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.