Ninja Gaiden II (Xbox 360) review
"2004 saw the rebirth of the Ninja Gaiden franchise on the Xbox, Team Ninja setting a new benchmark for the action-adventure genre in the process. Four years later and Ninja Gaiden II hasnít had quite the same groundbreaking impact as its predecessor. It doesnít have the same visual kick as the first game did in í04 and it lacks the same level of polish, but rest assured it provides all the sword-swinging, blood-bathed action youíve come to expect from Itagaki-san and company. "
2004 saw the rebirth of the Ninja Gaiden franchise on the Xbox, Team Ninja setting a new benchmark for the action-adventure genre in the process. Four years later and Ninja Gaiden II hasnít had quite the same groundbreaking impact as its predecessor. It doesnít have the same visual kick as the first game did in í04 and it lacks the same level of polish, but rest assured it provides all the sword-swinging, blood-bathed action youíve come to expect from Itagaki-san and company.
Proceedings begin when a scantily clad CIA agent named Sonia gets kidnapped whilst searching for Ryu Hayabusa, the fleet-footed ninja protagonist of Ninja Gaiden. She comes to warn Ryu of the awakening of the archfiends, terrible demons sealed away since ancient times. The enigmatic Elizebet has teamed up with the Black Spider clan, sworn rivals of the Hayabusa clan, to unleash these beasts and wreck havoc on the world. In typical one-man-army fashion, Ryu sets off solo to slice-and-dice his way through the legions of evil that await.
Ryu emits an overpowering aura of cool, and a large part of this is down to his detailed character model. His ninja garbs are crafted masterfully, and his weapons have a similarly precise and deliberate design. While he may gobble up most of the limelight, the supporting characters have also been built impressively. Team Ninjaís Dead or Alive physics engine is used to full effect with Sonia, and the archfiends are made to look as devilish and brutal as they are to fight in combat.
All of these visual qualities are magnified during impressive CG cut scenes, but the standard level environments are underwhelming in comparison to the character designs. Despite travelling to locations including a futuristic Tokyo and the Statue of Liberty, there isnít much thatíll make you sit up and take notice. Many other games on the Xbox 360 have used textures and special effects to a significantly higher level than Ninja Gaiden II, which is a shame considering how impressive the rest of the gameís visual design is.
Discounting Ryuís charm as a ninja (because everyone loves ninjas!), the characters arenít exactly magnetic. You wonít feel any great emotional attachment to any of the good guys or bad guys; cut-scenes at the beginning of each chapter move the story along, but thereís never any significant character development. But if youíre playing Ninja Gaiden II, itís probably because you want some fast-paced action with plenty of blood and gore: it has this in abundance. Ryu has a ninja armouryís worth of weaponry to (literally) tear his foes limb from limb. Each weapon has a different range of techniques and can be upgraded to encompass even more deadly attacks. The strengths and weaknesses of each weapon become quickly apparent after a couple of minutes of using them: the katana you begin with has a good balance of power and range, whereas the axe is slower to wield but possesses devastating force and reach.
Whichever weapon you choose to wield, the same tight combat mechanics are always present. Mashing the attack-button will only get you so far before herds of enemy ninja overwhelm you; a bit of thought when stringing attacks together goes a long way, and this is most evident when it comes to finishing your foes off. Youíve got a better chance of severing limbs when you put together combos, and limbless opponents can be destroyed with the obliteration technique, a bloody finisher thatíll put them away for good. Tapping the strong attack button near a dismembered foe will initiate a Kill Bill-inspired animation with a lot of blood. No matter how sophisticated you might be, itís hard not to crack a smile when Ryu goes mental with his katana (or axe, or claws, or flail). Youíll be relying on the obliteration technique time and time again, so thankfully the animation is context sensitive in relation to yours and the victimís position. For those rare occasions where the up-close-and-personal approach isnít the best course of action, shurikens and the bow are plenty enough to take down flying foes and distant demons. You can also unleash the power of ninpo (think of it as ninja magic) to scorch those around you with searing flames or sting them with sharp winds.
When youíre not slicing and dicing, youíll mostly be undertaking light platforming sections. Mobility is essential for any ninja, and Ryu makes scaling high walls look like a piece of cake. Hell, he can even walk on water! There are plenty of situations that test your fleet-footedness, but this is still very much an action-adventure game. Jumping across rooftops and running across walls only serves to make the transition between combat sequences more interesting, a goal that it accomplishes. Unfortunately, itís these sequences that begin to expose Ninja Gaiden IIís main weakness: a dodgy camera.
Youíre locked in to a close-panned camera that can make routine jumps tricky, and, frankly, tight combat encounters frustrating. In confined environments, such as the corridors of the skyscraper in Tokyo or the halls inside the Statue of Liberty, the camera has a tendency to go AWOL. Underwater sections are also hampered quite significantly by this, especially because controlling Ryu underwater is a surprisingly clunky affair in the first place. Itís not at all intuitive like the rest of the game is, but thankfully most of the action takes place on solid ground.
The camera trouble is a bit of a blow, especially considering Ninja Gaidenís renowned challenge is present. Although it isnít quite as unforgiving as the original Xbox offering, itís plenty challenging for the average gamer (even on the lowest difficulty setting). More save points are scattered around each level and youíll recover a limited amount of health after each combat sequence, but you still need to be at your best in fights and conserve healing items for when you really need them. Whether you like your games to push you or not, thereís an undeniable sense of achievement as you progress from chapter to chapter because of this challenge. The boss characters are the epitome of that statement and never fail to impress. Many of them are huge beasts that initially appear impregnable. Trial and error is often present, and having your ass kicked a couple of times acts as a humbling and (hopefully) enlightening experience. Each boss has a weakness that you may not notice straight away, but rest assured that itís there. You just have to find it.
Toppling 2004ís masterpiece was always going to be a tough job for Team Ninja, and ultimately, itís hard to argue that they have. Ninja Gaiden II simply doesnít have the ďwowĒ factor that its predecessor did, but thereís no shame in falling short to such a great game. The young upstart ninja isnít quite a match for his old master, but thatís no excuse for you to miss out on the exciting sword-fest that is Ninja Gaiden II.
Community review by PAJ89 (June 16, 2008)
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