Review: Ninja Gaiden 2 (Microsoft Xbox 360)

Ninja Gaiden 2
Genre: Action/Adventure
Developer: Team Ninja
Publisher: Tecmo
Release Date: 06/03/08


Ninjas can kill anyone they want! Ninjas cut off heads ALL the time and don’t even think twice about it. These guys are so crazy and awesome that they flip out ALL the time. I heard that there was this ninja who was eating at a diner. And when some dude dropped a spoon the ninja killed the whole town. My friend Mark said that he saw a ninja totally uppercut some kid just because the kid opened a window.

And that’s what I call REAL Ultimate Power!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!“ – from “Real Ultimate Power”, because it’s appropriate. And no, different Mark.

This review contains scenes of violence and gore. Mostly because that’s like 90% of the game.

I’m not a fan of Tomonobu Itagaki. He’s outspoken against games that are better than his, he says things like how he views the girls from Dead or Alive are like his kids as he’s parading them around mostly naked in cinematics (which, on one hand, has that creepy “That’s right, take of your shirt for Daddy” vibe, but on the other, is better than Dario Argento and his need to KILL his kids in his films… which is about the only thing Itagaki has over Argento), and he may or may not be a pervert who molests his own employees. In other words, he’s generally not a likable dude. That said, he has at least one thing going for him: he knows what to do with Ryu Hayabusa, as the first Ninja Gaiden revamp showed: it was a technical marvel that retained the challenge of the earlier titles while simultaneously reinventing Ryu as THE GREATEST BADASS NINJA ON PLANET EARTH, which is about as good of a reintroduction as you can give a character, all things considered. So while I’m not all that sad that he quit his job as high and mighty leader of Team Ninja, it is kind of disheartening to see the guy that essentially reintroduced Ryu Hayabusa to the world moving on, even if he said that this was, in his opinion, going to be the last Ninja Gaiden game of this type.

Y’know, until the new Team Ninja start hauling out a new one every year.

Ninja Gaiden as a franchise is generally known for being fairly cinematic in its storytelling, and that dates all the way back to the NES games, which were some of the first games ever to have little cutscenes between missions, so it’s fair to note that Ninja Gaiden 2 continues that tradition. This time around, we find that a young woman named Sonia is seeking the aid of Ryu on behalf of the CIA, for it seems that the Black Spider Clan is attempting to help the Fiend clan resurrect the Archfiend, a demon sealed away some time ago who would most likely wipe out all life on Earth. Ryu is essentially tasked to stop the Fiends, stop the Black Spider Clan, recover the stolen statue, and save the world, while having awkward romantic tension with Sonia.

So, essentially, it’s the old NES Ninja Gaiden.

Now, in all fairness, it’s not like Tecmo has any idea what the hell is going on with the Ninja Gaiden storyline; according to the old games and the OVA, Ryu’s dating Irene Lew and has been since the NES Ninja Gaiden, a fact that was noted in the original Dead or Alive way back when that first came out, but somewhere along the way the storyline was rebooted and no one seems to have any idea whether the old games factor into things in any significant way. That said: while this storyline is essentially the Cliff Notes version of the first NES game with a bunch of other random crap stuffed in (like Ryu’s father’s name being changed to Joe Hayabusa, which was apparently the correct Japanese name in the first place, from the old US name of Ken Hayabusa), and while the leader of the Fiends is apparently Rasputin this time around (besides the giant black beard and flowing robes, the notes you find in “the once great military superpower” that for whatever reason can’t be named Russia pretty much spell it out that Dagra Dai was there, so, yeah), it’s a good, solid action game storyline that accomplishes four important things: it gives Ryu reasonable motivation, it establishes that he’s a badass, it gives him a solid attachment to Sonia so that they can have said romantic tension, and it gives Ayane a chance to pop up dressed like a ninja stripper.

So, thumbs up, I guess.

Visually, Ninja Gaiden 2 looks like a 360 game, though it’s not as visually impressive as Ninja Gaiden was on the original Xbox. The character models are VERY well animated down to the minutest detail, and they generally look very clean and fluid, and the environments mostly look spectacular, though there are a few cases (a series of bright green underground tunnels come to mind) that aren’t nearly as interesting as anything else. It should also bear noting that, by all indications, the character models weren’t rendered to a higher level because this allows more enemies to appear on-screen at once; while that’s certainly a boon, a couple sections still have some slowdown (though in this case it’s because there are, quite literally, fifty or sixty guys on-screen at once, so it’s forgivable). Still, the game looks fantastic and it’s generally visually impressive from start to finish. Aurally, well, Ninja Gaiden 2 is pretty much perfect; you’re offered English and Japanese voice tracks (both of which are pretty good), the music is spot-on atmospheric in non-combat situations and driving and powerful during battle, and the sound effects are top-notch throughout.

