect when they boot up their copy of his latest title. Ninja Gaiden II will not set the world on fire or re-invent the wheel, but it will satisfy fans of the original all while delivering one of the most satisfying and brutal action games ever created. Everything about the game screams sequel. More blood, more overly-proportioned women and of course demons all mixed within a convoluted story that screams Japanese anime. If you come for the combat there will be no disappointment on your face, however if you are expecting the revolution of the genre you might want to check your expectations at the door.
The game starts off as your pal Muramasa is entertaining a buxom young lady named Sonia – who bears a striking resemblance to Rachel from the previous game. Some members of the Spider Ninja Clan bust in kidnap the girl and you are whisked away into a tale of demons known as fiends all in the name of resurrecting a great fiend known as – wait for it – the Archfiend. Trust me the story is as goofy as it sounds, but it is well told through gorgeous cut scenes, and while convoluted it does entertain. However, Ninja Gaiden has never been about story and this sequel is no exception.
Combat has always been the star of the NG games and that is no different here. While most action games rely on style or dial-in combos Team Ninja’s approach has always been about depth. While on the surface things seem simple with a block button, two attack buttons and a projectile, the sheer amount of combos, weapons and ways to obliterate your opponent are seemingly endless. You being the game with the trusted Dragon Sword and throughout the first level you will discover new moves to perform. Unlike other games of this type the key here is neither offense nor defense, but instead a solid mixture of both. Knowing when to strike and when to block becomes key, and the better you get at it, the more rewarding the game can be.
This is probably Ninja Gaiden’s most charming quality. The more you play the game the better you get at it. A relatively simple concept that is sorely overlooked in most of today’s games. The two attack buttons are broken down into a quick and strong slash and can be combined with each other for devastating combos. These can also be used in conjunction with the new ultimate technique that allows Ryu to charge his equipped weapon by taking in the souls of dead enemies and unleashing them in a rage of slashes splattered with blood and body parts.
Ryu also now has access to what is called an obliteration technique, which is essentially a simplified fatality. If any enemy you encounter loses a limb, simply tap the Y button next to their body and you will perform a brutal finisher. These range from simply beheading your opponent to more animated things such as slicing them in half or performing multiple dismemberments. Be aware that while one armed enemies are open for this attack they are also dangerous as they become kamikaze in nature doing anything to get one final blow on Ryu.
One of the best aspects about NG II’s combat is the selection of weapons. While some games have a choice few that are fun to toy around with, all of Ryu’s weapons have distinct features that make them worth checking out. Some personal favorites include the Lunar Staff which has some devastatingly painful combos, the Falcon’s Talons which give Ryu blades on his hands and feet similar to Wolverine and of course the Eclipse Scythe capable of dismembering almost any enemy with a single slash. Every weapon has its own set of moves, combos and obliteration techniques and can be upgraded throughout the game adding even more combos, thus continuing to increase the depth and complexity to Ryu’s arsenal.
Projectiles and magic (also called Ninpo) also make a return along with some upgrades. Everyone’s favorite shurikens return, again with a limitless supply as do the exploding shurikens. The bow is much easier to use this time around, although still a bit bewildering at times. You can also now charge up your arrows for more powerful strikes, but in a game that moves this fast finding the right time to charge can be cumbersome. Ninpo also returns in a variety of flavors including a fire wheel and even a wind technique that slices enemies in half when used properly. The downside to Ninpo is that it feels less like a necessity and more like an excuse to make you invulnerable during some of the more chaotic encounters.
Speaking of chaos I am sure everyone remembers just how difficult the first NG game could be at times. Normal enemies could just as easily wipe you out as some bosses. While NG II still retains this challenge Team Ninja has tweaked the game to make newcomers feel a bit more secure. For starters there is now an easy difficulty available from the outset called Path of the Acolyte. Don’t be fooled though, this is still a challenging game even on the easiest setting. The other big change is the regenerating health bar that will give you some breathing room after some encounters. Checkpoints have also been increased meaning you will no longer have to find 20-30 bad guys over and over because you keep dying at the boss. While most of this sounds like it makes the game easier, that is certainly not the case. These improvements do make the game less stressful but it has also been balanced with these luxuries in mind, especially on the harder difficulties. You will face more enemies and turtling will no longer work all the time, making NG II one of the most challenging, yet rewarding experiences available on any console.
Visually Ninja Gaiden II has moments of brilliance and layers of disappointment all at once. While the original game was a visual masterpiece on the original Xbox, its sequel is less impressive overall. The game still looks and feels like a Team Ninja game. This is in no way a bad thing for some, but it doesn’t stack up to some of the more technical achievements on the console. The level design is another story though as once again Itagaki has outdone himself here. Granted it makes no sense why Ryu is in Tokyo one minute and a frozen tundra the next each level feels distinct and is laid out perfectly for combat. The art design is what really shines here, especially in levels such as the rain-drenched city or the underwater cavern full of ghost fish.
There are some hiccups though that are worth mentioning. For starters the frame rate can be inconsistent at times and downright embarrassing at others. There are invisible walls all over the game that are annoying especially when you can see a crystal skull on the other side. The camera can also be a thorn in your side, but to its credit there is no camera that could keep up with the action here. You can control it manually with the right analog stick, but it is much better to become best friends with the right trigger, which re-centers the camera behind you. Honestly by the end of the game the two triggers had become the two most important buttons in the entire game.
Much to the dismay of many fans Ninja Gaiden II does not feature an online setup in the traditional sense. You cannot duke it out ninja style with buddies online, nor can you progress through the game co-op. What is here is a series of Leaderboards that stacks you up against your friends and the world based on karma score and time. Another new feature is the Ninja Cinema. Similar to Halo 3’s movie maker Cinema allows you to begin recording at any given time during a level and upload the results to your friends. You can even add an old-school kung-fu film grain filter for effect. The online options are innovative, but we would still love to take the action online with competitive or co-op modes in some form or fashion.
Ninja Gaiden II is the type of game that will mollify its fanbase and not much else. There is nothing here to lure in new fans to the series, but what is here is exactly what you would expect from a sequel to the original game. Now that Itagaki has left Tecmo (on not so good terms) this could be the final chapter in the franchise created by him, his swan song if you will. Action fans will be hard pressed to find a more rewarding and challenging experience on any console. If you are a fan of the series there is more than enough here to warrant a purchase.