Review by Sarumusha

"Action All The Way"

Ninja Gaiden II may be about a ninja, but he's a ninja who's a little more direct in his approach than you may expect. Rather than sneaking around on rooftops and avoiding the guards, this game is all about non-stop action. Violent, intense, fast and at times horribly hard, it truly shows the rest of the genre how it's done.

Let's get the story out of the way first (it won't take long). You play as Ryu Hayabusa, the latest in a line of warriors sworn to protect the world from the demon-like creatures known as Fiends who would like nothing more than to turn the planet into their personal playground/lunch. To achieve this nefarious aim they join forces with an evil ninja clan and steal an artefact capable of awakening the Archfiend, a long-dormant (if not imaginatively named) being of incredible power. And that's about it. That's the excuse for 14 levels of constant battle and torment with enough blood to fill a couple of oceans.

It's fortunate, then, that the beautiful carnage that ensues is more than enough to render the pitiful storyline irrelevant. This is a pure action title – your objectives never get more complex than “get from point A to Point B and kill everything in the way.” Scarcely a minute goes by without something trying to cut bits off you, and you need to be on your toes at all times to stay alive. This is not some generic brawler where cowardly enemies will circle you until you've killed them one by one. NG2's cast of miscreants will swarm you from all directions, bombard you with projectiles and stab you in the back without hesitation. This means that the Ai may be the first thing you notice about the game - the sheer level of aggression displayed by the enemies is unrivalled, not to mention the way they'll switch between attacks (even the lowliest thug has a fairly extensive move list) and only utter ruthlessness on your part will win the day. The only way to keep most of them down is to completely destroy them - this is one adventure where overkill is often a necessity.

Luckily, delivering terrible vengeance is a simple matter thanks to the game's straightforward yet deep combat system. There are two attack buttons, fast and heavy (though given the frantic pace of the combat even heavy attacks would still lash out with impressive speed) and these are used to set up simple combos. It's also possible to fend off enemies with a selection of projectile weapons, divided between pure damage dealers and mere distractions, or discover scrolls that will grant you the ability to cast magic spells. These spells vary in type, providing such useful services as homing projectiles, radial attacks and partial shielding. It's also the case that a key part of the combat lies in making your enemies easier to handle by removing their limbs, thanks to most of your weapons being equipped with a selection of combos that have a chance to slice off arms, legs and heads (or, in the case of the blunt weapons, smash them to a pulp). A dismembered enemy can instantly be taken down for good by getting close and tapping the Y button. Sounds easy enough, but bear in mind these fellows travel in packs and attack without mercy, and even when missing a limb they'll press on until you deal with them, sometimes trying to drag you with them by using suicide attacks. On higher difficulties just winning a quick brawl against a few regular enemies can feel like an achievement.

That's not to say that the game is completely impossible. After winning a fight you will automatically recover a portion of your health, and defeated enemies drop stuff called Essence. This comes in different colours with different purposes – blue heals you, red acts as fuel for your magic and yellow is used as money to buy healing items and upgrade your weapons. All of these essence types can also be absorbed on the spot to power “Ultimate Techniques,” massively destructive attacks that annihilate enemies and grant you invulnerability while they're taking place.

Another welcome aspect of the game is the arsenal of weapons you can wield, especially when you consider that each one demands a genuinely unique play style. The staff, for example can used with grace and finesse or simply employed as a bludgeon, while more exotic weapons such as the flails and kusari-gama (chain sickle) might have idiosyncrasies such as the need for Ryu to briefly ready the weapon before striking –for example, in the latter case it's sometimes necessary for him to twirl the chain to build momentum. As you pay to upgrade each weapon, its list of available moves expands, allowing some of them to be truly devastating.

While meting out all this destruction, Ryu and his victims look good. Character models are detailed and the range of enemies you encounter is nicely varied, from ninja assassins and giant bugs to strange demons and cyborgs. As the battles rage on some impressive and grisly gore is on display – corpses and severed limbs stay where they fell throughout the stage (still a relative rarity in the genre) and you'll see big splatters of blood and clods of flesh adhering to walls after you've dismembered them. Sadly, the environments are not so impressive, bar the odd area, and many dull textures and sparsely decorated empty spaces are on show. It's just that you're often distracted from these problems by the constant combat. Animation deserves a special mention because it really makes the game exciting to watch. The quality of the animation means that every move looks impressive, especially the brutal finishers, and it helps to deepen the sense of immersion when you've got ten characters on screen all pulling off these insane martial arts techniques at once. Try watching another player and you can truly appreciate the high standard of the animation in this game – the one glaring exception is the way that Ryu walks like he's in danger of having a trouser accident.

The audio aspect is more mixed. The sounds of battle – in other words, what you'll be hearing most – are very good, with plenty of screams of agony and rage and the distinctive sound of your weapons slicing and smashing. However, the music is often drowned out and tends to be rather forgettable when you do get to hear it, a couple of battles being the exception. The voice acting is competent enough, but the script being delivered is rather uninteresting and hardly original.

Of course, no game is perfect and now we come to the flaws. The cosmetic shortcomings have already been mentioned, but there are some nagging annoyances with the game mechanics. First of all, the camera is not always obedient. It's seldom likely to be the difference between victory and defeat, but sometimes the camera will snag on scenery or be unable to keep up with the action. There are also some boss battles where the camera is more concerned with showing a dramatic view of both Ryu and the enemy than being of practical use. It's especially irritating when a boss is accompanied by henchmen, who may attack you from off-screen. There are also a few questionable design decisions in mission structure. Just like in its predecessor, aquatic combat is slow and boring. It's possible to fight an enemy while skimming across the surface of a body of water, but the tiny range of combos in such situations means it comes down to hammering the attack button and hoping they don't break out any especially fast or tricky attacks. There are also some sections where you're required to clear out constantly respawning stationary underwater enemies before you can progress, and these sections, where you sit blowing them up with your spear gun, sometimes for great lengths of time, are incredibly tedious. Similarly, bow combat can be slow-paced and fiddly.

It's also worth offering a warning about how hard the game can get, and this may put off some players who are used to more accommodating titles. The lowest difficulty setting isn't too bad at all, and the next one up is fairly easy to become very good at, but the two unlockable settings feature huge leaps in the challenge level that will relentlessly punish many who attempt them. The challenge can sometimes hamper your play style – you end up having to restrict yourself to a small number of effective moves, a disappointment when each weapon is capable of so many techniques but a necessity when you consider how harshly errors of judgement will be punished. Genuine “cheapness” is rare, despite what you may have heard, though it is there at times – many bosses have inescapable grapples, and if you end up stunned or staggered other enemies will seize the chance to strike you with horribly damaging attacks. So, it's not that the game is constantly unfair, just that it requires a lot of dedication to master the harder modes. Consider yourself warned should you try any difficulty above Warrior. Of course, the drive to master every difficulty and the leaderboards for such varied categories as speed, score and mastery of individual weapons offer loads of replay value.

Overall, then, NGII has its flaws, but the good points outweigh them many times over. If you're looking for a pure action game that offers huge amounts of challenge, satisfaction and replay value, it's ideal. Just don't expect it to go easy on you.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Originally Posted: 03/17/09

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

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