Super Ninja Ryu Hayabusa is back and bloodier than ever.
The Bad: Water combat is more frustrating than fun, suffers from some performance issues, no stand alone challenge mode, some boring levels, the Ninja Cinema feature doesn't work very well.
Since I had beaten Ninja Gaiden for the original Xbox 4 years ago a game that I hold as one of my absolute favorites ever I've been highly anticipating the sequel, I've even played trough the remakes Black and Sigma and even Dragon Sword for the Nintendo DS to try to make the wait a little bit easier.
Now that sequel is finally here but when I saw the review scores coming in I thought I was gonna be disappointed, and I was...but only very slightly.
Ninja Gaiden II is an amazing action/adventure title and definitely a worthy sequel to the original.
The core gameplay structure of Ninja Gaiden for the original Xbox remains the same but for most the time everything ramped up to eleven.
The combat which is the major strongpoint of this series is where most of the improvements lies which is impressive since I thought the combat in the previous game was as perfect it ever could be, well I was wrong.
The combat in Ninja Gaiden II is way more brutal and faster then ever and it sticks more closely of the ninja way of being able to take your foe out with very few attacking moves.
Most of this is thanks to the new so called Obliberation Techniques, almost every attack you'll make will result in the enemy loosing a limb and after that you can take them out right away with an incredibly stylish finishing move. Be warned though, enemies will become more aggressive and suicidal after they have lost a limb knowing they cannot return home, and all they can do is to simply take you out with them. So I would advice you to always try to pay attention to your enemies as in the last game actually all of them oppose a real threat.
There has been a few new weapons added in this game and they all are very fun to use and feel very well balanced too. And all the older weapons that make their return now much more fun to use aswell as they now have more combos and some have been reworked. There is only really only one weapon that I miss from the last game and that is the sword called Keitsu, it would have been very nice to see it here but I can live without it.
The use of Ninpo aka ninja magic has been greatly improved as well. Not only does it look way more impressive when you use them but you can now aim your attack a bit more precisely to deal most of the damage out on a more powerful foe rather to the one that is standing closest to you. They also work better now to make you get trough some really though and intense situations than before and it's definitely worth it to upgrade your magic aswell for even greater effect.
You can also now change your equipment on the fly thanks to the improved interface. By simply using the d-pad you can directly take a potion or change your weapon or ninpo without taking you out of the experience and having to remember where all the enemies are positioned.
There was a similar system in Sigma though but you could only pretty much use potions and since the game did not stop you would much rather use the Start Button Menu as you simply don't often have the time to look trough and use your what you have with the d-pad while in the middle of a fight.
The previous game also had some frustrating sections when platforming as you often had to line up your jumps with the camera. The platforming is still here but it's lighter and most of it is optional to find hidden items within the environment compared to the first game where you had to pass some of these frustrating sections to be able to progress.
The puzzles are lighter aswell but sometimes a bit too light. For example you find a look door only to find out the key is in the next room meaning it will sometimes only take you less than a minute to unlock that door sure, but it's an unnecessary way to break off the pace.
Before you also ran into these so called Fiend Challenges without really knowing it and you ended up fighting enemies in a room for a time that would seem like forever. These have been made optional aswell by finding portals that will take you to an arena like environment.
The last game had some free-roaming elements but this game is more straighforward with branching paths mostly leading the hidden items.
This isn't too bad though as it feels a bit more like the old-school Ninja Gaiden games and you'll travel to many different places around the world too.
Besides the free-roaming aspects was pretty much fake as you always had to go to a certain place to progress, while it was cool to see how some environments changed over time there was sometimes confusion on where you had to go next and this game has less of that. Sure it would have been cool if this game had featured some real free-roaming but I personally don't mind this design.
The Ninja Gaiden games has always had very responsive controls and they even feel even a bit more responsive here, at least the movements with the analog sticks making some special moves easier to nail.
There was only one thing about the controls that took a while getting used to for me personally. And that is that the first person camera view is now entered by holding the left bumper instead of clicking the right analog stick and to be honest I prefer the old way and having the Karma score mapped on the left bumper which in this game has to be enabled in the options menu by hitting the back button.
The camera of this series is something that is often brought up for discussion, some hate it and some don't.
The camera in this game mostly remains the same with some improvements here and there but there are also things about it that aren't as good as before.
For example you can tweak it some in the option menu, in bossfights you can change to camera to not be locked on the boss which it always was in previous games, the camera view when using your bow is way better and you can now a lot easier aim your ninpo as mentioned before, you also now control the camera when charging up an ultimate attack with the left analog stick as your right hand is busy but for some reason you can't change the vertical angle.
Also when you try to change vertical angle otherwise the camera now autocenters when you let go of the analog stick but it does not do it for some reason when the game it self gives you a bit odd vertical angle.
Ryu and his enemies also now moves faster than before so you will have to recenter it a bit more now with the right trigger on your controller.
So it's pretty much the same thing as before meaning the camera certainly isn't great but not horrible either, it simply takes a while getting used to.
The difficulty is something that is often discussed as well.
The level of difficulty of this game is for the most of the time improved. The easier difficulty setting is easier than before and the harder ones are harder to both please newcomers and hardcore players.
