To most, Ninja Gaiden is the hardest game to come out in recent memory — and that's not a hyperbolic statement. Ninja Gaiden was so incredibly difficult that many of the gamers who purchased the title were unable to get past the first level on the easiest difficulty, let alone beat the entire game. Completing Ninja Gaiden on its hardest difficulty level was the sign of a true gaming master. Even after sparking two remakes that lowered the excruciating difficulty level and gave the game an Easy mode, Ninja Gaiden is still remembered (perhaps not quite fondly) as a game that made even the hardcore gamers cry.
Beyond its challenging gameplay, Ninja Gaiden was also remembered as an excellent title that blended Prince of Persia-style acrobatics with a deep and involved combat system to create one of the finest action games of the last generation. It should come as no surprise that Team Ninja has put all of their skill into making a truly worthy successor to their original masterpiece, and from what we've seen in the preview build, it looks like Ninja Gaiden II is going to eclipse the original in every way.
To put many gamers' minds at ease: Ninja Gaiden II is not as hair-rendingly difficult as its predecessor. This isn't to say that it is a cakewalk, but a number of new features have been added to ensure that less hardcore gamers won't find themselves forever trapped on the first level. First and foremost is the inclusion of the "Path of the Acolyte" difficulty level. Available from the get-go, this difficulty level tends to make things a bit easier for gamers, with less aggressive enemies, a hardier Ryu, and a greater abundance of yellow orbs to buy items from the shops. Unlike Ninja Gaiden Black's Ninja Dog mode, however, you don't have to sacrifice your dignity to play this mode, which is simply selectable from a menu. For gamers who enjoyed the original title's unforgiving gameplay, there are even harder difficulty modes available that will provide a greater challenge to those who want to prove themselves as true master ninjas.
The other big concession to gamers who were beaten by Ninja Gaiden's challenging gameplay is the addition of a new style of health bar. After every encounter with enemies, Ryu's health bar will automatically restore itself, so players who are not so great at dodging will not find themselves burning health items just to stay alive. However, the more often Ryu gets hit by foes, the more semi-permanent damage he accumulates; it's shown by a red aura that fills up Ryu's health bar, and it can't be recovered between fights. If you keep taking hits, Ryu's health bar may refill after a fight, but it will only be at half its usual maximum. It's not a fun thing to deal with when you're going into a major fight. Luckily, there are a few ways to recover semi-permanent damage. If Ryu uses any of his health items, they'll recover all damage, not just temporary injury. The other option is to find a save point, which refills Ryu's health, but health can only be restored once per save point. You can save as many times as you want, but the refill is a one-time deal.
Beyond these changes, Ninja Gaiden II's gameplay hasn't changed too much from the original title. If you've played through Ninja Gaiden or its two remakes, you'll probably be able to leap right into Ninja Gaiden II and start taking foes apart. You'll probably even find a lot of familiar techniques, especially from Ryu's trusty Dragon Sword, which begins almost unchanged from its Ninja Gaiden counterpart.
However, there are a few improvements to the overall controls that help improve the experience. Dodging attacks is much faster and easier to perform now, and it's quite easy to go from blocking to dodging backward from foes, which keeps combos smooth and fast. Likewise, wall-running and wall-jumping is a much more user-friendly experience, and performing death-defying ninja feats feel easier than ever. For example, in the original Ninja Gaiden, the Water Run ability was an amusing side gimmick that rarely came in handy except for finding a few hidden items, while Ninja Gaiden II turns it into a powerful combat technique. As long as the player can time his button presses correctly, Ryu can actually fight on top of water, battling normally aquatic foes with his non-aquatic weapons. If you mess up your timing or get hit, Ryu goes right into the drink, but it's even easy to recover from this, and a few taps of the A button has Ryu moving instantly over the water again. It's a small thing, but it helps turns the water segments that were so tedious in Ninja Gaiden into fun and exciting fight scenes.
Returning from the original Ninja Gaiden is Ryu's ability to carry a massive variety of weapons and special ninja magic to aid in his fight. In addition to Ryu's trademark Dragon Sword, he'll find a number of other powerful ninja weapons scattered throughout the levels. Although none of these weapons appeared in the original Ninja Gaiden, some, like the Lunar Staff and the Dragon Claw/Tiger Fang twin katana set, are returning from the enhanced Ninja Gaiden Sigma and Ninja Gaiden Black.
