Version tested: Xbox 360
My living room is full of twenty-something gamers, and they're watching a friend play through the first level of Ninja Gaiden 2. The air is filled with laughter - hooting, cackling, whooping laughter, punctuated with sharp intakes of breath and observations that, well, everything looks like it hurts. Really quite a lot.
Ninja Gaiden 2 is a spectacle. Its predecessor has come to be remembered for a steep but perfectly pitched difficulty curve - but firing up NG2 for the first time is a reminder of just how cinematic and exciting the whole thing is, too. With Ninja Gaiden, we came for the eye-catching, beautiful combat, and stayed for the challenge. Ninja Gaiden 2 ramps up the first part of that formula to a whole new level.
Graphically, of course, it's a stunner, but it's the battle animation and choreography that really pulls in your attention. Ryu's adventure this time around is a far more brutal and violent than his last outing, which featured the occasional decapitation (excised from the European release, you may recall) as a finishing move. Here, the bloodlust goes into overdrive - and with it, Team Ninja's brilliant, over-the-top battle animations.
In NG2, limbs and heads are severed and tossed around like confetti at a wedding. A fairly wide selection of your basic attacks have the ability to sever arms, legs and even heads, assuming you hit them unguarded and at the right time. Every other attack simply sends huge spouts of blood-splatter across the playing area - and even your non-bladed weapons have the ability to cripple, except that instead of cleanly lopping off an arm, they smash the offending limb (or head) into chunky giblets, leaving thick lumps of ichor on the surrounding walls and floor.
Adding to the ludicrous level of comic-book violence is the fact that your relentless foes aren't that bothered by losing limbs. Enemies without arms are restricted in the attacks they can make, but they'll still have a bloody good go; those without legs crawl across the floor and try to grab you for a suicidal bomb attack. To despatch them, you simply press Y in their vicinity. That'll perform a brutal finishing move (usually involving plenty more smashed or sliced limbs) on the nearest crippled enemy, and it's these moves which are likely to generate the loudest cackles and sharpest intakes of breath.
That, then, is the immediate hook of the game - and it's brilliant. No other action game comes close to Ninja Gaiden 2 for looks, for animation or for ferocity. NG2 doesn't even need a map to guide you around, because the section you're looking for is clearly signposted by the absence of blood, gore and limbless torsos, which are strewn and caked all over everywhere you've been. Even the solid and enjoyable Devil May Cry 4 doesn't have the mesmerising quality that watching someone play NG2 exerts. The problem, sadly, arises when you actually pick up the controller yourself.
Ninja Gaiden has always been a harsh mistress, and we've loved her for it. Ninja Gaiden Black, which is probably the high point of the series so far (the PS3's Sigma being essentially the same game), is hard as nails, demanding that you develop superb reaction times, a stunning mastery of Ryu's moves and a perfect understanding of your enemies' animations and abilities as you progress. For many players, it's simply too hard. The popular view around these parts, however, is that NGB isn't too hard, it's just right - as long as you're willing to put in the time and effort.
But Ninja Gaiden 2 strays from the path. Perhaps mindful of the series' reputation for difficulty, Team Ninja ramped up the difficulty level once again - and torn by the conflicting need to provide accessibility for less dedicated players, it's seriously messed up the balance. NG2 regularly stops being challenging and becomes impossible.
Where Ninja Gaiden balanced frustration with satisfaction, giving you a glow of accomplishment when you finally mastered a tricky section, NG2 breaks the equation on a regular basis. It spawns enemies on top of you - occasionally blinking them into existence right in front of your astonished face. It bombards you with unblockable, long-range attacks - and then restricts your movements, limiting your ability to dodge. It throws exploding kunai at you the second you walk through a door, from enemies you can't even see yet. It tantalises with the possibility of clever solutions or stealth (you are a bloody ninja, after all), allowing you to shoot out searchlights, and then instantly respawns the searchlights and bombards you with long-range rockets again.
These situations aren't something that you pass through by getting better at Ninja Gaiden 2. The game isn't challenging you to improve your skills or work out a cunning solution. It's just kicking your arse until you get lucky. Perhaps the AI will slip up and decide it can't see you, or it can't be bothered attacking you for a few seconds, or you'll score a somewhat random limb-removal against a tough foe and get to finish him off with the Y button.