A good console launch always brings a variety of games, and the launch of the PS Vita is no different. Ninja Gaiden Sigma Plus is a slightly enhanced port of a PS3 game that was an enhanced port of Ninja Gaiden Black, an Xbox game that was a director's cut of the original Xbox game released in 2004. Despite being a game that is essentially eight years old, it stands the test of time and delivers plenty of challenge and action.
In Ninja Gaiden Sigma Plus, you play the role of Ryu Hayabusa, the last ember of a ninja clan dedicated to the protection of an evil weapon known as the Dark Dragon Blade. On the way to visit his uncle in the Shadow Clan, the Hayabusa village is attacked by Doku, who kills the shrine maiden and takes the sword for the Vigoor empire. Swearing revenge on the maiden's death, Ryu sets out on a journey to kill Doku and retrieve the sword.
In the same vein as similar action games, the combat is fast and fluid. Your basic sword combos are good enough to unleash some combos; you gain extra weaponry as you progress, giving you more opportunity to vary the attacks with quick attacks or slower, more powerful ones. Your offense is also extended into spinning piledrivers and projectile weaponry, such as shurikens and arrows. You also have magic spells called ninpos that give you elemental attacks using fire, ice and lightning. Then there are the basic defensive maneuvers, such as blocks and dodges, to go along with expected acrobatic abilities like wall runs, runs up vertical surfaces, and triangle jumps.
The variety of enemies ensures that you won't reuse the same combos, and the enemies are intelligent enough so they don't simply stand around acting like sword fodder. Their quick movements and aggressive nature force you to strategize, so your defense is just as important as your offense. Even though early enemies don't demonstrate this well enough, it doesn't take long before you encounter hordes that attack first and relentlessly rely on offense. If you don't adapt, you'll see the "game over" screen way too early.
As a port of Sigma, this title retains most of the features highlighted in that game. The Rachel missions are still here, offering a more traditional hack-fest without the need for good timing or precision. The game isn't overloaded with these missions, though, so they provide a break from the action. There's also extra weaponry in the form of dual katanas, and a few new bosses have been added to the main mission.
As was the case with the previous ports, there are a few additions in this version as well as some tweaks to what was offered in the PS3 iteration. Hero mode has been added as a new difficulty level, and while it sports the same enemy AI from the default Normal level, the game now automatically blocks and evades for you. It makes things easier on you, but you'll still experience death if you're careless. Another addition are the Ninja Challenges, which are minigames based in existing levels and circumstances that help to hone your basic combat skills. The missions don't last as long as their home console counterparts, making it perfect for short bursts of gaming on the go, but they're still exciting enough that you'll want to go through them once you finish the main game.
If there's anything to be disappointed in, it would be that this version doesn't add much to the game. The sequel will also get Hero mode, and the only ones excited for that mode would be players who were easily frustrated by the difficulty in the original game. The challenges don't differ too much from their PS3 counterparts beyond the fact that there are more of them, albeit in shorter doses. There's also the subject of accessibility. PS3 owners can still find copies of Ninja Gaiden Sigma to play while Xbox 360 owners can play with the original Xbox version of Ninja Gaiden Black. Unless you don't own any of those consoles, there's no reason to go for this version unless you really need the Trophies.
The simple control scheme of the original translates well to this portable. The diminutive analog sticks and face buttons do not hinder the action, and those who already know the combos and special moves can easily pull them off. The Vita-specific changes to the controls, though, become a hit-and-miss affair. The shaking of the controller to power up ninpos has been replaced with furious tapping of the rear touch pad, a good compromise since it doesn't wear down your face buttons. Tapping on the touch-screen places you in first-person mode, where you can move the system to aim your camera (or the analog stick, if you prefer) and tap on the screen to initiate attacks with the bow or shurikens. It's a pretty good use of the system's features, but those with large fingers can inadvertently go into first-person mode in the heat of combat because of the screen's sensitivity. As long as you remain mindful of that, you won't have any problems handling the game.
Despite being an eight-year-old title, the graphics hold up quite well on the Vita's OLED screen. The character models are well textured and animate nicely, especially in combat. The particle effects from the ninpos play out just as well, even in its reduced form, and the environments only look a shade degraded from the more powerful console version. Like Sigma, the gore is reduced in comparison to the original and Black, so those looking for buckets of blood and dismemberment won't find it here. Also, the game runs at a constant 30 frames per second instead of the series' usual 60. It slows down the action from a visual standpoint, but it isn't enough to derail the combat system.
The sound remains mostly unchanged from the original game. The music is the same, with a nice mix of traditional Japanese music sprinkled with more modern material, and the sound effects do the same with an emphasis on combat sounds. The voices are decent, but the English performances could have been better since they currently sound like a lower-quality anime dub. Sadly, the game no longer has the Japanese voice track like the PS3 game, so those who don't care for the English dub are stuck with it.
At its core, Ninja Gaiden Sigma Plus is an excellent action game for the new Vita. The main game is still fun, and the combat, while difficult to master, is very satisfying once you've tamed it. Adding Hero mode makes things easier, but the game remains challenging if you go with this easier difficulty level. Even though the graphics have aged, they still look fresh on the console, and the music is just as good as it was before. It isn't a perfect port, though, with the missing Japanese vocal track and frame rate dropped to 30 instead of 60. Unless you're a big enough fan of the series and need to collect every version, it'll be difficult to convince owners of Ninja Gaiden Black or Ninja Gaiden Sigma to fork over money for a few more challenges and the ability to take the game on the go. However, if you've never played the game or have only been exposed to the original release on the Xbox, you need to play this title before delving into Ninja Gaiden III later this year.
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