Ultimate techniques won't be interrupted by weaker enemy attacks, you now always get back a bit of your health back after each fight reducing the use of potions that brakes of the pace a bit and the save points are more frequent than ever before and they will also fully restore your health. The game also often auto saves before a major boss fight to ease of some even more frustration.
You also start off a lot more powerful which is a big improvement over the previous game and health upgrades can strategically be used as health potions as your health bar will not only get longer now but fully restored.
Don't get me wrong though this game is as challenging as ever so you will have to try to pay attention as much as possible to the enemy movements and attacks. There are very many bossfights in this game and most of them are really great but the trade-off for them being so many is that they can vary in difficulty. Some of them along with some enemies can even be a bit cheap.
For example there are enemies that will constantly spam you with rockets meaning you have to constantly evade and all the explosions make it a bit harder to see what is going on and there is even a boss at the end of chapter 7 that will explode upon death taking you down with it. As enemies has been exploding trough out that chapter already( an amazing chapter by the way ) you can pretty much see it happening. What is annoying though is to figure out on how to avoid it and I will tell you this know to save some frustration, you simply stand still and hold down the block button.
The combat on water can be pretty frustrating as well as you have to tap the A button all the time to keep moving and in Sigma you only had to move the analog stick to accomplish the same thing.
But for the most part this game provides the right amount of challenge.
The story in this game isn't really all that interesting and it never has been for the most part when it comes to this series. However the cutscenes using the in-game engine can be pretty amazing so you can actually end up paying attention to what's going on anyways even though the plot isn't very deep and fairly predictable. The voice work isn't too bad either, I especially like the voice of the Greater Fiend under the name of Volf.
The graphics in this game are great especially the effects with blood going everywhere and using Ultimate Techniques can be very cool to watch not to mention the animations ranks upon with the best I've seen in all of gaming.
The graphics unfortunately tend to be pretty uneven though.
Sometimes the lighting can look really flat and basic, some environments look completely bland and lifeless, the art direction is sometimes off with things looking completely bizarre or even silly and blood can end up floating in the air stuck on nothing.
There are also some performance issues, in chapter 2 for example the game sometimes started to load or freeze in the middle of a fight even give me a completely white screen for a couple of seconds or started to go in to slowmotion.
This almost wanted be to stop playing the game as it felt so unfinished but after that I did not experience anymore problems except for maybe a screen tear here and there until the later chapters where there would be some some short slowdown again but then there was also a ton lot more going on screen so that was more acceptable but still an annoyance.
This surprised me as games from Team Ninja always bring you game that are very well polished, and I did fear this a little bit as they did not delay it as they often do with their games.
If this had to do with the games' producer Itagaki leaving the company or pressure from Microsoft I do not know but hopefully this will be fixed later with a patch or something.
There are times though when everything completely works though including the art, great looking environments, textures and lightning with a rock solid framerate and some bodies will stay on the ground even after you have left there area which is very impressive ( try backtracking sometime to see it yourself ). When this occurs it can be a completely mindblowing game to look at.
Because of these issues though the game barely looks any better than Ninja Gaiden Sigma for the Playstation 3. Meaning it still looks great but I did except it to look a bit better.
The sound is very good, I really like the sound effects of the weapons and when they connect to the enemies hearing skulls crack and such and also the music is well composed fits really well with the action on screen.
As far as value goes this game is actually longer than the original and longer games are always welcome. The trade-off here is that there are some levels that are a bit boring for example there is a part in chapter 9 where you run around in a tight cave that looks bad, is not very fun to be in, the camera is annoying, it's hard to tell which direction is the right one and there is also a glitchy worm boss. Thankfully the majority of the chapters are really amazing.
After you have beaten the game you unlock two more difficulty settings and these games are always fun to play again on a harder difficulty settings if you can handle the challenge as things will change as you go trough it.
You can also play trough the game again on the setting you have beaten it on keeping all your upgraded equipment. This is a great addition to the game that I always felt was missing from previous games, there are even achievements for playing trough the while game with a certain weapon. The only thing I could complain about this feature is that you can not choose the chapter you want to play right away.
There is also a new feature called Ninja Cinema which will let you record your progress and upload it to share with others. This sounds better in theory though than it is in practice as compared to the replay system in Halo 3 for example you can not pause, rewind, fast forward, change the camera angle or even remove the bloody heads up display. The only thing you can do basically is to add a black/white filter that will make it look a bit like and old Japanese ninja splatter movie.
The framerate will also take a noticeably hit while you record. In the end this features only really serves the purpose of showing others how to get trough a certain chapter or beat a certain boss.
The game also lacks a stand alone challenge mode. Ninja Gaiden Black has a mode called Mission Mode where you right away could jump into a fight or challenge a boss. It was great as it was something you could just play for a couple of minutes before leaving for work for example and improving your highscore was pretty addicting aswell. Sigma also had this mode and some other modes available as downloadable content.
I'm sure this game will get modes like this downloadable aswell later on but it would have been nice to have had something like this on the disc.
In the end Ninja Gaiden II is a truly amazing game only lacking the same level of polish as the original along with a few extra modes for added value.
Despite these drawbacks the game still manages to be barely superb and it delivers some of the very best action found on the system and is a must have for fans and others should try/rent or download the demo found on the Xbox Marketplace to see if they're up for the challenge that awaits.