The original Ninja Gaiden immediately conjures up memories of whirling, graceful combat, impressive boss fights, lush visuals and a difficulty level that would make a highly conditioned Zen master burst a blood vessel with unimaginable rage. Yes, the original Gaiden reboot on the Xbox was a true example of pain and beauty. It hit you square in the face with amazing looks and slick action, and then booted you in the family jewels with its insane difficulty. So much so that all but the most hardcore gamers were unable to see all of what Team Ninja had in store.
I was one of the ones who did see it all, although I must admit, I fell just short of the neighbours calling the police due to my colourful language as I bit the dust time and time again. Ahhh, good times. Now, Team Ninja is back, and Ninja Gaiden II has graced the 360, leaving a trail of blood and body parts in its wake.
Once again, we’re put in the sneaky shoes of uber ninja Ryu Hyabusa and are pitted against the kinds of odds you’re not likely to see this side of Lord of the Rings, and a whole army of fiends and ninjas, not to mention some seriously tough bosses, stand in the way of victory.
This time, Ryu has to battle the evil Black Spider clan, who are intent on bringing back the ‘Arch Fiend’, an evil, malevolent force that threatens the entire world. And, guess what? It just so happens that Ryu’s Dragon Ninja clan have the very artefact that the Spider clan needs to achieve its goal. And so, it’s not long before Ryu is back in full arse-kicking, tight-fitting gear, with you at the controls.
With the success of the first game, hopes were high for the 360 sequel to considerably beef up the franchise. But, as soon as you fire up the game, you realise that Team Ninja hasn’t taken the usual route of adding to the eye candy or the usual next-gen fare. While the game is certainly an improvement over the first in terms of looks, it’s not an incredible leap forward, and there aren’t any advanced physics or AI going on.
But, this is Ninja Gaiden, and it’s not physics or AI we want; it’s fast, fluid action and more gore than you can shake a severed head at. And that’s just what NGII delivers. What we have here is essentially more of the same. Right from the off, the controls are familiar, and all of Ryu’s moves and abilities are quickly introduced. The same feel of the original is present, and proceedings are as fast and fluid as ever. In fact, you’d be hard pushed to find anything new, and that’s because there really isn’t anything, aside from a couple of tweaks.
First and foremost on the notable changes is the difficulty. Although far from easy, and still one of the most difficult games around, NGII is markedly more accessible than the previous release. This is due mainly to the new ‘Acolyte’ difficulty option, and the new regenerating health bar. As Ryu takes damage, the bar decreases as normal. However, aggravated damage is represented by a red section added to the end of the bar. After a battle, when all nearby enemies are slain, the empty sections of the health bar that aren’t red regenerate (you need to use health recovery items to heal aggravated damage). This makes a big difference, and works very well indeed. It makes things easier, but not so much that the hardcore challenge is gone. Foes also seem to drop healing essence more frequently too.
Another nice addition are the save points. In the original NG, you could seriously mess up your game if you saved in a location with little health. But, here, the first time you use a save point, it refills your health to maximum. A nice touch.
Other new additions include the obligatory new weapons such as the Lunar Staff and Falcon’s Talons (spiked gloves and boots), and a range of new foes to battle. Ryu is now able to perform some new moves too, with the stand out addition being his ‘Obliteration’ technique. As you fight, you can easily wound and dismember your foes. But, even with one arm, they’ll fight on, and are actually more dangerous, with some using suicide bomber-like attacks. But, once an enemy is so wounded, a quick press of Y will cause Ryu to use a brutal finishing move, instantly killing said foe. This results in a bloody display, and is very effective.
Overall, I really like NGII. The slightly reduced difficulty in the Acolyte setting makes it more approachable than its predecessor, and some of the new tweaks are very welcome. But, there’s no escaping that there is very little difference between this and the previous game, and those looking for a truly next-gen instalment replete with new features and modes will be disappointed. Those wanting more of the same should find more than enough to keep sword arms happy. And, it goes without saying that casual gamers should steer very clear indeed.