Extremely satisfying, yet not for everyone
Ninja Gaiden II is not much different from its predecessor. You play as Ryu Hayabusa, a 20-something ninja of the Dragon lineage. The story takes place six months after Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword for the DS, which in turn took place six months after Ninja Gaiden for the original Xbox.
The Black Spider Ninja clan (introduced in NG: Dragon Sword) and their leader, Genshin, steals a statue from Ryu's father. The story spirals into a one-man war against infernal creatures referred to as Fiends, as well as the rival Black Spider Ninjas. Ryu is joined by Sonia, a CIA agent who ultimately serves the same purpose as Rachel in NG for the original Xbox - a strong, big-breasted female side-character who Ryu feels obliged to keep safe. Ryu runs into several Greater Fiends who serve as many of the bosses in the game.
The story is presented through in-game cutscenes that tie the 14 Chapters together. NG for the original Xbox took heavy use of CG cinematics, but the strictly in-game cutscenes presented in this game are very satisfactory. The lip-syncing is usually spot on, and I am impressed by how natural the characters talk and react. The character models are also well done. Unfortunately, the story is not especially fleshed out. If you're picky about stories, you'll most likely feel like the story is tacked on. If you don't mind a B-movie script, I think you'll find the cutscenes very enjoyable to watch. The English voice-acting is usually pretty good. The adversaries have deep, bass-heavy voices that fit their characters, but the good guys usually feel cheesy with their softer voices, especially Ryu's father, who is emotion-less and bland. The Japanese voices are more thorough, and it's a nice touch that Ryu makes different sounds during combat in each language. Subtitles are available as well.
NGII doesn't push the boundaries of graphics like NGI did for the original Xbox, but the graphics are still very good. It is certainly the best-looking Team Ninja game so far. The characters and environments are generally very good-looking. One exception that stands out is during one point in a level where you drop into what seems like giant, connecting nostrils, with long tunnels covered in an ugly shade of green. Luckily this section of the level ends pretty quickly.
The musical score is pretty good. It's similar to other Team Ninja games, with focus on electric and drums. It fits pretty well. Sound effects are what you'd expect and cover every action.
The level designs are linear, but with many detours usually leading to helpful items. You usually won't have a problem knowing where to go, besides a couple of times where you have to go the way you came from. This is not a puzzle game, but you will have to find a key here to open that door over there and so on, but you do this less than in NGI. Being a ninja, you'll have to use acrobatics like wall-running and water-running. You'll have to do some swimming, but you can hold your breath infinitely (unlike in NGI). The swimming controls are the same, but the Spear Gun is replaced with the Gatling Gun, which turns into a fun mini-gun instead of the tedious one-shot system of the Spear Gun.
The game has gotten a lot of criticism for its camera. I don't think it's that bad. The camera is close on Ryu, which means that any attacks from behind are hard to predict, but I've never felt like the camera was fighting me. I'm sure anyone that invests some time into the game will get used to it pretty quickly. The camera can also be adjusted with the right stick and re-positioned behind Ryu with RT. During boss fights, the camera focuses on the boss and Ryu at the same time, which might be odd when the boss dashes across the screen, but generally the camera is fair. Still, some might be put off by it.
Ninja Gaiden II is all about the fighting, and it doesn't disappoint. The combat is as slick as ever. NGII introduces loads of new weapons, and unlike NGI where the Dragon Sword was superior, the gap between the Dragon Sword and the rest of the weapons isn't that big. Basically every Japanese melee weapon is here, including a giant scythe and nunchucks. Long range weapons are still here, like the Fiend Bow and several kinds of Shuriken. A new feature in NGII is Obliteration Techniques. The enemies now lose limbs as you fight them, and pressing Y near a dismembered enemy inflicts a cool execution. This can be done on enemies as they are falling onto the ground, which makes it extra satisfying. Ninpos are magical techniques that inflict great damage on one or several opponents. Ultimate Techniques are attacks where the player charges an attack long enough to unleash an extreme combo on one or more opponents. Ninja Gaiden remains one of the greatest when it comes to making a satisfying combat experience.
Slain enemies drop colored essence. Blue essence gives health. Red essence refills a slot of Ninpo. The most common, yellow essence, can be used to buy items or upgrades at the many shops in the game, or to speed up an Ultimate Technique. As well as these shops you will find Dragon Statues, where you can save your game and fully heal yourself. The new health meter replenishes itself when your enemies are killed, but the maximum health available is constantly drained as you take damage, which means you have to find a way to heal all the way up again, usually by visiting a Dragon Statue.
NGI was a challenging game, and it seems as Team Ninja took this as a compliment. Although the beginning of NGII is a nice introduction to new players, the difficulty gets a bit high later in the game. There are four difficulties, and I recommend anyone to do the lowest one first. I didn't find it very hard, but some of the bosses were a bit hard to crack. On the leaderboards it says I completed my first playthrough at 8.5 hours (not counting continues) with 55 continues. I assure you over 40 of those were at some of the later bosses. I only used the Dragon Sword, as there are achievements for completing the game only using the specified weapon. Some parts may seem cheap, like how the giant Armadillo explodes after you kill it, but you'll realize that it's not actually cheap. In this instance, simply holding block will save you from dying or having to use a Talisman of Rebirth. So although the game can feel too difficult or even cheap at first, I guarantee that you will get past it once you get more used to the enemies.
There is no multiplayer in this game besides Leaderboards and Cinema mode where you can record your play and share with friends, though uploading is apparently restricted to a certain part of the leaderboards. It's good that the game sports some achievements with replay value, like achievements for finding every Crystal Skull, completing each Test of Valor (a sort of a challenge that can be accessed at some points in the game), completing the game using just one weapon and completing it on each difficulty. I plan on going through the game many times.
If you're looking for the same experience that made NGI great, you shouldn't be disappointed. The game introduces loads of weapons, enemies and some fun dismembering, but is essentially more of the same. In this case, I don't see that as a bad thing. Casual gamers might want to stay away, since the difficulty can be high even on the lowest setting. Still, Ninja Gaiden II is a worthy sequel that provides extremely slick and satisfying action.