Review: Ninja Gaiden 2 Sigma Plus (Sony Playstation Vita)

Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2 Plus
Genre: Action/Adventure
Developer: Team Ninja
Publisher: Tecmo
Release Date: 02/26/2013

It’s been almost five years since the release of the original Ninja Gaiden II, but the franchise has been far from dormant in the wake of Tomonobu Itagaki’s departure. When Itagaki discussed the concept that Ninja Gaiden II would ultimately be the last game of its type under this title, I jokingly made the observation that, in his absence, this would be the case until Team Ninja started bringing out a new one every year. Well, while things haven’t progressed to that point, between the Sigma releases on the PS3 and Vita, the lukewarm release of Ninja Gaiden 3 and its Wii-U revamp, Razor’s Edge, the franchise has certainly seen more than a few titles come out of it in the past few years. This year proves no different, as in addition to PS3 and 360 ports of the Razor’s Edge revamp, the Vita is also receiving a port of Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2, dubbed Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2 Plus, presumably because it contains additional content over its PS3 counterpart. Well, this is certainly a true statement, in that there is certainly new content here, but it comes at the cost of a stable frame rate, a lack of existing content, and if truth be told, a significant motivating reason to own it over any of its console counterparts.

As before, the plot revolves around one Ryu Hayabusa, he of leather ninja garb and the “Super Ninja” designation, as he once again attempts to put an end to a threat to the entire world. The plot proper is almost note for note the plot of the original NES Ninja Gaiden: 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. While interviews with Itagaki and Dead or Alive Dimensions have clarified that, yes, this game technically transitions into the NES Ninja Gaiden titles and, yes, Sonia is basically Irene Lew, the storyline here is still basically a retread of prior ground with an expanded plot. Still, while this storyline is essentially the Cliff Notes version of the first NES game with a bunch of other random things stuffed in, and while the leader of the Fiends is apparently Rasputin this time around, 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. There are also a couple chapters in this version of the game that give franchise characters who don’t have much to do in this specific game something to do, like Rachel, Momiji and Ayane, and they’re also perfectly serviceable, though they don’t add anything amazing to the narrative per say.

Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2 Plus is a mixed bag, visually. On one hand, it looks pretty fantastic when everything’s going smoothly, as Ryu and company animate exceptionally well and the visual trickery thanks to the OLED screen gives the game an appearance that seems to be on par with its console counterparts a lot of the time. The environments and enemies are also suitably impressive even now and look fantastic in motion and at rest, which is very pleasing. However, the game does show some visual degradation at times, with some mild visual breakup and pixelization here and there, and the frame rate tends to noticeably dip when several enemies are on screen, most notably during Tag Battles. This is less of a problem during the campaign, due to a lack of a second player and a reduced enemy count over Ninja Gaiden II, but when it does pop up it’s obvious and a little frustrating. The game also reduces the gore volume from Ninja Gaiden II, which seems to be a concession to improving game performance over anything else, though after the absurd amounts of gore that were in the original, seeing the reduced amount here is kind of disappointing in context. Aurally, the game is almost as pitch perfect as its console counterparts, between a fantastic soundtrack, amazing sound design in general, and a generally solid and well cast English voice track. However, unlike the console games, the Vita release only includes the English voice track, so fans of the Japanese audio will have to rely on the console releases or an import version of the game for their fix.

As you’d expect, Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2 Plus plays more or less like every other game in the series, and is almost functionally identical to Ninja Gaiden II or Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2, albeit with some touch screen mechanics tossed in. Ryu moves with the left stick and looks around with the right stick, and you have two melee attacks to work out combos with (Square is weak, Triangle 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 the left trigger to block, which allows you to block attacks as well as dodge them with a direction 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 are basically on par with what you’d expect if you’ve played Prince of Persia or Tomb Raider, though Ryu is almost never in a position where falling to his death is a concern, due in equal parts to good design and Ryu simply being very hard to kill. You’ll also see various elements pop up, such as wall-running, triangle jumps, pole swinging and climbing and so on, and they are generally interesting enough, if not as much so as in other games where these elements are the focal point. In the Ninja Gaiden series, combat is the star, and as you’d expect, 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.

For those who have played Ninja Gaiden II but not any of the Sigma games, much of this will be old hat, but there are some things to consider. As mentioned above, this game tones down the blood and the overall enemy count (though it ups enemy health in some cases to compensate). There are also some changes to the overall level structure, as bosses were added and removed between games (most notably the Tunnel Worm battle was excised, which is fine because it was horrible anyway). Further, Rachel (from the first game), Ayane (from Dead or Alive and the first game) and Momiji (from Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword) each get side stages to play through that divert from the main plot and are fun and novel all in all. The weapon structure has changed a bit as well, as several ranged weapons were removed, ammunition is now infinite on all ranged weapons, and two new weapons were added in the Enma’s Fang (a giant broadsword) and the Howling Cannon (an explosive gun). The game has also been restructured a bit in terms of key hunting and such to make the experience flow a little better, though this is largely a minor change. For those who have only played the 360 game, you’ll find that the changes made (aside from possibly the blood reduction) are generally fine and make the game equal or better overall to the original release.

