Review by magx

"Awesome foundation, marred execution."

Awesome foundation, marred execution.

Preface

Ninja Gaiden (xbox) is, in my opinion, the single greatest action game ever made. Or, it was, rather, until it was topped......by itself.....see, it was re-released in 2004 as Ninja Gaiden Black, and the game was made even better with some truly great additions. I have poured literally several hundred hours into both games (more of which went into Black) and, frankly, without any hint of superiority or anything, I basically mastered them. I mean, I better have, in that amount of time. So, when I heard that Ninja Gaiden II was being released for the 360 (naturally, or so I thought) I was elated.
Now that I have had the game for quite a long time, I can say that, it's a mix of some really great additions and features, and some really bad design decisions. I haven't spent nearly as much time with it as I have the originals, and I haven't even fully completed it, as I have a Path of the Master Ninja playthrough waiting for me to get back to it (in Chapter 2). It's been waiting quite a while, but I do intend on completing it. Ditto for the Mission Mode. I have all of the missions completed, and several on Master Ninja, but I still have many to go that are only done on the first two or three difficulties. I also still have to gold the survival missions.

I intend on eventually doing all of the above mentioned things, and I would have preferred to review the game once I have done so, but it's already been a year and a half since the game released. So, these will be my opinions of the game as of now, which includes beating it on Path of the Acolyte (once), Path of the Warrior (twice), and Path of the Mentor (once), which are all basically Normal, Hard, and Very Hard from the first two games, and a dozen or so hours in the Mission Mode. I'd say my total playtime is around 70 hours or so. I say all this to give you, the reader, an idea of where I am coming from, and to let you know that my opinion is liable to change. If it does, I will update this accordingly. Also, I should mention, I have not touched the game in roughly a month and a half, so I am working from memory here.

Graphics

Decent. The character models look great, but many of the level textures are bland, and the level design is, at times, quite weak. When Ninja Gaiden was released on the xbox, it was state of the art for consoles at the time. This was consistent with Team Ninja's philosophy of maximizing the hardware as much as possible for every game, to allow for the highest level of visual fidelity, and to make sure they did this while maintaining a silky smooth framerate, which is very important for games of this nature. This game, while technically adequate, is again plagued with spotty art direction and, much worse, an unfortunately poor framerate at times, which is especially evident in one admittedly memorable scene in Chapter Eleven, which I will not spoil here.

The framerate issues are not rampant throughout the game, but they are there, and this is a huge letdown after how astonishingly well NG and NGB ran on the original xbox. The occasional framerate issues are , however, due to the best part of the graphics: the special effects. This game is chock full of dismembered limbs, blood, and gore flying everywhere, and the resulting carnage when you engage in battles with a dozen or so foes at once is really something to behold. It's just too bad that this can cause the framerate to slow significantly. This could have been avoided if Team Ninja had avoided the one major improvement, yet pitfall in this game: the decision to just amp everything up to 11, which resulted in a huge cluster****, which, on one hand, leads to moments of sheer adrenaline and gory wonder that far surpass what the xbox originals could do, but also, to moments marked by a poor framerate, clouded vision, the loss of the amazing gameplay balance and beautiful, explosive, yet measured combat of the first, and extreme frustration. I'll expand on this in the gameplay section of the review.

Sound

Again, a mixed bag. Excellent battle cries and weapon effects. However, the excellent musical score of the first is followed up by mostly bland, forgettable music, none of which, to my recollection, evoked any real emotion in me. Nothing, at least, like the excellent song in Chapter 13 of the original, a sombre number that accompanied Ryu's return to the destroyed Ninja village.

Gameplay

The game consists of mostly combat. Almost all of the adventure elements from the original were removed, which actually works to the game's benefit, as the emphasis here was clearly meant to be on combat, as that's where most of the focus clearly was during development. So, just like the first game, except this time for almost the entire game, you will be running on walls, jumping on heads, decapitating fiends, bird flipping, and using a multitude of diverse weapons which allow high combo counts and a great feeling of being a bad ***. Except amped to 11.....along with the frustration.

See, the combat in the first was very deep and very skill based. Each enemy type required a different attacking style based on the difficulty you were playing and the weapon you are using. While this is still true in this game, to some extent, it matters less, as the combat system has changed in a way that works both to the games advantage, and to its detriment. This time around, a limb dismemberment system has been implemented, but it's not merely a visual effect, as it has actual ramifications for gameplay. An enemy with an arm or leg (or both) missing will attack differently, including a new suicide attack. Leave an enemy without legs, and he will pull himself to you on his arms, grab you, and blow himself up, taking most of your health, or outright killing you, depending on the amount of health you have, and the difficulty you are playing on. They can be shaken off, although in the middle of the frantic combat it can sometimes happen so quickly you don't see it coming. In order to avoid this, you must utilize a new technique called the Obliteration Technique (from now on to be referred to simply as the OT), which is basically a finishing attack on a delimbed enemy, executed by simply pressing Y when you are standing right near them. The problem with this is that enemies can be delimbed fairly quickly, which limits combat potential in a way. Also, their AI is reduced from the original.

