Review by Allyourbase

Reviewed: 08/14/08

A disappointing effort (or lack thereof)

The old adage is true: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Ninja Gaiden Black for the Xbox was the closest to perfection an action game could get, chock full of high-octane action and just enough challenge to spur the most dedicated of gamers.

So when it came time to make a sequel, the blueprint seemed to be simple: Take what made Ninja Gaiden Black awesome, spiff up the graphics with the Xbox 360’s capabilities, throw in a few minor tweaks and voila! Instant classic.

Right? Wrong.

Instead, Team Ninja went the opposite way and Xbox 360 owners get saddled with a rushed and very flawed package that is nothing like the game that preceded it. Make no mistake, this game has its bright spots, but far too many weaknesses take the veneer off what could have been (heavy emphasis on “could have”) a top-flight action game.

Team Ninja seemed to have found a reliable workaround for the camera issues that plagued the first iteration of Ninja Gaiden. There were still extremely minor issues in Black, but for the most part the camera was spot-on, which makes the step backward it takes in Ninja Gaiden II absurd. Maybe the people at Team Ninja have a hardcore spandex fetish or something, but the only thing that consistently visible in camera is Ryu’s um... junk.

The camera is zoomed way too close to see what’s going on in Ryu’s periphery. It gets even worse when fighting in tight quarters. The camera settles into a place where a player can’t see jack. All that makes for a frustrating experience, especially with camera placement more important than ever.

The combat is slick and stylish. Ryu has access to more weapons and some old favorites return with a few tweaks, making the artistry of dispensing death much more varied and nuanced. Obliteration techniques — think fatalities — provide an added dimension of visceral violence and another level of depth to the combat.

And there will be plenty of combat. A lot. Almost too much. To the point it becomes a mind-numbing exercise of moving from room to room and slaying hordes of monsters. There’s a lot less puzzle-solving and platform elements and much, much more hacking and slashing this go-round.

Which would be fine if combat were anything like Ninja Gaiden Black. It’s not. Black was brutal in its difficulty, but at least it was fair. In Ninja Gaiden II, there is no such fairness.

To illustrate, imagine you are Ryu. You’re in a football field and you’re surrounded by three or four monsters that are also suicide bombers. On the other side of the field are four archers. Up in the bleachers are four more snipers. On top of all this, you’re wearing blinders, the kind horses pulling carriages are wear. That’s combat in Ninja Gaiden II in a nutshell.

Combat scenarios seem to be engineered strictly to set you up for failure and confusing that for difficulty. While most player deaths in Black could be attributed to lack of skill or player error, in Ninja Gaiden II it can be anything outside the realm of the player’s control — usually getting hit by an enemy or projectile from offscreen.

The sole reason the regenerating health feature was added seems to be a copout to the fact it’s virtually impossible to escape a fight without taking any kind of damage. That smacks of poor and lazy programming. It’s almost like Team Ninja played through an early build of the game and deemed it too easy.

“This is too easy. Hey guys, this is a freakin’ Ninja Gaiden game we’re making here! It has to be hard! We have a reputation to uphold!” one of the designers must have said. While myriad things could have been tweaked and altered to make it a litte more challenging, Igataki and Co. took the lazy way out — add more projectile spam and muck up the camera. Yes, it’s more difficult. But it’s also more irritating. And complaining about it only elicits responses like “Get better, n00b” or the like.

It is hard — and for all the wrong reasons. Denial is not just a river in Egypt.

Boss fights lack the added intensity and genuine challenge that the previous game had. Instead, it’s a highly uneven experience. Either Ryu gets creamed in a few seconds or the boss falls with the bat of an eyelash — there’s no middle ground. Bosses seem to attack with little regard for their health and many of them seem to have throw attacks long enough for somebody to take a bathroom break.

It’s too bad, really, because when the combat gets going, it really gets going. Limbs are flying, blood is spraying everywhere. It’s a beautiful sight to behold. The best part is the Ninja Cinema feature allows the carnage to be recorded and shared via Xbox Live.

The sad thing is it never really gets going for too long and too infrequently, especially at higher difficulty levels. Instead, players are forced to employ “cheap tactics” to get past particularly troublesome areas. Look at any message board and the same responses seem to crop up. “Use the Lunar Staff/Eclipse Scythe.” “Spam Flying Swallow.” Where’s the fun in that?

From a technical standpoint, there’s plenty to gripe about there too. The graphics are beautiful but don’t look that much different from cutting-edge Xbox visuals. At best, it’s merely a cut above what players saw in Ninja Gaiden Black. It doesn’t help level design is bland and uninspired. As mentioned earlier, much of the platforming elements of the previous Ninja Gaidens, including the NES games, has been stripped away and replaced with more combat. Most levels consist of running into a large room, fighting a horde of enemies and then moving on to the next room.

Perhaps the most aggravating — perhaps “infuriating” is more appropriate — is the in-game loading that takes place. In Ninja Gaiden Black, most of the loading came up when Ryu moved from one area to another. In this game, Ryu could be running up a staircase or going through a door, and all of a sudden... “Now Loading.” Wait, what?

There’s no excuse for the jarring stops in breakneck action. But it’s there and it really does bring the flow of the game to a screeching halt. It even takes a second after you hit the pause button for the game to actually pause. I can’t even count how many times I’ve died because I couldn’t pause and use a health item. When — and it is a question of when rather than if — you die, you’re forced to sit in front of yet another loading screen.

The throwaway story I can live with — who plays action games for the story? — but when a game built on a reputation for premier action gaming has this many flaws and reeks of a hastily constructed product, it’s inexcusable.

It’s truly disappointing that a game with so much promise falls short of some lofty, albeit manageable, expectations. Perhaps if Team Ninja actually bothered to sit down and really iron out all of the kinks, Ninja Gaiden II would be a bona fide Game of the Year candidate.

Instead the faithful are rewarded with a patchwork, mailed-in effort. It’s plain arrogant for Team Ninja to assume we will like it just because it’s Ninja Gaiden.

Only the truly hardcore (or masochistic depending on your perspective) should consider playing this game.

Rating:   3.0 - Fair

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

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