Ninja Gaiden II
Our definitive review of this anticipated sequel.
By Adam Doree
Gamers often talk about hype and expectation and how sometimes they're let down. My expectation for Ninja Gaiden II was sky high long before it was even revealed, not because of hype, but because the original Ninja Gaiden on Xbox was quite simply my favourite game of the last console generation - an astonishing, epic action game that achieved perfection in almost every area and kept me playing though its hugely challenging singleplayer game for something like eighty hours. When its creator Tomonobu Itagaki said he was already planning a sequel for then-so-called next-generation, I could only imagine where Team Ninja would go with it next.
Unfortunately in some areas Ninja Gaiden cannot quite match the ludicrous standards set by the original game, however let me stress that this is way more marginal than some reviewers have claimed - and the gameplay formula is noticeably tweaked and strengthened. In critically comparing a sequel to a four year-old original, it's essential to adjust and correct for nostalgia value - a lot of gaming has happened since then, including several challenges to Ninja Gaiden's action crown (though no victors if you ask me) and generally, classic games (and entertainment at large) are very rarely as good by today's standards as we remember them - however hard it is to accept, that's something I firmly believe.
There are a number of fine gameplay improvements above the original. First of all the control layout is more intuitive, with less chance of error than before. For example, accidentally opening a door or item box when you didn't want to - these interactions are now controlled with the right bumper. There's a quick item select controlled with the D-pad, which is often more useful than going through the start menu to manage your melee weapons, projectile weapons, power-ups or which special attack (Ninpo) you want to load. Blocking - an absolute fundamental part of Ninja Gaiden's gold-standard combat system - is still achieved with the L trigger, but now defensive 'dashing' has replaced the 'defensive roll' from before. Upon revisiting the old game after finishing NG2 I think this feels like an improvement; you now have more directional control in spaces full of enemies and it's noticeably faster.
Another aspect that has been improved is the 'Ultimate Technique' - that is, holding down the Y button (strong attack) for a few split seconds to charge up to a burst of energy, and if you can hold on without being attacked, charge another few split seconds for a second burst, and then releasing in proximity to the enemy for an awesome and devastating combo to come out and do massive damage. Previously this required you to absorb nearby essence orbs (either money, health or Ninpo) for the charge to be built at all, but now doing so serves as an optional enhancement to the process; you can charge up with no essence in sight, and it makes combat and score-attacking your way through the levels a lot more fun. The risk-reward element is even stronger as a result, since while you can initiate the technique at any time, you can (and will) be attacked during charges, and in the game's tightest situations it's a judgement call that keeps you on edge. It's also more of a thinking point as to whether you need to use orbs to assist your charge or instead collect them up for immediate health or Ninpo top-up - situations of different stress in battle will require different plans of attack. You can also charge projectiles now which I think is new though I honestly can't remember if this was in NG1. And of course, the Ultimate Technique combo varies wildly in appearance and aggression depending on which of NG2's many cool weapons you have armed and what level it's at.
The limb dismemberment system is also a nice addition, and the carnage that you leave behind is a lot of fun. It does come into gameplay a little bit, since enemies who've lost an arm will try to suicide grenade you, but you soon get used to dealing with them. It's not as big of a deal as they made it sound in the early preview phase, but all the same it's a nice touch that looks fantastic. There are also some decent weapon additions, but I found myself sticking to a couple of firm favourites like the Viggorian Flail which is definitely worth levelling up to its full ability.
One final improvement has to be the energy system, featuring an auto-health-regeneration I had previously been a bit dubious about - I was worried it was a way to dumb the game down for the developers' openly-stated objective of wider audience appeal, but in fact it has nothing to do with that, it's just a better way to manage the player's health regardless of which difficulty setting they are playing on. When attacked, you'll see damage registered on your energy bar as, roughly speaking (and I have not measured this, it's just an estimate) two thirds of temporary (purple) damage, and one third of permanent (red) damage. The two thirds of temp damage will reheal when the immediate battle is over and the coast is clear of all enemies, but the red stays damaged and the only way to heal that up is with blue health orbs or health power-ups. This more dynamic health system adds a layer of strategy to the way you manage your health and also allows levels to flow more naturally, while at the same time not softening difficulty; you only need to run to zero on purple (not red) to die during battle so the immediacy of fighting is still as tough.
This brings me on to the game's difficulty in general, which is definitely the general talking point of the series. The original was, of course, absolutely hard as nails. The ambition with NG2 was to make it more accessible so that more people could enjoy it, while not letting down the hardcore fans who want another epic challenge. Ninja Gaiden Black and (I think) Sigma sort of tried to do this in their retooled versions of the original game, but they've now succeeded in addressing the balance in Ninja Gaiden II. Firstly there are two difficulty modes when starting the game for the first time - Acolyte and Warrior. As you would expect I played through the game on super-hard Warrior, and I can tell anyone who played the first game on hard that this mode is again very, very challenging indeed, and will more than satisfy your lust for some seriously tough action. Now I will admit I have not played through on the easier Acolyte mode, but for gamers new to the series or who are just not up for the kind of torture that Warrior will put you through, Acolyte is the way to play through and enjoy the game. It will still provide some major challenge, but brings things down to more human level and perhaps in line with the difficulty of similar games on the market. Once Warrior is completed, you unlock a further, even tougher setting called Mentor which is frighteningly difficult right from the word go, and there's even a further setting beyond that - Master Ninja - which I dare not even think about.
Ninja Gaiden II is a dream for score attack fans and everyone who wants to compare their ability with their friends' and other players around the world. The Ultimate Technique I mentioned earlier is actually available from the very beginning of the game (as are many techniques like counters), and players are encouraged to use it and chain UTs together using essence spilled from wave after wave of enemies - this is one of the best ways to go about upping your 'Karma' score, the overall running game score that is the focal point of the NG2's rapidly filling Leaderboards (on which, by the way, Kikizo was number 26 out of 6243 players last time I looked - see the above picture - which tells you two things: I completed it just as it was released in America, and by now I am probably being overtaken by thousands upon thousands of better players, so just let me have my five minutes of boasting?). Incidentally the guys at the very top of the Leaderboard are already demonstrating exceptional skill, though I haven't seen anyone playing through in Mentor or Master Ninja modes just yet.