To compensate for this, the game throws double, and sometimes triple the amount of enemies at you compared to the original, but with reduced health, which results in a crazy, frantic ballet of quick dismemberments and kills, and, because the OT is so useful, you end up relying on it, especially on the higher difficulties. Also to compensate for the AI and ability for enemies to be delimbed and killed very quickly is the drastic increase in the amount of projectiles enemies throw. The black spider ninja, who you fight through much of the game, constantly throw incendiary (exploding) shurikens at you, especially on Mentor and Master Ninja. Damage from these can be avoided by exploiting invincibility frames, which are present in your dash move (this replaced the roll from the original), during the OT's, during wall based attacks, the guillotine throw, and a few other moves as well. You end up needing to exploit this very often. Enemies will also throw you if you are standing around, so you are forced to be on the move due to that as well as the aforementioned projectiles.

So the combat focus has changed from a beautiful balance of offense and defense against 3-4 really intelligent enemies to complete chaos. A highly offensive combat system, where you move from enemy to enemy, dispatching death as quickly as possible, yet at the same time, being incredibly mindful of the myriad of projectile attacks that will be thrown your way. This keeps you on your toes, is incredibly fun, and looks amazing, but, it also forces you to repeat the delimb/OT cycle too often, somewhat limiting the combat. This is especially evident on the top two difficulties, in which you must abuse invincibility frames very often, or perish in seconds. That means lots of guillotine throws, OT's, dashes, and wall jump attacks, which adds to the challenge and forces you to be aware of your surroundings (good) but also leads to much repetition and abuse of ''safe'' moves (bad).

So, ultimately, the combat is still really awesome, and on the lower difficulties (which still live up the series' reputation for difficulty) allows one much room for improvisation and combos. It's been improved in the sense that it is [i]very[/i] visceral and satisfying, but, in some ways, it's also a huge step down. I frame it as such: Ninja Gaiden and Ninja Gaiden Black where fast, furious, visceral, really hard, and fun, in a cerebral and artistic way. Ninja Gaiden II is insanely fast, insanely visceral, insanely hard, insanely fun, but not in a very cerebral way. NG and NGB where the artsy martial arts movie; NGII is the Hollywood popcorn flick. With some questionable level and enemy design. I mean, at some points, you fight floating robot sentry guns. They just aren't any fun to fight. And some of the levels are ugly and poorly designed.

Enemies when killed still drop essence which acts as money (yellow), health (blue) or magic (red). The essence can also still be sucked up or absorbed and this lets you unleash the Ultimate Technique (UT). Each weapon has 2 different UT's, each deadly in their own right. These consist of either a huge combo or a single super powerful strike. And, like the combat, these have been amped up, and just look and sound amazing. They are a huge step up from the game, and are actually a great end result of Team Ninja's focus on making this game as crazy as possible. Simply an amazing sight to behold.

Returning weapons are the Dragon Sword, the Dragon's Claw and Tiger's Fang, the amazing, versatile, sexy Lunar Staff and the combo heavy Viggorian Flails. The new weapons include the Kusarigama, which is a chain sickle, and an awesome, graceful, weapon to wield. A mix of finesse and range, it requires some extra skill compared to some of the others, but in the right hands, is very deadly. Also new are the Tonfas (think police batons), the Falcon's Talons, which are claws affixed to your hands and feet, and the Eclipse Scythe, which is a heavier weapon, but not quite as slow as you'd expect. Unfortunately absent are the nunchaku, the wooden sword (which had some amazing hidden propeties, and one of my personal favourites, the Dabilahro, which the Scythe is meant to replace, but only faster, as the creators felt the Dabi too slow for the new combat speed.

Weapons can be upgraded at the shop, although you are limited to when you can do it this time around,
and the amulets are gone. Also gone are the scarabs. This helps to streamline the game, as they were going for a more combat oriented, action approach, but, in addition to the linear, straightforward levels and removal of puzzles, it also feels shallow, as I really liked the small adventure game type touches in the first game. However, the combat is ultimately really satisfying, and why I love these games, so, in some ways, it's a welcome change. This will ultimately be up to the player to decide.

