Review by Geistosan

"Raining Blood"

You know, a ways back I was into the whole "I need to play challenging games" phase wherein I'd play something based on its difficulty curve rather than whether or not I'd enjoy the experience: Virtua Fighter 4, F-Zero GX, Devil May Cry 3, Viewtiful Joe, and of course the Ninja Gaiden series on Xbox. I have Ninja Gaiden Black on my Xbox hard drive just for easy reference and having beaten it once, I know I'm going to get sliced up for this, it was and always will be just a Devil May Cry clone in ninja pajamas. Which isn't to say it's not a decent game, it's just not the masterpiece that it was made out to be with an awkward camera, phoned-in adventure elements (game developers, please stop making me scour a level for one pittily key to unlock a door with), and unnecessary platforming elements.

Of course the combat was spot-on and that's all I was ever looking for in the game. Fast forward to Ninja Gaiden II, and things go hideously wrong. Maybe all that real-life drama with Itagaki-san and Tecmo boiled over into the game's development or maybe Team Ninja just thought they had a guaranteed hit, but this game should've had a lot more time invested in it. Which isn't to say it's a bad game, no sir, just that there's a good game desperately trying to claw its way out of all the ridiculously cheap difficulty and insane amount of gore. Sadly that good game is swallowed up in poor design choices that will make most players give up before they've even gotten to the final boss.

The storyline if we can call it that is Ryu Hayabusa, ninja extraordinaire, is back in action after the Black Spider ninja clan and the fiends are working together to resurrect the Archfiend, so Ryu's village gets attacked and burned (again) so he must embark on a quest that takes him around the world battling hundreds of fiends with the aid of the hilariously busty CIA agent Sonia. If that sounded like epic storytelling to you it's quickly dragged down to cheesiness levels with all the blood, boobies, and stilted dialogue. But you don't play action games for the story, do you? I know I don't, but for what it is it works. It's a storyline delivered with the type of silliness you'd expect from a B-movie.

Graphically, the game falls short of the Xbox 360's true potential, instead opting to just be a high resolution version of Ninja Gaiden Black. Everything's real shiny, which is the first rule of making a next generation game, but nothing's really detailed to where it grabs your attention. Then again I guess there's only so much you can do with character models that look like Barbie dolls. The graphics are really ho-hum, save for all the blood splattering the scenery.

Of course the real meat of any action title is the gameplay, and for a while I was going to say Ninja Gaiden II is hands-down better than the original. Why was that? Simple: it strips away all the unnecessary roaming around, collecting items, and platforming. This is straight-up action with you being funneled along a linear path filled to the brim with baddies. There may be an occasionally jump you have to make here or there, but largely those sections have been stripped out to make way for more battles. They don't even give you a map, because the path is so straight and obvious you don't need one.

Secondly gameplay has been made a lot faster, usually a battle will go by in an explosive blur of motion and body parts which brings me to the next reason why it's better: so much blood. This one ramps up the gore so much it's hard to believe this isn't a God of War game. Blood splatters the street and body parts are littered everywhere. You want a visual point of reference for where you've been in a level? Just look at all the bodies, blood, and parts that practically spell out "Ryu was here" and you'll know exactly where you just came from. It plays into the gameplay too as an enemy missing an arm or leg is just as dangerous since they'll grab you and sacrifice themselves in the hope of killing you.

Taking a page from God of War are the obliteration techniques, basically you go up to an injured enemy and press Y which performs a bloody finisher, each one different depending on the weapon. Most of the time this is the key to winning battles again insurmountable odds: chop off limbs as fast as possible then follow up with a finisher to thin the herd. It's great to watch, especially since you've got so many different weapons to choose from, each with a lengthy move list. All the ninja weapons are here plus some newbies: the dragon sword, the staff, the Vigoorian Flails, tonfas, double swords, kusari-gama, giant scythe, and my personal favorite the Falcon's Talons which are claws on Ryu's hands and feet, turning him into the human equivalent to a blender about to make some fiend smoothies.

Largely though the gameplay is the same as the original, albeit with some tweaks here and there. Shooting the bow is less of a hassle (not by much, but still) since it's now in a third-person view with an aiming dot, running on water is easier since you just tap the A button, plus you regenerate health after a battle. Overall all this would sound like it's a winner: visceral combat with many different weapons and moves, fountains of blood and body parts to satisfy the Re-Animator fan in all of us, no half-asked platforming or adventuring elements, plus regenerating health this time with finishers as well, so why aren't the good times rolling?

