Ninja Gaiden is a title that made even the strongest of gamers want to weep. It was neither friendly nor forgiving, and a large number of those who purchased the game found it nearly impossible to get past the first stage. Even when a remake was released that made it easier, it did so by taunting the player, requiring him to submit to being called a "dog" and wearing a pink ribbon. Ninja Gaiden's legacy is soul-crushing difficulty, which is a shame because it was also one of the finest, if not the finest action games of the last generation. Combining excellent combat, terrific enemy design, amazing visuals and flawless controls, Ninja Gaiden was fairly close to perfection, if not for an awkward camera and the seemingly insurmountable difficulty level. Now, some years and two remakes later, Ninja Gaiden is finally getting a sequel. Unfortunately, Ninja Gaiden II is a sequel that amplifies the problems found in the first title, while doing little to capitalize on the original's strong points.
Ninja Gaiden II has a story, but to be honest, I can't picture anyone playing this game for the story line. Once again, Ryu Hayabusa is fighting the deadly Greater Fiends, once again with the help of a leather-clad, big-chested and completely useless blonde sidekick, and once again he must stop the Greater Fiends from using a relic of the Dragon clan to unleash evil upon the world. There's nothing new here, and the cut scenes take themselves far too seriously for the inane plot. Ryu basically has no personality whatsoever, which is a startling contrast to Nero and Dante from Devil May Cry 4, so there aren't any witty one-liners to hear or exciting stunts to watch. The backstory is mostly there to explain why Ryu is in the city one moment and a cave the next, and to provide a little foreshadowing as to which bosses you'll be facing next. There's nothing wrong with that, but one can't help but wish that there was a little more to Ryu Hayabusa.
Overall, the gameplay hasn't changed too much from Ninja Gaiden and its various spin-offs, although there are a few new twists and turns to the franchise. Ryu is still the fastest and toughest ninja around, and the same silky-smooth and flawless control scheme returns from the first title. The biggest addition to Ryu's arsenal is the addition of Obliteration moves, which are brutal, blood-soaked, cinematic moves that instantly dispatch the enemy in the most violent possible way. All enemies, including bosses, can now be sent into a damaged state by certain attacks. This means different things depending on the enemy, but usually involves either rending an enemy's limb, damaging a robotic enemy's generator, or weakening a boss until he's stunned. Once an enemy is in the damaged status, Ryu only has to move close and press the Y button to unleash a weapon- or enemy-specific Obliteration move. He'll cut them in twain with a scythe, crush their heads with a staff, or remove every limb with a few quick slashes of his arm blades. Learning how to best use the Obliteration moves will determine if you're a true Ninja Gaiden master. Tougher enemies can be taken out on half the time if you use the Art of Wind Blade magic spell to remove an arm and then use an Obliteration move, as opposed to pounding at them to drain their health. It's a surprisingly effective and impressive addition to the franchise, although it does make some fights too easy.
With the addition of a regeneration health system, Ryu has also become a bit tougher than before, and his health bar is no longer static between fights. While any health you lose during a fight remains lost until all nearby enemies are taken care of, Ryu regenerates all of his lost health as soon as the fight is over. However, there is a caveat here: Every bit of damage you take also fills up your health bar with red damage in addition to regular damage, which, unlike regular damage, doesn't regenerate. Instead, your health bar grows shorter and shorter between fights if Ryu takes damage, and if you're not careful, you can go into a boss fight with only 1/15th of your total available health.
However, there are a few ways to cure a damaged health bar. Blue orbs dropped by enemies will restore health regardless of the type, so if you're not damaged, you'll instead recover a bit of your red health. Likewise, healing items don't care what sort of state Ryu is in, so an Herb of Spiritual Healing can fix up some of his red-bar woes. Finally, each save point in the game will recover all of Ryu's health, although each save point can only do this once, so don't expect to keep running back to heal after every hit.
Ninja Gaiden II offers a pretty wide selection of weapons, ranging from returning favorites and newcomers. If you've only ever played Ninja Gaiden, the familiar Dragon Sword will be your returning ally, but joining it from the spin-offs are the Lunar Staff from Ninja Gaiden Black and the twin swords from Ninja Gaiden Sigma. Beyond that, you'll gain a healthy dose of new weapons, from the awesome Falcon's Talons, a series of gauntlets equipped on all four of Ryu's limbs that turn him into a whirling dervish of death, to the Eclipse Scythe, a giant collapsible blade that can create literal tornados with a swing of its blade. Compared to Ninja Gaiden, where the Dragon Sword was so utterly superior to every other weapon that there was little reason to use the arsenal available to Ryu, Ninja Gaiden II's selection of weapons is far more accessible.
Ninja Gaiden II focuses on speed for everything now. Every weapon, including the Eclipse Scythe and Lunar Staff, is fast. The slowest attacks are still lightning fast, and it makes combat a sight to behold no matter what your weapon. With that said, there were still minor noticeable issues. The aforementioned Eclipse Scythe and the good old-fashioned Dragon Sword did seem a bit overpowered compared to the other weapons I used, combining insane speed and attack power to the point where I rarely bothered to change my weapon from those two selections.