In addition to the returning weapons, Ryu will also find a sizable collection of new and powerful equipment to augment his gear, including new ranged weapons — the Gatling Spear Gun, a hand-cranked spear-launching weapon that is massively inaccurate but fires incredibly quickly — to the Kusari-gama, a small scythe on a chain that allows Ryu to do his best Kratos impression on nearby foes. By and large, the most interesting and fun of these new weapons is the Falcon's Talons, a set of short-range, bladed gauntlets and greaves that Ryu can equip, but they turn the ninja warrior into a whirling dervish of kicks, punches and combos that absolutely render enemies asunder. It would be impressive to watch even if Ninja Gaiden II hadn't included the ability to dismember your opponents, but watching Ryu literally tear a demon limb from limb is almost enough to make you feel bad for the unholy fiends.
Dismembering a foe can have a number of different effects, depending on the enemy. A bow-wielding ninja can't use a bow with only one arm, and a fiend is going to move a lot slower and more awkwardly when he's missing a leg. Even better, a foe that's lost a limb becomes susceptible to one of Ryu's obliteration techniques. By approaching a wounded foe and pressing the Y button, Ryu will launch into an extra-brutal finishing move that instantly dispatches the enemy, no matter how much health they have left. It's a great way to save time and health, but it's also incredibly cool to watch.
However, be warned that removing a foe's limb doesn't always weaken him. As they say, a wounded animal is the most dangerous, and that theory applies to Ninja Gaiden II in spades. An enemy who's been delimbed will oftentimes gain new and more dangerous attacks to make up for his weakened state. For example, the common Black Spider Ninja that Ryu faces on most stages might seem fairly harmless without any legs, but if Ryu wanders too close to a still-living but mortally wounded foe, that ninja will latch onto Ryu and blow himself up for a bit of last-minute vengeance. Admittedly, not all foes will have such a dramatic way of paying you back for their lost limbs, but players should still be cautious and never assume that wounded is the same as dead.
These newly super-gory and super-cinematic fights serve a further purpose beyond simply looking cool. One of the new features in Ninja Gaiden II is the addition of "Ninja Cinema" mode, which is a fairly simple feature: Gamers can record their own playthroughs of a stage in Ninja Gaiden II to show their friends or even upload online to show off their skills. It may seem like a small feature, but the ability to both record your own awesome fights and see others really works wonders when you consider Ninja Gaiden II's incredibly cinematic combat. It's one thing to play through a fight scene, but when you're fighting for your life, you're too busy to really enjoy the cool moves you pull off. Rewatching fights through the Ninja Cinema really helps you get a feel for how awesome Ryu looks in combat. It's also a nice little ego boost to watch yourself pull off amazing maneuvers against massive foes.
Ninja Gaiden II is looking to be a very graphically impressive game. Although the preview build is unpolished, many of the locations are incredibly immersive and packed with amusing little details. Ranging from locations like New York City, where you battle ninja dogs in the middle of Times Square while surrounded by glowing advertisements for Xbox games and Team Ninja accessories, to the streets of Venice, Italy, where Ryu takes on an army of Lycanthropes using his new water-walking combat abilities to move from the canals to the streets with ease. Perhaps the most notable change from the previous game is the massive amount of gore. Ninja Gaiden II isn't a game for the squeamish. By the time a fight is over, the walls, floors and ceilings will be covered with blood and body parts, Ryu's enemies will be on pieces on the ground, and even Ryu's weapons will be stained with the fluids of the his foes. It's certainly graphically impressive, and it really lends the fights a visceral reality that the prior Ninja Gaiden lacked.
Ninja Gaiden II is shaping up to be quite the sequel to the original Xbox release. It improves on the original in nearly every way, while still retaining the excellent gameplay that made Ninja Gaiden such a fan favorite. In fact, the only thing that Ninja Gaiden II doesn't keep is the first game's unforgiving difficult level. The new spread of difficulties means that more casual gamers will be able to enjoy the game, even on Way of the Acolyte level, while truly hardcore gamers will be able to put their Ninja Gaiden-honed skills to the test in the game's harder modes. Barring any unforeseen complications, Ninja Gaiden II is going to be a game every Xbox 360 owner will want to add to their library when it hits stores this June — assuming you're not squeamish about the bucketloads of ninja violence contained within.
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