Ninja Gaiden 2 is the first game all over again, only faster and with a fancy new combat feature where you can hack off enemy limbs and execute elaborate finishing moves that differ from weapon to weapon. It’s every bit as hard as its predecessor and then some with two unlockable difficulty levels in addition to the two defaults. The only problem is that Ninja Gaiden 2 looks just like Ninja Gaiden Sigma on the PS3 with barely any improvement in graphics and no Rachel segments to switch things up. The gameplay is still ridiculously hard, take it or leave it (and most of us will leave it) and Ryu Hayabusa is still the baddest of badass ninjas out there. But something about Ninja Gaiden 2 just feels stale; and combined with some technical flaws, the game doesn’t really feel fun, even after you’ve mastered the combat system and resigned yourself to losing boss fights over and over again.
Like Xbox’s Ninja Gaiden (and its upgraded forms, Black and Sigma), Ninja Gaiden 2’s plot takes a backseat to the action. Some S&M chick named Elizebet is after an artifact that awakens/pisses off the Four Greater Fiends from the Underworld. The nefarious Spider Clan attacks the Hayabusa clan, who just so happens to guard said artifact. Combat ensues, stuff gets burned to the ground, and our main man super-ninja Ryu Hayabusa is once again out to destroy anyone dumb enough to get in his way as he goes after Elizebet and the stolen artifact. Oh, and there’s this busty chick named Sonia who looks like Rachel, but with a bad haircut - she rides a motorcycle and gets captured a lot.
The combat is the star of Ninja Gaiden 2 once you get the hang of it. All the old weapons and combos from the original are back in full force. Thanks to improvements in enemy behavior and physics, it’s so much more satisfying to splatter a guy’s skull all over the ceiling as you execute a flying attack that decapitates enemies. You can also sever limbs with the strong attacks and liberate pints of blood from torsos with the quick attacks. Wounded enemies will still keep coming, even after you’ve divorced them from half of their extremities - dragging themselves towards you a la Monty Python’s The Black Knight and sometimes flinging their (or their comrades’) body parts at you when they can’t reach.
The splatters of gore stick to the walls in most levels, rendering maps extraneous as you can tell where you’ve already been based on the blood. Even better, there’s a sub-menu from which you can select weapons, items or ninpo (ninja magic) using the D-pad instead of having to press start and then mash A over and over again. This new feature keeps combat from feeling interrupted as you frantically try and heal yourself during a savage onslaught of attacks.
Button mashing doesn’t pay off the way you might wish (especially when mobbed by 20 six-legged enemies in an enclosed space), but chances are a lot of hardcore gamers would be insulted if it did. In an effort to reach out to gamers alienated by the difficulty of the first game, Ninja Gaiden 2 features an “easier” difficulty setting called Path of the Acolyte. But, really, if you hated the cheap-ass bosses and staggeringly tough mob mechanics the last time around, it hasn’t gotten any better this time. If anything, it’s actually gotten worse.
There’s a severe lack of ninjas to fight in most levels, and later on you mostly find them paired off with bosses or ridiculously powerful mechs (at that point, they’re sporting rocket launchers in lieu of ninja weapons). Luckily, there’s no shortage of bosses to make up for the missing ninja brawls, but that’s like rejoicing over a kick to the groin. For anyone who tore out their hair over Alma in the first Ninja Gaiden, get ready to grab your ankles again, because even on Path of the Acolyte, Ninja Gaiden 2 bosses are horribly hard and as plentiful as Halloween candy on the first of November.
Most of the time, you’ll encounter more than one boss per level and not always in the standard mini-boss-before-big-boss formula. And, strangely, human bosses (or human-shaped bosses) seem to be easier to beat than ginormous monster bosses that require some sort of dominant strategy instead of a giddy hack and slash blitz. One chapter has you slog through the entire level before encountering a balls-hard boss that’s crucial to the story line - and once you beat him, you’re dropped into a second boss fight with a monster that’s a billion times more difficult than the story-related boss. Did we mention that you don’t get to save after the first boss fight? And that not all boss fights, should you fail them, restart you at the boss?
It’s little injustices like these that will start to grate on even the most hardcore Ninja Gaiden fan. Sure, you get healed completely at save points (the first time you use them, anyway), and your heath can partially regenerate when you clear an area of enemies - but these bones that the game throws us don’t add up to much in the face of the punishing difficulty. Tack onto that the technical flaws detailed in the next paragraph, and after your fourteenth attempt on the same boss, you’ll begin to wonder why they call Ninja Gaiden 2 a “game” instead of “work”.
Loving or hating the difficulty aside, you can’t mince words when it comes to the camera sucking. It frequently gets stuck behind enemies so that you can’t see where you are, what you’re doing and who the hell is killing you. Similarly, the graphics could use some of the TLC that made it into the combat. While the gore is all vivid and cool-looking, the majority of the level backgrounds are about as interesting as toenail clippings. The linear path story takes you through places like South America’s jungles, underwater ruins and flying airships where Ryu has plenty of opportunities to slice and dice everything from robots to insects. But most of these places look either fugly or boring (New York City hasn’t been this dull since PS2 graphics were next-gen). There are only a handful of car or NPC models used throughout the game and for all the semi-sci-fi flavor (this is set in the near-future, right?), the environments aren’t as stylized as the combat. And with the exception of the optional challenge levels (only found on Path of the Warrior difficulty or above), there’s no reason for exploring them.
Ninja Gaiden 2 is split between awesome combat and lackluster game design (come on, Ryu’s a ninja - why does he have to go find all these damn keys when there are windows to be snuck through?). If it was nothing but a blood drenched murderfest, we would happily let Ninja Gaiden 2 be the final chapter in the series. But this swan song misses some key notes with those camera bugs; and even if we could accept that the game is “supposed” to be hard and we’re “supposed” to enjoy having our asses handed to us, we can’t figure out why the environments look so last-gen and why it’s supposed to be fun to have our blood pressure jacked up a few points with each superfluous boss fight.
The saving grace here is the fanbase. If you’re in this group, there’s no reason why you won’t love Ninja Gaiden 2, despite its faults. You don’t care about next-gen graphics, level design and fairness, right? You like having Tomonobu Itagaki stamp on your ego, rob you of your sanity and piss down your throat. You’re going to switch on the Ninja Cinema mode and upload every single video of yourself getting more than a 100 hit combo to Xbox Live and pat yourself on the back when you suffer a massive coronary halfway through the final difficulty mode.
That’s always been Ninja Gaiden’s appeal, even back on the NES. It’s unflinchingly hard, unapologetically cheap and just when you think you’re getting good with the combos, a multi-boss sequence demoralizes you in that way that you’ve come to expect from the series. There’s a fine line between challenging difficulty and blood-boiling frustration. Depending on who you are, Ninja Gaiden 2 will either respect that line or slice it up into tiny pieces and force feed it to you with bits of broken glass.
So those of us who aren’t down with the difficulty level are going to want to play a game that utilizes the Xbox 360’s potential with a balanced difficulty level that complements the solid gameplay - and thereby restore self esteem - leaving Itagaki’s insatiable bloodlust to the hardcore crowd that loves it so.
May 26, 2008