Review by Crofty
"Challenging but fair? Not any longer."
I think a lot of us are in agreement that most modern games are simply too scared to piss gamers off by being too difficult; developers don't want to put off potential customers by making their games require too much effort, to the extent where all we hear is accessible in previews for future games. Fortunately, the original Ninja Gaiden on the X-Box, followed by Black and Sigma on the PS3 offered those of us who seek a challenge a good opportunity to test our gaming abilities to the max. The thing is, there's a fine line between challenging and fair to downright cheating at the player's expense. The original Ninja Gaiden managed to just about hit the correct area, with the majority of player deaths solely blamed for what the player did wrong, rather than the game for doing something unfair. That was one of the many reasons why the original game is considered the best action game available, but for Ninja Gaiden 2, Team Ninja have decided to delve into the world of unfair play, and overlook the one area of difficulty they succeeded so well in for the original game.
Upon starting a new game on Ninja Gaiden 2, you'll be given two choices: Path of the Acolyte, and Path of the Warrior. I think it's fair to assume that the developers intend for Acolyte to be Easy mode', while Warrior is Normal mode' (with the further two unlocked modes, Mentor and Master Ninja, offering Hard and Extremely Hard respectively). Choosing your difficulty will ultimately lead to one of the most important decisions for your gaming experience. Being a veteran of the original game, I picked Path of the Warrior, so I can't fully say what the major differences are on Acolyte, though I did see some enemies replaced when I watched a friend playing (similar to how Ninja Gaiden: Black replaced enemies depending on the difficulty).
After a short, and pretty uninteresting cut-scene involving Ryu Hayabusa and some woman called Sonia (yes, rest assured, the storyline isn't very good), you're thrown straight into thick of it, with a swarm of ninjas surrounding you, ready for slicing and dicing. Players of the original game will immediately notice that the combat is much faster paced, with little room for defensive and slow paced movements. At first, you wonder if this increase in speed is better, and for a while it does feel more satisfying and enjoyable while also looking incredibly cool on screen. The amount of enemies being hacked up, with blood and limbs flying all over, is nothing short of impressive with even the most basic of players being able to make themselves look like Gods due to the way the combat presents itself.
To emphasize on this increase in speed and stylish combat, the game's camera zooms in so you can get a better view of the carnage, but it is here where one of the main problems dwells. While Team Ninja may think it looks infinitely more excellent to see you fighting closer up, the actual gameplay results in the player not being able to see what they need to see. With the camera being placed so close behind Ryu, it's somewhat difficult to keep your view over the battlefield. With enemies being much quicker to take a stab at you, it can be extremely annoying when the camera is just too close to Ryu for you to predict where the hits are coming from, and especially so when the amount of enemies on screen increases. There's simply not enough of an overall view for the player to see the enemies properly, so be prepared to take off-screen hits constantly. It's true that the camera was an issue in the original game, but it's somewhat disappointing that, rather than fix one of the main sources of criticism for the original game, Team Ninja actually make it worse.
Camera issue aside though, there are some pretty neat improvements in Ninja Gaiden 2, not least being the inclusion of moves called Obliterations. When an enemy has lost their limbs, you can get up close and finish them off with a tap of the Y-button which results in an excellent visual feast of blood and gore that never gets boring. The old combat mechanics are still present too, with similar combos for old favourites like the Dragon Sword and Vigoorian Flails, along with the Ultimate techniques which can be performed via charging your weapon with the Y-button.
When fighting basic enemies, such as ninjas or lesser fiends, the combat most certainly does feel better than the original game. The addition of new weapons adds to this feat, with weapons of death such as Tonfas and the Eclipse Scythe offering different combos for different play styles, but better yet, your favourite weapon can be used for the entire game, as Team Ninja have made sure that every encounter can be beaten with any of the weapons available (that may explain why there are achievements for completing the game with only one weapon at a time). Of course, you don't have all the weapons available from the start, but after completing the game you can carry over your weapons and then proceed to beat the game with just one weapon if you wish.
The lack of heavy weapons may upset some, but once you get a feel for how Ninja Gaiden 2 plays, you'll see why the lack of Dabilahro or the Dark Dragon Blade is probably a good thing. These weapons would probably take too long to swing about when the game has so many enemies that constantly barrage you with attacks. That does lead to another issue, though, as while up-close enemies are bound to attack you as often as possible, you'll notice that there is a heavy increase in enemies with projectile abilities than what was in the original game. Unfortunately, you'll end up getting hit by off-screen arrows, explosive shurikens, rockets and magic blasts. Arrows and shurikens can be avoided for the most part, but when you're trying to string together a combo against a close opponent, only to be shot down by an off-screen arrow, it's somewhat annoying, and it happens quite often. The military themed enemies seem to abuse this trend the most, with occasions of relentless rocket barrages being thrown your way. Needless to say, an ample supply of health potions is a must, until you figure out some way of avoiding off-screen attacks, though I doubt that's even possible with the somewhat downgraded dodge move.