The bosses in the first game(s) were almost all incredibly designed, and really fun to fight, since they presented opportunities to really hone your skills in a one vs. one with a tough opponent. Each required quick reflexes and a good balance of offensive and defensive techniques. A great thing about the bosses is that they were varied. It' wasn't always 1 hulking monster after another like so many other games. Some were your size, but very agile and strong, presenting a unique, fun, and visually pleasing challenge. This is still true, although to a lesser extent, and bosses also repeat too much in this game. Their overall designs are not nearly as good or memorable as they were in the first, save for two or three really awesome exceptions. Some of them are frankly stupid and not fun at all to fight, like the aerial ones, or a couple near the end I will not mention for fear of spoiling anything. Suffice it to say they are a definite letdown.

They are also unfortunately almost all easily bested by spamming certain attacks, which takes away from the game, especially as a follow up to the amazing boss fights in the first. Not all of them are folly for spam, and, some are genuinely fun to fight, but many aren't, and whatever challenge they present (and a great challenge that is for many of them) this can be avoided by simply exploiting their weakness. Spam the right attack and you can even catch some of them in an animation and defeat them without taking damage. Aerial scythe attacks can be spammed with reckless abandon, and, just like the normal enemies, they are prone to spamming themselves, but also take much more damage than they should. The combat in this game really boils down to get them before they get you, and just makes sure to try and avoid the projectiles and spammed throws while you do. You hit for too much damage, and the boss designs are just a step down for the most part.

In the harder difficulties, the bosses are joined by smaller enemies, to increase the pressure on you, although this is one time where the camera can present a problem, as the camera has difficulty following a boss and you plus 4-6 other enemies all at once. Just like the first two, the best thing to remember when playing this game is the recenter camera button (R trigger). You should get to a point where you are pressing it automatically, always giving yourself the greatest view when you need a perspective change. As the camera was an issue in the first, it too is an issue here. It also seems to sit a tad too low and close, really reducing your peripheral vision.

The Mission Mode is not included in the game form the start this time. It was released some time after the game, and must be purchased separately, for ten dollars. I was a bit annoyed at this, and had initially decided not to get it, but, as I love the series and, despite my complaints, still love this entry in it, I relented and bought it, and truthfully, it was worth it. They added Survival missions this time around, one for each weapon in the game. It's just you and one fully upgraded weapon in an arena against infinite foes, and it's the highlight of the game. It distills everything down to its core, and it keeps you on your toes the entire time. Pure fun, insane challenge, worth the price of admission alone, although, overall, just like the game proper, it's a step down from the amazing Mission Mode present in Ninja Gaiden Black. If they hadn't included the Survival missions, I likely wouldn't have been happy with it.

Challenge

The difficulties in this game seem to be as follows: Acolyte is easier than any other NG mode. It's meant for the new player, although it's still tough, according to many newcomers. Warrior is like Normal, that is, fairly easy for a veteran, but really challenging for a new player. Path of the Mentor is MUCH harder than Hard ever was, and is akin to Very Hard from the first two, although I think it's even tougher, although I have heard it argue that it's a bit easier. I can't ay with certainty, as I have played the originals much, much more than this, and consequently, know them inside out and am much better at them. As for Path of the Master Ninja, well, it's not up for debate. Master Ninja was [i]insanely[/i] hard, and garnered Ninja Gaiden Black quite the reputation. Path of the Master Ninja is even harder. It's just nuts, folks.

Unfortunately, though, due to the projectile spam (and if you think the black spider ninja spamming exploding shurikens every second is bad, wait until you get to the POTMN archers) camera issues, hard to see (at times) instant kill suicide attacks, and slowdown (plus clouded vision due to all of this) there will be many deaths which were not your fault. Ninja Gaiden and Ninja Gaiden Black were very tough games, but, even on Master Ninja in NGB, never cheap. Every death was the players' fault. It was always because you could have done something better. A mistake meant death, and perfect play meant not getting hit. It was excellent. In this one, you can play as perfectly as you want, you're still getting hit, and you're still going to die.

Overall

The game is a mixed bag. On the one hand, it's a step up and insanely fun. The combat is beyond comprehension at times, it's that crazy. The new weapons are awesome, the Ultimate Techniques are better than ever, and everything runs even faster than the already fast originals. On the other, the level and boss designs leave something to be desired, there are framerate issues, and the difficulty is stupid at times. Not since Ninja Gaiden III on the NES have I said a Ninja Gaiden game was unfair, but damn it, this one is at times. I can still handle it, I guess because of my proficiency with Black, but, unlike that one, I am going to 100% this one because it pisses me off and I want to kick its ass, not because it's the most amazing game ever and I cannot stop playing. That honor still belongs to Ninja Gaiden Black, my personal best game ever and an absolute masterpiece. This game's legacy will be the sequel that could have been. Missed potential. Awesome foundation, marred execution. Sad, really.

Overall Score: 8/10


Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 12/18/09

Game Release: Ninja Gaiden II (US, 06/03/08)


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