I have a confession to make: I have to say that the original Ninja Gaiden was one of my least favorite Xbox games. This wasn't through want of trying, believe me. I did my very best to love Ninja Gaiden - I even went as far as buying a second copy after my original was sold in a fit of disgust - but even after extensive play time we simply did not click. Technically it was a sound game, and in that respect there were many titles worse than NG, but I found I just simply could not love the thing.
Yes, I know what you're thinking at this point and you're right. The reason behind this estrangement was indeed the stupidly high difficulty level...but not, perhaps, for the reasons you think. You see, as difficult games go I've seen a few in my time: From Sinclair Spectrum games that gave you just one life to complete a game where most of the enemies were the same colour as the background, to home-brew Doom levels made by autistic 12 year olds who thought that placing one shotgun in a room with 50 cyber demons would be enough to land them a job at ID. Difficulty isn't something that intimidates me but, as someone who plays games for fun rather than as some form of bizarre mental flagellation, I simply ask that a difficult game:
- Be pretty much perfect in every single other technical regard. If I'm going to need perfect reflexes at least give me a camera which shows me what the bloody hell I'm doing.
- Give me the option to wimp out and play on easy mode. This at least allows me to see if I want to come back and play the real deal at a later date.
Unfortunately, Ninja Gaiden pretty much failed on both accounts. By combining its single difficulty setting with a misbehaving camera and far too-many enemies equipped with far too-powerful explosives, Team Ninja managed to turn an otherwise enjoyable action game into a war of attrition which wore me down to the point where, despite not actually being actively stuck, I simply couldn't conjour up the will power to play it anymore.
Yes, I know, this is supposed to be a review of the sequel rather than the original, but I believe that preamble was needed to explain just how indifferent I felt coming into Ninja Gaiden 2. A quick play through the demo, however, and I realised I had to play the game in full. By simply adding an easier difficulty setting, 'The path of the Acolyte', Team Ninja have somehow managed to create a game that is both almost identical and also about ten times as enjoyable as its predecessor. Take the combat, for example. In both games it is incredibly smooth, fluid and ballet-like. The only difference is that the sequel actually gives you time to notice this. In Ninja Gaiden you had no choice but to obsess over every single blow that came your way, something that naturally encouraged a conservative approach of sticking to the weapons/combos you knew were safe and effective. In the sequel, however, a more relaxed approach to damage on the part of the developers and a higher frequency of save/healing points allows you the freedom to really express yourself in combat and to experiment with all of Ryu's available moves.
On top of this, Team Ninja have also made a host of other notable improvements to the formula. Most of the adventure-lite elements have been dropped (no hubs or backtracking, puzzles have been simplified to the point where keys are always about ten feet from locks,) and level designs are generally much tighter and action-orientated. This makes the game seem both less self-conscious and feel like a 3d version of Megardrive game Shinobi 3, which can only be a good thing. Decaptiations, a notable absence from the European version of the original, have been reinstated and also been joined this time round by fully detachable limbs. These aren't just here for a bit of ghoulish fun either as they have a very real effect on combat: Decapitations provide you with a visual cue for when your current opponent has been finished off, missing limbs prevent enemies from being able to use double-handed weapons and open up the option of using yur powerful new 'obliteration' finishing moves. It also goes without saying that all of Ryu's weapons are tremendous fun to use with special mention going to the Eclipse Scythe, an unfeasibly large weapon which easily cleaves most of your opponents in two.
Unfortunately it isn't all plain-sailing, as a number of significant gripes remain. The camera, in particular, is still a bit of a window-licker. Although it certainly does a good job of framing the action and making it look nice (A 'ninja cinemar' option is even provided to allow you to record your own movies) the camera always seems to fail to allow you to see what you need to be seeing at any particular point in time. It's almost as if they've created a camera for a large, outdoor KOEI-style hack'n'slash and forgotten that most of the action in the final game takes place in smaller more claustrophobic arenas. Projectile-wielding enemies are also another niggle. While they certainly make life a bit irritating on easy, they combine with the dodgy camera to make NGII irritatingly tricky on the higher difficulty settings. Another gripe is the fact that the game can hardly be considered very 'next-gen:' The levels are small and quite linear, a number of death animations are painfully rigid and our friends the invincible car window and invincible cardboard box make a decidedly unwelcome return.
I'm also not entirely sure of some of the art direction. For me, the most memorable moments in the series have come from the juxtaposition of traditional ninja Ryu in an all-too-modern environment. Far too little time in NG2 is spent in futuristic cities and giant flying battleships, while far too much time is spent in dingy caves, coloured in 'realistic-but-dull- green/brown/grey tones. Finally there's also little bit of slowdown at one of the most exciting and defining moments of the game, and NG2 also makes the mistake of forcing you to fight all of its bosses twice which is, personally, something that really pisses me off.
Overall though, I have to say that I preferred NG2 to the original. Its fair to say that both have their share of flaws, but personally I found that NGII gave me more reasons to overlook them. While the ridiculous difficulty settings remain for the people who enjoy that sort of thing, the easier setting combines well with the streamlined level design to forge an experience that feels more fluid, open and fun. I doubt it will end up among my favourite 360 games, but there are definitely far worse titles out there for you to waste your money on.
7 / 10