In the original game you could quite easily rely on the roll/jump combination to avoid the majority of attacks, but in Ninja Gaiden 2 the roll is replaced with a slide that seems to do the same as a roll, except now it doesn't seem to be as handy. This is especially noticeable on boss fights, with certain bosses seemingly having unavoidable grabs or moves, even when you execute a dodge exactly on par with their timing. Oh yes, be prepared to take hits that have nothing to do with your skill, and indeed, be prepared for many occasions when the game will just take the piss for the sake of it. When you die in Ninja Gaiden 2, you can actually blame the game for it now, instead of yourself.
As I said earlier, the combat and the game itself, for that matter is at its best when you're fighting the bog-standard groups of enemies. It's here where you can enjoy the feel and flow of the combat, and execute any number of moves, Obliterations, Ninpos and Ultimate techniques to mass satisfaction. But because the pace of the game is that much faster, the developers have felt that the bosses should accommodate this too, and so you'll be posed with raging maniacs that will just charge at you unleashing attacks with huge areas of effect (seemingly unavoidable, at times), and grabs that can be executed even under the most absurd of circumstances. There's little time for the player to dodge/jump and navigate around the boss to work out a viable strategy, no, it simply works more efficiently to just stock up on health and hack away until the boss is dead. You'll not find many encounters in Ninja Gaiden 2 that echo battles with Alma, Doku or the vast array of enjoyable, fair but challenging bosses in the original game. Don't get me wrong, there are some memorable encounters in Ninja Gaiden 2, but the unfair ones outbalance the good ones overall.
One area that Team Ninja usually excel in is visuals, so that would be one area you would expect Ninja Gaiden 2 to perform admirably. Unfortunately, the game isn't at-all very impressive; I can quite honestly say that the game looks like the original Ninja Gaiden but in HD. When you return to Hayabusa village later on in Ninja Gaiden 2, you'll be surprised at just how little the visuals have come since the last time you were there, it really does look like an X-Box 1 game. But maybe the visuals would be acceptable considering the ramp up of enemies on screen, and the variation in locations? Yes, they probably would, but Ninja Gaiden 2 is also extremely unpolished, to the extent where texture problems, tearing, and major framerate issues occur. There's one section specifically where the framerate dipped so much the game was practically moving in slow-motion for me.
On the other hand, there are some occasions when the game will look impressive, such as the level set in the city Rome, along with huge underground and beautifully artistic caverns brimming with dragon fiends flying about, or even the initial level you start in at Tokyo. These visual displays distract you from the otherwise poor effect on display, but you really shouldn't need to be distracted; Team Ninja simply should have done better. It is nice to see that they at least managed to add a bit of attention-to-detail though, with Ryu physically flicking blood off his stained weapons and then sheathing them afterwards, along the impressive soundtrack that helps to keep the locations feeling fresh and vibrant. The few minor touches do help, but ultimately the visuals are a let-down on the whole.
Another area of Ninja Gaiden where we don't expect issues is in the actual gameplay itself, but even then the game has occasions where glitches will occur. The major one for me being an encounter against a worm-like boss who somehow manages to get stuck or completely disappear if something screws up; I actually had to restart to game three times to be able to fight it properly, which is ridiculous. For reasons such as this, it can often feel like you're playing the test version of the game, rather than the actual retail product we've paid for. Hopefully a patch can sort out the issues, but personally I feel that any finished game (bar MMOs) should be as polished and bug-free as possible once it hits stores. This clearly isn't the case for Ninja Gaiden 2.
Ultimately, I think it's pretty easy to figure out that Ninja Gaiden 2 isn't as good as its predecessor. It does show hints of potential from time to time, with the more enjoyable combat and variation in level design, along with minor updated functions such as optional use of the Talisman of Rebirth, or the less cumbersome use of the bow (which now has a welcome aiming-dot). When Ninja Gaiden 2 works, it works very well, maybe to the extent where it betters the original game, but Team Ninja simply do not keep the game to the highest quality throughout the whole experience. There's too much occasions of unfairness; the visuals are too dated and unpolished; the game has several glitches; and the camera does too well at hindering the player's enjoyment.
Even by putting the original game aside, Ninja Gaiden 2 on its own merits is still a disappointment. We now have a larger selection of action games available, such as the excellent God of War games or even Devil May Cry, so it's even easier to point out Ninja Gaiden 2's flaws when other games do things better. Of course, there is still a lot of enjoyment to be had in Ninja Gaiden 2, especially if you enjoyed the original game, but if this is indeed to be the swan song for franchise, then maybe it should be remembered for its efforts on the last-generation of consoles, rather than the new.
Reviewer's Rating: 3.0 - Fair
Originally Posted: 06/10/08
Game Release: Ninja Gaiden II (EU, 06/06/08)
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