Difficulty: the very reason most people play Ninja Gaiden anyway. I don't agree with people that the Xbox Ninja Gaiden was the greatest thing since sliced bread, but one thing it was not was cheap. I never felt like the game was being unreasonable in its difficulty. Ninja Gaiden II is downright cheap, no room for debate on that front. Sure the game is fun for a while and it will sucker you until much later in the campaign, I'm going to say about chapter ten or so, where the game just throws everything it has at you with both barrels. It seems everybody in the game is either brandishing explosive shurikens or shoots projectiles out of their mouths. And when you're crowded with say thirty bad guys at minimum who are all shooting those projectiles at you?

So this is what it feels like to be a test dummy for the latest military hardware. You will be bounced around the arena after each explosion, so many explosions you can't even see who's throwing them or what direction they're coming from. I'm surprised there isn't a boss who just grabs Ryu by the neck and shoots a nuclear missile right down his throat. But what about the fancy move set, you ask? You get swamped by so many enemies, all of whom have the exploding shurikens and/or projectiles, and there is no way to lock onto any of them. You'll be focusing on one lone soul and chopping his arm off, you're readying the killing blow when all of a sudden Ryu whips around and starts going after some other guy while the amputee grabs you, performs its suicide attack, and takes off a healthy chunk of your life.

That's right, you can point Ryu in any direction but he'll decide on his own what you're doing is wrong and start attacking someone else, getting beaten up in the process. The problem with having all those moves for the weapons is that, primarily, they're all designed to beat on one enemy at a time which quickly becomes useless when you're absolutely swamped with enemies. Forget the dragon sword at this point, give me Kratos' Blades of Chaos any day. Ryu doesn't have anything really for crowd control in his arsenal. Ironically the weapons that do, like the scythe, have the least amount of moves to them. Save points are randomly scattered, so it's either get through a battle by the skin of teeth and hope there's one ahead as you press on or fall back to the previous one.

There aren't any check points, so it's largely all or nothing. Initially the save points regenerate health, thankfully, but these concessions do little since the difficulty has been ramped up to levels of extreme cheapness. All the enemies also have many unblockable attacks, most of which involve grabbing Ryu and beating him mercilessly for what seems like an eternity.

That brings me to the boss fights, all which involve no finesse or strategy whatsoever. Any time I'd try to circle my opponent and wait to dodge then retaliate got me grabbed and slapped right on death's door. The only strategy is to fling yourself at them like a rabid dog and start mashing on them. And if you loved those boss fights, get ready to face them all again on the latter levels. It was at this point that I flatly refused to. Playing Ninja Gaiden II is like scaling a mountain, nearly reaching the tip after falling down so many times; dragging your bruised and bloodied body across the rocks and peering at the top only to see that you have to climb another portion of the mountain as long and steep as what you've already done. Tack onto that a broken dodge mechanical that avoids maybe a quarter of all enemy attacks at best, and you've got one of the most frustrating experiences in gaming history.

Now picture all that difficulty, but now picture it with a horribly broken camera. It's so bad in fact you'd think Team Ninja invested serious time and effort into making it as ineffectual as possible. Your view is so obscured with all manner of beast crowding your TV, add onto that the camera whipping around aimlessly with it trailing so closely behind Ryu you can't see a single thing. In fact on one of the boss fights with two flying bosses the camera literally breaks: getting hung up on everything and shaking madly like it was being handled by the world's most schizophrenic cameraman. All this is on normal, mind you, and all you have to look forward to as replay value is playing the game over again on an even steeper difficulty with silly multi-colored versions of Ryu's ninja garb.

The final cherry on top is the various glitches that should never dog such a high-profile release, especially on a next generation console. Enemies will magically disappear and reappear, some will get caught in strange animation loops while others are desperately trying to get at you but can't jump over some rocks. There are times when they get sucked into the environment, shaking as badly as the camera viewing them, and then are spat out on some other plane. Possibly the worst offender is the framerate which dips dramatically whenever there are dozens of enemies onscreen at once, which is often.

In the end you get a game that has some decent combat in the beginning but quickly goes downhill fast, turning into a swill of horrendous camera angles, cheap enemies, and nothing to really recommend this game unless you want something to raise your blood pressure. This game is cheap, not difficult or challenging in any fair or logical way. It's like the developers came in having a bad day and decided to make Ninja Gaiden II to take out their frustrations.

Ninja Gaiden II isn't the game that made me stop specifically playing challenging games, but if any game could've single-handedly done that, this one would've been it.

Reviewer's Rating:   2.5 - Playable

Originally Posted: 03/25/09

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

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