Available now on the Japanese and US branches of the PlayStation Store, Tecmo's Ninja Gaiden Sigma demo is an intriguing first look at what could well become the PS3's most intense, hardcore action game.
However, initial impressions of the demo are somewhat underwhelming. In terms of content, you're essentially getting exactly the same taster level as Xbox gamers did way back in 2004 - an exploratory sortie through the ninja village with a token puzzle to 'solve' before facing off against a nunchuka-wielding end-of-level boss.
The biggest differences are in the visuals - while it appears that the basic geometry used to create the levels is all but identical to the original Xbox version, the PS3 code benefits from completely redrawn, absolutely gorgeous textures, and subtle but beautiful lighting. Just like the Xbox version, Ninja Gaiden Sigma also runs at 60 frames per second, but the demo suffers pretty badly from v-lock sync issues - particularly when the most spectacular special effects are employed. So much so that even though we tried to avoid capturing it in our screenshots, a couple of instances are still there in both 720p and 1080p galleries.
Speaking of which, Ninja Gaiden Sigma's 1080p support is somewhat odd. There's a touch more lag and more v-sync issues than 720p, but it's clear from the scaling artifacts that it's not a 1920x1080 game; chances are that Team Ninja are using one of the 'pseudo-1080p' modes added to the more recent versions of the PS3 SDK, where 1280x1080 and 1440x1080 support were added. Fewer pixels to render means faster frame rates, with the RSX GPU scaling up each frame to 1920x1080 before it reaches your display.
Gameplay is what matters though and despite the closeness to the Xbox version, Sigma plays beautifully - a hack and slash game with a control method so good to use, so wonderfully refined, that there's never been anything else quite like it. While it's still an extremely tough game (even this demo is no pushover), it merely illustrates that Ninja Gaiden requires time to master. There are few, if any, cheesy exploits or button-bashing shortcuts that'll prevent the need to fully master Sigma's control method.
The genius of this demo is its replayability. Completing it opens up additional difficulty levels along with the chance to get to grips with Sigma's second playable fighter, Rachel, who gets her own simple survival mode-style mission segment. An online ranking system is also in place which serves to show you just how bad you are at the game, and how much you have to learn. And if that doesn't do the job, the additional difficulty levels that are added (Hard, Very Hard, Master Ninja) brutally school you in what to expect from a game as demanding as this one.
However, it is a little disappointing that many of Ninja Gaiden Sigma's PS3-exclusive riches are absent from the demo - the full game boasts a new four-mission Rachel-based campaign to enjoy, new bosses, additional weaponry and new fighting experiences (such as doing battle while running on water, ninja-style). And some of the latest screenshots to issue forth from Team Ninja's labs show a level of graphical brilliance far beyond what the demo offers.
Ninja Gaiden Sigma is released in June, but the playable demo is available now from the PlayStation Store - fire up your PS3, make yourself a US Store account and download away. The Japanese rendition of the demo is lacking the gratuitous decapitations found in the US code, but otherwise both demos are identical with English and Japanese voices and subtitles.