Ninja Gaiden II was a bit of an ill-fated game. It was the last game that Tomonobu Itagaki made for Tecmo before he and the company split ways. While Ninja Gaiden and Ninja Gaiden: Black were polished to a mirror shine, Ninja Gaiden II felt distinctly unfinished, almost as if it had been rushed out the door. Enemies were unbalanced and relied on cheesy projectile spamming instead of actual challenge, certain areas were filled with poor textures or terrible slowdown, and in general, the game didn't live up to its predecessor. The base for a solid game was still there, though, and despite all its flaws, Ninja Gaiden II had a lot of potential. Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2 is an attempt to make something of that potential by fixing and adapting Ninja Gaiden II to take full advantage of the PlayStation 3.
Ninja Gaiden II picks up sometime after the original Xbox Ninja Gaiden. Ryu Hayabusa, a member of the Dragon Ninja Clan, finds his village under assault by a group of fiends who are attempting to resurrect their leader using an ancient statue under the clan's protection, and Ryu has to stop them. To be honest, the story is about as important to the game as it would be to an old-school NES game. It's mostly an excuse to have Ryu do cool things in cut scenes, and it introduces various large-breasted and scantily clad women into the mix. It's a fairly heartless exercise in all, and Ryu is a boring main character, trapped among even more boring enemies and allies. The shining moments are those few times when the game lets itself go and does something completely crazy, like animating the Statue of Liberty and forcing Ryu to fight it, but they're few and far between. The game zooms from location to location without explanation, and trying to follow the plot is pointless. The cameos from certain Dead or Alive characters may appeal to fans of the franchise, but anyone else is likely to find themselves skipping the cut scenes after a while.
Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2 uses the same fast-paced action combat system as its predecessors. In some ways, it plays more like a fighting game than an action game. Players are expected to learn frame data for their own moves and enemy moves in order to best succeed. Slashing wildly is a great way to get yourself killed. Ninja Gaiden is more about moving constantly and dodging attacks until that brief moment when an enemy leaves himself open for a counterattack. Compared to Devil May Cry or the upcoming Bayonetta, it's a far more defensive game. Ryu is generally more focused on staying alive instead of unleashing lengthy combos.
With that said, this title features a few interesting abilities that were not available in Ninja Gaiden Sigma, the most notable of which are the obliteration techniques. As Ryu strikes enemies, there is a chance that they'll lose a limb to his attacks. If an enemy loses a limb, his attack pattern changes. A wounded animal is the most dangerous, and a wounded enemy is far more likely to perform suicidal rushes to try to kill you. However, a wounded enemy is also vulnerable to an obliteration technique, which is an absolutely brutal instant-kill technique that can be performed on any delimbed enemy. Depending on your weapon, Ryu may decapitate him, cut him in half or crush his head like a pumpkin. No matter which weapon you use, the enemy dies instantly.
Another notable change from Ninja Gaiden Sigma is the addition of a regenerating health bar. Whenever Ryu suffers damage in combat, his health bar will drain. Once combat is over, it will restore itself after a few moments, but this isn't without its limitations. Every time Ryu takes damage, his overall health bar shrinks a bit. The more you get hurt, the less total health you'll have to be regenerated. The only way to restore your health bar to its normal size is to use a healing item or to visit one of the save points located throughout the stages. Each save point can only heal you once, and after that, Ryu is on his own. The regenerating health bar makes this a bit easier on the player; you have more room for error in individual fights, and save points are plentiful enough that you can usually keep your health topped off. This is no reason to get lazy, though; Ryu isn't capable of taking much damage, so if you keep getting hit, you'll enter boss fights at a distinct disadvantage. Not every boss fight comes with a convenient healing point nearby, and fighting the deadly enemy leaders with a sliver of health is a quick way to die.
Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2 has a wide variety of weapons available, ranging from swords to scythes to flails. Learning to use all these weapons is a crucial part of the game because each weapon has advantages and disadvantages. Some do more damage to enemies but have a lower chance of delimbing foes while others are fast and great at setting up obliteration techniques but aren't so good at sunning enemies. Unique to Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2 is Enma's Fang, a gigantic greatsword of unparalleled power, which is more than capable of crushing enemies and tearing off their limbs. Its greatest weakness is its slow speed, which can leave Ryu vulnerable to counterattacks. In Ninja Gaiden II, players upgraded their weapons by spending the orbs they collected from defeated enemies. In Sigma 2, however, you can only upgrade your weapon by finding a glowing blue statue somewhere in the level, and you can only do this once per statue. This greatly limits your choices as far as combat potential goes. When you can only upgrade one weapon at a time, you're less likely to invest in learning new weapons you find, since they won't be upgraded until you can find a new statue.
On the surface Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2 appears to be a mere upgraded port of Ninja Gaiden II, but the truth is a bit more complex. Sigma 2 might be more easily classified as a remake, considering the massive amount of changes to the game. Almost every level has seen some kind of tweaks. Certain bosses were removed, while new bosses were added in other areas. Some puzzles have been tweaked or removed from the game in order to make things flow more quickly. Ryu no longer has the ability to perform Ultimate Techniques with a ranged weapon, and a few of his more powerful ranged weapons have been removed. In exchange, he gains infinite ammo for the remaining weapons. He now has constant access to the shuriken throwing stars, whereas previously, they had to be equipped in place of another ranged weapon.
While most of the changes are for the better, there are a few that are a bit annoying. The loss of ranged Ultimate Techniques is a change that is for the worse because it leaves the bow and arrow feeling a bit too weak. The changed upgrade system seems to be designed to discourage experimentation and the use of new weapons. The new bosses are particularly uninspired, and while they're reasonably fun to fight, they don't really hold a candle to some of the more memorable fights from the original Ninja Gaiden II. A lot of these changes are only going to be noticeable by those who played the original 360 version. With the exception of a few areas, the modifications are mostly seamless, and anyone coming into Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2 without having played Ninja Gaiden II is unlikely to notice them.
One of the biggest additions to Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2 is the inclusion of three new playable characters: Ayane of Dead or Alive, Momiji from Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword and Rachel from the original Ninja Gaiden. Each character is unlocked by progressing through story mode and playing a special level starring that character. Compared to Ryu, the girls are a bit more simplistic. They lack the ability to change weapons or Ninpo, and you won't be upgrading their weapons or learning new moves. On the other hand, they have unique weapons and abilities that Ryu doesn't. Ayane is fast and uses explosive shurikens and kunai daggers to delimb enemies with rapid speed. Rachel uses a gigantic hammer and machine gun to brutalize enemies with pure power. Momiji is perhaps the closest to Ryu in gameplay style, wielding a naginata and bow in combat, but supplementing those weapons with the unique ability to double-jump. The girls are an interesting diversion from Ryu's gameplay, and while they're more simplistic, they're no less fun to play; perhaps the only problem is that their levels feel a bit bland and short.
By and large, Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2 is probably the "easiest" of the Ninja Gaiden titles, though that doesn't mean the game is a cakewalk. In comparison to the other titles, a lot has been done to tone things down. Compared to Ninja Gaiden II, everything has be scaled back a bit. There are fewer enemies, and they're usually positioned in more forgiving ways, making ambushes less likely. It's easier to stun foes, and you can perform powerful moves like the Izuna Drop on enemies who were previously immune. Additionally, there are far fewer encounters that take place on water or in places where you're at a distinct disadvantage. Likewise, Ryu's move set appears to have been given a slight boost, and many weapons have abilities that they didn't have before, including the incredibly powerful Izuna Drop. Ryu also has infinite ammo for his ranged weapons now, which allows you to use them far more often than you could in Ninja Gaiden II. On the lower difficult levels, enemies seem less aggressive and easier to kill when compared to their counterparts in the Xbox 360 version of the game.
However, despite all these changes, Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2 is still an unforgiving game. Ryu does a lot of damage to enemies, but he'll take a lot of damage in return, and you can only sustain a few blows before he goes down. You're still expected to memorize invincibility frames and learn how to avoid enemy attacks, so it will likely be a frustrating game for novice players. The game does not really forgive those who attempt to play it casually. The lower difficulty levels may be a bit boring for Ninja Gaiden experts, and the reduced difficulty and lower enemy count means that anyone who beat Ninja Gaiden II or Ninja Gaiden Sigma will find this title to be a bit monotonous.