For those who are wondering how this translates over from the original Sigma 2, well, that’s a little different. As with its Vita predecessor, Sigma 2 Plus adds in Hero difficulty, which is essentially the default difficulty, though it adds in the ability to auto-guard and cast infinite magic when low on health. The game carries over Tag Missions, which are essentially massive extermination challenges, pitting you and an AI partner against enemies that you’ll need to defeat to win, often in larger quantity than in the main game. The game also offers you the new “Ninja Race” mode, which gives you a stage and a timer, tasking you to complete the stage in the time limit, which can be extended by killing enemies. Sadly, the game lacks the online options of its PS3 counterpart, as there’s no online or ad-hoc co-op to speak of in the Tag Missions as there was in the console game, which is disappointing in comparison. Finally, there are some touch screen controls implemented for ranged combat, as you can tap an on-screen icon to bring up first-person view to aim at enemies or tap anywhere on screen to fire your gun/bow/whatever at enemies that are nearest to you, which works rather well all in all.

You can basically get through the main campaign in around ten hours, give or take, though there are also multiple levels of difficulty to take a crack at for fans or those who want a challenge, and Hero Mode, while not quite “Easy”, makes the game a bit more accessible for the unskilled. Completing the campaign also unlocks various fun tools in the Tag Missions to play with, and playing through these missions unlocks more missions and costumes to use while you play. The Ninja Race option, as well as the ability to challenge each chapter to set scores for your personal bests, are also interesting novelties that add to the value of the game. There are also collectible crystal skulls strewn about the levels, costumes to unlock and Trophies to earn, if nothing else, so the collectors out there will have some fun finding and unlocking everything the game has to offer.

That said, however, Sigma 2 Plus is still problematic in the long run. As mentioned, the frame rate is suspect, and while Tecmo Koei advised to try maxing out the camera speed to resolve this, this improves the responsiveness of the camera, but doesn’t stop the frame rate from dropping out when lots of enemies are on screen. The game also lacks any kind of online or offline co-op, something the PS3 version came with, as well as the Japanese dialogue tracks, and as a three gig download, this is problematic in terms of space usage. Also, when installed directly to the console in this way the game is still something of a loader, taking upwards of a minute between levels and before missions, which is weird for a directly installed game, so one wonders how much worse the cartridge loading might be. Further, the issues that plagued the original game are still here and still frustrating. From about the halfway mark of the game, gun-toting enemies, suicidal explosive bosses, large missile spread firing enemies and so on pop up often enough to make the game inconsistently absurd in the middle, difficulty-wise, with no explanation or reason. Closed-in areas tend to have finicky camera issues, a lot of the cool stuff from the original game still no longer exists here, and with the purged co-op options you’re getting less here than in the PS3 title which is cheaper and lacks the “Plus” descriptor. Also, the Tag Missions are kind of spotty because your AI partner is… not so bright, shall we say, though Enma’s Fang also makes them a lot easier in comparison so that’s… something of a counterbalance.

Ninja Gaiden II was a fantastic game when it came out nearly half a decade ago, and Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2 Plus is a fine enough version of the game if you’re a fan, but technical issues and odd content choices make it harder to recommend than it really should be. The game itself still offers an enjoyable plot and single player experience, the visuals translate well on an artistic level to the Vita, and the aural quality of the game is largely intact in its handheld form. The gameplay mostly makes the transition intact, and slaughtering enemies is as fun and responsive as ever, especially with the wide variety of tools you’re given to do so. The Sigma modifications to level structure, enemy count and balance generally make the game a bit more accessible in most respects, and the Plus additions, such as Ninja Race and Hero Mode, add more variety and accessibility to the experience as well, making it theoretically easy to recommend. However, the game suffers frame rate dips even with the camera speed maxed out, the Japanese voice track is missing entirely from the handheld port, and any and all co-op play added into the PS3 release has been stripped from the Vita version entirely. Further, the game contains fairly large loading times between missions that are more noticeable in Tag Missions, many of the balancing concerns and camera issues from the original game are intact here, and even the extra content isn’t free of issues, as the partner AI in Tag Missions isn’t very bright. If you have access to no other version of Ninja Gaiden II, Sigma 2 Plus is a fine enough version to own, but it doesn’t do enough to justify owning it if you’ve already played the game, as the additions made come with sacrifices, the technical issues can be frustrating, and there are better versions of the game available for less money.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2 Plus is a solid enough port of the console game if you’ve missed it or really want a portable version, but between losing features and technical issues, it’s hard to recommend unless you’re a diehard fan or have no other way to play it. The story of the game is still fine even if it’s borrowing a bit from the NES Ninja Gaiden, the game is as artistically interesting as ever, and the audio is overall mostly on par with its console counterparts. The controls have migrated to the Vita well enough to make destroying enemies as fun as ever, and the toys you’re given to do so are also as diverse and useful as before. The changes made in Sigma mostly remain intact, which rebalances some of the stages well and makes the game easier to get into, and the Plus additions, like Hero difficulty and Ninja Race, add more variety to the game and open the experience up to new players well. That said, the frame rate suffers when large groups of enemies are on-screen, the Japanese language track has been purged from this release entirely, and the co-op options from the PS3 version have been excised as well. Also, the game shows fairly obvious loading times even when installed to the memory stick, many of the balancing and camera issues from the original game are still here, and the AI partner in Tag Missions isn’t generally bright, which makes things harder than they need to be. If you really want a portable version of Ninja Gaiden II, Sigma 2 Plus does a fine enough job of being this thing, but it’s not really worth the investment if you own either or both of the prior releases, as it adds too little and loses too much to the experience to be worth investing in otherwise.



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