If Ninja Gaiden II has one thing that is going to make or break the game for buyers, it is the camera, which zooms in close to give you a fantastic view of the blood-soaked carnage that results from Ryu's rampages. The downside is that this means you're so close to Ryu that you can rarely, if ever, see more than a scant fraction of your enemies. Sure, you can adjust the camera at the press of a button so that it's directly behind Ryu, or you can slowly move it with the right analog stick, but when you take into consideration that you're fighting high-speed werewolves, robots, demons and soldiers, this really doesn't cut it. The game makes the camera Ryu's most ever-present and deadly enemy, especially once you get foes that have a ton of long-ranged attacks. There's nothing fun about being bombarded by exploding shurikens as soon as you enter a room full of Spider-clan ninjas while you try to reorient the camera, and this will happen often.
Ninja Gaiden II's difficulty level reaches that awkward area where it doesn't quite appeal to anyone at all, at least not on the same level as the first title. For newcomers to the franchise or those who don't fancy themselves hardcore gamers, the title is going to be frustratingly cheap and difficult. The swarms of enemies, high damage ratio and awful camera combine to give an experience that just isn't friendly to average gamers. However, it doesn't go far enough in the opposite direction either to appeal to the hardcore. If you're the kind of player who's taken down Ninja Gaiden or Devil May Cry 3, the enemies in Ninja Gaiden II are going to seem hopelessly dumb. On the default difficulty mode, Ninja Gaiden II clearly went for quantity over quality. If you know how to play and are willing to fight the camera, you'll encounter a number of enemies who feel weak and dumb, and rely on numbers instead of skill far more than their Ninja Gaiden I counterparts.
Ninja Gaiden II's problem is this: When you get badly damaged or when you die, it very rarely feels like it's your fault. Unlike Ninja Gaiden, you don't curse your slow fingers or the clever enemies for an unlucky death. You curse the fact that enemies strike you from off-screen with rocket launchers and grab attacks while you're fighting with the camera. The result is an overall weaker gameplay experience. You don't feel like you need to get better to defeat enemies; you only get aggravated at the danged camera for not pointing at the swarm of enemies. It's a very careful balance required between genuine difficulty and cheapness, and unfortunately, Ninja Gaiden II skews toward the latter instead of the former.
This hurts it particularly in comparison to games like Ninja Gaiden and Devil May Cry 4, both of which did a much better job of making challenges, even on their hardest difficulty modes, feel like challenges instead of cheapness. The new regenerating health bar makes up for that slightly, but it doesn't really change the overall problem that Ninja Gaiden II isn't really hard because it's well designed — it's really hard because it's poorly designed. That isn't to say that every area in Ninja Gaiden II is like this. There are a few areas that genuinely shine, but those tend to be the areas where you don't feel restricted by the design choices.
Bosses also suffer from this weird difficulty mix, although unlike their minions, they rarely have numbers to make up for their weaknesses and tend to be shockingly easy to defeat. One early boss, who has two entire levels dedicated to hyping him up, fell before my Dragon Sword in under 10 seconds simply by button mashing, a feat I was able to replicate any time I faced him. Human-shaped bosses tend to be pretty weak and vulnerable, while the larger bosses provide an occasional challenge, even if it's only due to their increased range and damage.
Compared to the bosses in Ninja Gaiden, however, they're missing that sense of danger that made the fights so impressive and satisfying, so most of the boss battles are less memorable than they should be. Compared to the regular fight segments, these boss battles are the most fun you'll have in the game. For the most part, the bosses are enjoyable to fight. If you're not hardcore, they'll be challenging enough to give you a run for your money while finding that same "if only I had dodged" difficulty level that is sort of lacking in the rest of the title. Hardcore gamers will probably find the boss battles to be a bit simple, but the dramatic and beautiful fights will more than make up for that.
One thing that nobody can deny is that Ninja Gaiden II is a fantastic-looking title. The action is incredibly beautiful to watch. Ryu diving from enemy to enemy, slaughtering them with powerful slashes and Obliteration moves without a single break in the action, blood spattering on the floors and walls, carnage ensuing with every movement — it's honestly one of the best-looking action titles on the market. The close-up camera helps add to this feel, which is perhaps its one redeeming aspect, and the Ninja Cinema move even lets players record and play back their most awesome moments. It is strongly recommended that you do this because it's impossible to appreciate exactly how good combat looks when you're struggling with the enemies. If you record your fights and play them back later, you'll probably be flabbergasted at how intense the battle looks. The level design is also excellent, and each area has its own unique look. The biggest issue I would claim is that any time you go underground, you tend to lose a bit of that uniqueness. The caves underneath Venice look almost identical to the caves you'll find anywhere else, except they're filled with a bit more water. Those locations are still breathtaking, and it's quite exciting to explore them.
It says something about the original Ninja Gaiden that Ninja Gaiden II being a merely good action game is such a letdown. Ninja Gaiden II's graphics are fantastic and the action flawless, but this perfection is marred by a jerky, awkward and terrible camera and a difficulty level that's the product of the camera and enemy positioning, rather than an actual challenge. Unfortunately, Ninja Gaiden II is not as good a game as its predecessor, although it most certainly isn't a bad game. Even with all of its issues, it's still a fun and incredible-looking game, but the flaws weigh far heavier on Ninja Gaiden II than they did on Ryu's last journey, and as the franchise's swan song, it feels tragically lackluster. If you're willing to work past the problems, Ninja Gaiden II is a fine game that you'll have a lot of fun with, but no matter what Tomonobu Itagaki tries to claim, it isn't a masterpiece.
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