Team Ninja main man Tomonobu Itagaki reckons Ninja Gaiden II will be "the world's premier action game", and as hyperbolic as that sounds, there's a good chance it will be. The brand's certainly built on firm foundations - back in March 2004, Tom reckoned the Xbox original was "one of the finest action games ever made". But that was then, and plenty of challengers have come along since that have been even more spectacular - not to mention far more accessible. Ninja Gaiden could give most hardcore gamers a bloody nose at ten paces.
Just a year ago, of course, we got back up to speed with the revised PS3 version, Ninja Gaiden Sigma, which was a good excuse to start preparing a mental wish-list of improvements for the pending sequel if nothing else. Although remarkably solid in the combat stakes, it was painfully obvious that Team Ninja had plenty of niggles to address if it wanted to win back its crown, such as needlessly respawning enemies, regular loading pauses between areas and an irritating save-game system that could leave you high and dry at inopportune moments.
Thankfully, it's evident within minutes that most minor issues have been dealt with, and the promise is of a far more entertaining and accessible sequel, without diluting what made it so beloved of action gamers in the first place. Blessed with a feature-complete preview build, we rattled through almost half of the game's eight chapters and came away impressed in almost every area.
The first thing that hits you about Ninja Gaiden II is the level of polish lavished upon it. When we last saw the game at the Tokyo Game Show, we expressed some concerns that the game didn't quite look at strikingly beautiful as, say, Devil May Cry 4. Since that time, Team Ninja has evidently gone to town with the 360's hardware, creating one of the most assured, confident action games seen to date. Often, a 50" 1080p panel can expose high-definition titles, but Ninja Gaiden II appears to be designed to exploit such treatment. Boasting incredibly sharp textures, vivid and atmospheric backdrops, and frenetic, pinball-like action that barely flinches no matter what chaos is unfolding on the screen, it's every bit as in-your-face as the trailers and controlled demos suggested it would be. As you might expect from a studio with so many visually opulent games under its belt, technical excellence is almost a given - but what about the rest of it?
Once again starring leather-clad ninja warrior Ryu Hayabusa, the game kicks off as it means to go on - at a hundred miles an hour with a blizzard of severed limbs. Set high up in the night-time Tokyo metropolis, you battle Black Spider clan minions five at a time down walkways and corridors, with the neon glow of the skyscrapers and city streets below providing a stark contrast to the serene opening of the previous Ninja Gaiden. With no tutorial to speak of, you learn basic moves such as Reverse Wind, Technique of Shadowless Footsteps, and The Furious Wind Technique on the job. Based around a few simple button combinations, you'll have a firm grasp of wall-running, light/heavy attacks, blocks and dashes quickly. For the most part, the combat centres around the Y and B buttons (for heavy and light attacks respectively) with the left trigger providing the essential blocking ability, and A to jump.
Soon after you've mastered the basics and marveled at how Ryu's Dragon Sword slices through flesh and bone like a hot knife through butter, your move-set is embellished with more gory, death-dealing tricks. The first NINPO attack, The Art of Inferno, gets added to your arsenal, and becomes accessible via the intuitive d-pad selection system. Once activated with Y or B, it acts as a good old-fashioned smart-bomb attack, where you switch to a first-person perspective and have a few seconds to move left or right to change the direction of the blast and set everyone on fire.
Elsewhere, the hilariously grisly Obliteration Technique gives you a chance to rub salt into your enemy's stumps; if they've already been dismembered, holding Y finishes them off in grisly style. As ever, the pace is ridiculous, so it's more blink-and-you'll-miss-it cartoon violence than the gratuitous slow-motion seen in, say, Viking. Honestly, it probably looks worse in the screenshots than in real-life.
You soon also gain the Flying Swallow aerial attack, followed by the Ultimate Attack, where holding down the Y button charges up your newly acquired Lunar Staff and pirouettes around the room in the blink of an eye, smashing up everything in the vicinity in comical fashion. Before the first chapter is over with, you're already more than capable of dishing out some pretty nifty moves without having to resort to finger-crippling combos to get there. As long as you're diligent about using the block-dash move and picking your foes off, it's a fairly straightforward task to chip your way through the mayhem. And thanks to regular save-game opportunities, which also replenish your health, you never find yourself having to repeat large sections, as was the case previously. Even the obligatory end-of-level boss encounters are within the realms of sanity, which is good news for most of you.
Another massive improvement in evidence is the total absence of loading during each level. Once you kick off, that's it, and you can roam around the lavish environments without a pause, enjoy the new free camera system, and backtrack without fear of being nailed by respawning denizens. Again, for most of you who enjoy hackandslash titles (or third-person action games in general), this can only be a good thing for your sanity levels, and as you progress through each chapter, the typically hammy story unfolds, concerning a bunch of fiends "trying to resurrect the arch fiend". They're planning to do so by stealing a demon statue, which makes you wonder why more people don't try it.
Of course, while you're busy smashing things up, 'essence' pours out of your slain foes. As has been the case in every hackandslash game since Onimusha, these coloured blobs serve multiple purposes, with yellow essence acting as the game's currency, blue for health top-ups, and red for NINPO magic. When you've harvested enough cash, you can visit a nearby Muramasa shop and spend your winnings on either upgrading your weapons or some vital health packs for when the going gets tough. Fortunately, the new pseudo recharging health mechanic makes it less of a requirement to constantly top up your health, but enduring repeated damage in combat ultimately reduces the size of your health bar, so it's a reasonable concession to the rather ludicrous recent trend of simply resting to regain all your health.
Without giving away too much, the game continues to drip-feed new weapons (Falcon's Talons, Field's Bane Bow, Incendiary Shurikens) and tons of crazy new abilities - usually involving flesh-ripping attacks of extreme prejudice. That it does so at a sensible pace is to be applauded - it's clear that Team Ninja has really worked on balancing the game every step of the way for a much broader audience. At the default lowest difficulty level (The Path of the Acolyte) you get a fantastic, enjoyable introduction to the game without handing your arse back to you on a plate, and the contrast to the ruthlessly unforgiving approach of the original couldn't be more evident. And yet with a total of four difficulty levels to wade through (Warrior, Mentor, Master Ninja), old-school hardcore players shouldn't feel abandoned. The level of depth and challenge promises to remain for those who demand it, and with the facility to upload your gameplay clips to Xbox Live, it will be interesting to see how the elite fare later this summer.
Ninja Gaiden II is due out exclusively on Xbox 360 on 6th June. Look out for our review very soon.