Gameplay-wise, Ninja Gaiden plays a lot like the prior Xbox title, though there are some interesting differences so that players of the original game won’t be able to just breeze through this time around. You control Ryu with the old “left stick moves, right stick controls camera” dynamics, and you have two melee attacks to work out combos with (one is weak, one is strong), as well as a ranged weapon of some sort or another, and in most cases both weapons can deal charged attacks by holding the button down. Gameplay is divided into “combat” and “jumping puzzles”, with the former using the aforementioned weaponry as well as a block button, which allows you to block attacks as well as dodge them with a button press or counter them with a well-timed attack button press, and the latter having you run about the environment in various fashions. The jumping puzzles have a very Prince of Persia or newer Tomb Raider flavor to them (only minus the death if you fail, as Ryu is so badass he can fall, like, ten stories and not even blink), complete with wall-running, triangle jumps (bouncing from one wall to another), pole grappling and other standard elements, and they are generally interesting enough, if not as much so as in other games where these elements are the focal point. No, in Ninja Gaiden 2, combat is the star, and it shines here; every weapon has nearly a hundred combos and techniques of various sorts that can be implemented in all sorts of crazy and awesome ways, which, when combined with the sheer variety of weaponry, makes the game even better for it. You’ll also have access to the old standard of Ninja Magic, which basically allows Ryu to (in three cases) become temporarily invincible before launching a ball of death at enemies or (in one case) summon protective flaming birds to deal damage to enemies, which is useful in any case. Generally, the combat is the focal point of the game, which should come as no surprise to veterans of the franchise, as it’s always been strong and well implemented.

Though it bears mentioning that, in many respects, Ninja Gaiden 2 is a whole new experience. Part of this is because of the broader scope of the product (which takes place across the world, from Japan to New York to what is supposed to be Russia to what is presumably Italy and beyond), giving the game a generally more epic feel. It also doesn’t hurt that the game places a great deal more emphasis on the violence of the experience, featuring scenes of Ryu lopping off body parts of humanoid and monstrous foes alike (which has the added bonus of impacting how they fight, as well as opening up the option of performing fatality moves on them to take them down instantly), which simultaneously makes sense considering you’re waging war with swords and scythes and such while also being pretty awesome if you’re into the sort of violence that permeates the game. The experience feels substantially different, however, because of certain changes made to the gameplay and balance that make the game a lot more interesting and accessible, to some extents. First off, for fans of the original game, the original dodge ability, a roll, has been changed to a step-dash, which makes the game less about block and roll tactics than the original game (which was more focused on these sorts of tactics). The original game also kind of lived by the tactic of blocking-dodging-killing foes in a lot of respects, but that tactic won’t work so well for you here, as most of the enemies you face have moves that break your block and light you up like Christmas, forcing you to play in a more balanced style. The various weapons Ryu has available to him have also changed up; the Dragon Sword, Vigoorian Flail (basically nunchucks with scythes on the ends) and the Lunar Staff (a weapon from Ninja Gaiden Black and the downloadable expansion packs) make their return to this game, but pretty much every weapon is brand new, including the Falcon’s Talons (claws and bladed boots), the Kusari-gama (a long chain with a scythe on one end and a weight on the other, which works kinda-sorta like the God of War weapons) and the Tonfa (sticks with handles on the end; think a pair of police riot batons). The game is very, very good about spacing out receiving these weapons as well as the various magics and ranged weapons, meaning you’re generally finding something new to play with during practically every stage (all the way up to the second to last chapter, even).

Perhaps the best (and at times, worst) part of Ninja Gaiden 2, however, is the difficulty balance. See, for those who never played Ninja Gaiden, it’s generally known as something of a difficult game, largely because it gave off a very poor first impression; dying multiple times in the first stage was, it needs to be said, as common as breathing, and it took some time to adjust to the difficult curve of the game. Towards the end of the game, however, the difficulty dropped a bit, leading to two final boss fights that, frankly, weren’t terribly spectacular in comparison to some of the earlier battles, largely because they were substantially easier. Ninja Gaiden 2 gets around this by offering an experience that’s significantly easier to start with while still offering a certain degree of challenge; if you’ve never been good at 3D action games, well, you’re going to die a lot, but if you’ve played these sorts of games, and specifically the original Ninja Gaiden, you’ll find the sequel MUCH easier to pick up and fool around with in the first several stages. Indeed, the learning curve is much less steep this time around, and the experience is significantly better for it, for a while.