Fortunately, Sigma 2 does a lot to make the higher difficulty levels more fun. The number of projectile-spamming enemies has been drastically lowered from Ninja Gaiden II, and the overall balance has been improved, allowing for a much more enjoyable Master Ninja playthrough than in its predecessor. More time is dedicated to actually fighting enemies, instead of dodging nonstop to avoid exploding shurikens. The game is easier than Ninja Gaiden II, but that's because it has generally become more fair. There are still cheap and cheesy moments, but they're not as common as they were in the original game. If you die in Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2, it is far more likely to be your own fault, not the game's.
The weapons and characters you unlock by playing through the main game are also available for use in the game's new co-op mission mode. Co-op missions are brief adventures where two players team up to battle a squad of enemies in one of a number of special mission arenas. Players can pick any of the game's four characters and use any weapon that they've unlocked in the main game. By and large, co-op missions are fairly similar to the main game, but the addition of a second player adds some interesting twists. For one, both players have to survive the mission, so if one player goes down, the second has to rush over and quickly revive him. If he doesn't get there in time to save his teammate, the mission ends in failure.
The second twist is that both players gain access to an Ultimate Ninpo ability. If both characters use a Ninpo within a few moments of one another, they'll activate a new and stronger Ninpo attack, which is great for clearing crowds of enemies. The co-op missions are a lot of fun in theory, but they tend to fall apart in practice. Players have two options: co-op with an AI partner or online co-op. The AI partners are passable during the easier missions, but they end up becoming tremendous liabilities during harder missions. Online mode allows you to replace the AI with a human partner, but it comes at the cost of ridiculously bad lag. On anything but the best connections, the game can vary from slightly laggy to a nearly unplayable slideshow. This is a serious problem since Ninja Gaiden is so heavily dependent on frame-perfect dodging and countering. If you manage to get a good partner with minimal lag, online co-op can be a lot of fun. Getting that partner is a real challenge, and it's rarely worth the frustration and effort.
Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2 is a good-looking game. The overall environments appear to have been improved from the original Xbox 360 version, although it doesn't look like the character models were given the same benefit. One very noticeable change is that the overall level of violence and gore has been drastically reduced. While there is blood, it has been significantly reduced from its extremely excessive 360 counterpart, and in many places, has been replaced by a purplish smoke. This is a minor change that makes some cut scenes look a bit goofier, but that's about it.
In the case of certain enemies, it actually is a liability. It can be a bit tough to tell when some of the smaller enemies have been delimbed since they're no longer spurting blood as they did in Ninja Gaiden 2. This makes it a bit harder to tell when an enemy has moved into his "damaged" phase of attacks, or when he's vulnerable to obliteration techniques. You can eventually adjust to it, but the lack of a clear visual indicator is a bit of a problem for Ninja Gaiden's high-speed combat. The camera is also still rather bad. While you can adjust the camera behind Ryu at the push of a button, it is still wonky in places, and it can get caught on walls or obstacles at the most inopportune times. It works well in certain situations, but it's never as good as it should be. Fortunately, the game has systems in place that cause enemies to be less aggressive when they're off-screen, which helps alleviate some of the frustration.
Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2 is overall a better game than Ninja Gaiden II. It may be less gory, but it has a better pace, is less frustrating and overall more fun than the original. With that said, many of the same flaws that plagued the original Ninja Gaiden II still exist, and even despite the lowered difficulty level, it's still a game that requires a fairly high base level of competence to play. If you're not the sort of player who enjoys learning invincibility frames or discovering the best ways to counter and stun enemies, then Ninja Gaiden 2's still going to give you a hard time. The poor camera has only been slightly improved, and it still doesn't keep up with the fast-paced ninja and his demonic enemies as well as it should. Perhaps most frustrating is that the potentially interesting co-op mode is poorly implemented, and the few moments of fun that it yields are not worth putting up with the lag. If you're willing to overlook those flaws, you'll have a hard time finding a better hard-core action game on the PS3, and even players who already finished Ninja Gaiden II should give Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2 a look. It really is a completely different experience.
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