Which brings us, in a nice segue, to the biggest problem with Ninja Gaiden 2: from about Stage seven onward, the experience becomes HEAVILY polarizing. Now, here’s the thing: the first six stages are reasonably well-balanced, featuring all sorts of different and more challenging monsters and bosses to face off against, and by and large, the experience becomes something of an experience in bettering yourself; you learn how to circumvent the challenges by way of learning how to use your skills and weaponry to the fullest extents. Stage seven (and the three stages following it), however, introduce newer elements that make life a bit more complicated, in the form of gun and rocket-toting foes. This becomes something of a problem, as each stage from the seventh onward presents new and interesting annoyances that will either make you love the increasing challenge or test your patience to its breaking point. Stage seven? Multiple machine-gun and rocket toting foes, exploding enemies that deal damage in death, a not wholly pleasant boss battle followed by a second boss battle against a giant monstrosity that goes nuclear in death and will quite possibly kill you instantly when it bites it. Stage eight? Scatter-pack missiles (basically, eight missiles at once) and a sequence that plays like Hogan’s Alley, only with missile launchers. Stage nine? See Stage eight. Stage ten? See Stage nine, and add a very weird boss battle that involves timing of charged attacks with being bashed up and down a corridor. From here the game generally balances itself out a bit more and becomes fun and challenging again, though the game occasionally decides it doesn’t like you again in a few odd spots (including one point where you fight TWO of the nuclear death monsters AT ONCE, and the final battle, which incorporates three different styles of play against three different bosses with no breaks). It’s not entirely BAD so much as inconsistent, which is a bit off-putting depending on the sort of person you are.

That said, the game does do a lot of things that are outright bad in their own ways. For instance: the camera is pretty atrocious in closed-in spaces, which make up a significant portion of the game world. Open areas and boss battles tend to not have too many problems with the camera (though occasionally the game will focus the camera in the wrong direction), but in closed-in spaces, the camera will attempt to be cinematic, only to end up missing what you actually WANT to look at, and you’ll end up spending a not small portion of your time futzing with the camera. This IS forgivable, though, on account of the fact that the game is still pretty fun even with this issue. What is NOT forgivable, however, is the fact that Ninja Gaiden 2 feels like LESS of a game in comparison to its predecessor. Armlets? Gone. Freakishly overpowered weaponry that required multiple upgrades to fully maximize? Gone; everything can be upgraded three levels in total, period, save for the True Dragon Sword (obtained by Deus Ex Machina) and a more interesting weapon later in the game (obtained by beating a boss). Scarabs that unlocked neat hidden items? Gone; Crystal Skulls (no, really) take the place of these things, but don’t DO anything unless you care about Karma and Achievements. Unlockables in general? They ARE there, but in comparison to the previous game (which allowed you to unlock all sorts of neat stuff, including other weapons) they’re less spectacular; this time, you get unlockable difficulties and the ability to play through the game with all your collected stuff, as well as some other novelties, which is nice, but not the same as getting, say, the original Ninja Gaiden games, you know? Come to that, even the weapon variety and count are odd; even if one ignores the weapons from the Hurricane Pack, counts the Plasma Saber as the Dragon Sword, and counts Unlabored Flawlessness and the Wooden Sword as one weapon, there were eight melee weapons in Ninja Gaiden versus nine in Ninja Gaiden 2, six of which are original, which isn’t too bad, until one realizes that the stronger bow and the multiple types of arrows from the first game probably would have been really useful during the final battle in Ninja Gaiden 2, except oops, they were taken out.

In all honesty, though, even with awkward and uneven balance issues, missing weaponry, an awkward camera and a kind-of rehashed-feeling experience in certain respects, make no mistake: Ninja Gaiden 2 is still an awesome and satisfying experience, and if you like the genre there’s no reason not to pick it up. It’s not the greatest game on the 360, it’s not the greatest game in its genre, and it’s probably not as exciting an experience as, say, any of the three prior Ninja Gaiden games (the original, Black, or Sigma), but it’s still an awesome experience. It’s fun, it’s brutal, it’s engaging and addictive and no matter how frustrated you become with certain sections, half an hour later you’ll be back with the game, plugging away at it once again to beat that section (and you probably will, given enough time). In conclusion, thank you Mister Itagaki for providing us one last fantastic and enjoyable title before you go work for some other company; you certainly won’t be missed (how can we miss you, after all, if you won’t go away), but your legacy will live on, for finally, FINALLY, you released a game on the 360 that was less a non-innovative rehash of previous successes and more something to enjoy, and for that, we salute you.

Until, you know, you say something else stupid in public. So, you know, see you in three months.

The Scores:
Story: GOOD
Graphics: CLASSIC
Control/Gameplay: GREAT
Replayability: ABOVE AVERAGE
Originality: ABOVE AVERAGE
Addictiveness: GREAT
Appeal: GREAT
Miscellaneous: GREAT

Final Score: VERY GOOD.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Ninja Gaiden 2 is an awesome, enjoyable, brutally and unapologetically violent good time for the 360 that’s surprisingly deep and accessible in comparison to the prior installment. It’s visually appealing, aurally pleasant, features fun gameplay that’s exciting and challenging that, in many cases, isn’t overly punishing, and by and large it’s a great experience. The balance gets wonky further into the game, there’s not a lot of reason to go back to the game save for destroying enemies (which, in fairness, is still fun after one go-round), the camera sucks, and the game really doesn’t have the same epic feel of the original experience. That said, however, Ninja Gaiden 2 is still a fun and enjoyable time, and anyone who likes the genre, fun games, or ninjas would do well to pick this up and get to work on it.



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