Ninja Gaiden II Review: Swan Song or Death Knell?

Last month when I spoke with Tomonobu Itagaki in San Francisco he told me that Ninja Gaiden II represented the culmination, the absolute height of the franchise and because of this he would no longer be making any more Ninja Gaiden games. Ninja Gaiden has always been about perfection of timing, on some level the art of the sword, this is no more evident than in this latest game.

But is Ninja Gaiden II really the franchise's swan song or is Itagaki's decision to ditch Team Ninja and sue Tecmo over unpaid bonuses the real reason he won't be making any more of the titles?

Loved

Limb-Lopping Animation: The sheer level of gore is stunning when you first sit down to play the game, and later, later it's still stunning. Don't get me wrong, I love it, it is a celebration of violence that is both fitting for the title and useful in gameplay. Useful? When faced with an armless, or legless ninja they can be, like an injured animal, even more dangerous, so the glistening red stumps help you spot who can be taken out with a quick, merciless series of beautifully detailed cuts. This over-the-top gore balanced with the graceful cuts of the weapon and movements of Ryu blend to create a beautiful ballet of death that alone is worth the price of admission.

Stunning Backdrops: Brown maybe the color of first-person shooters, but you can find just about every hue of the rainbow in Ninja Gaiden II. The eclectic mix of settings and backdrops are so lovingly detailed, so scenic that I found myself stopping to look around and marvel at the spectacle of, say, a world washed red in a rainfall of blood or Team Ninja's take on a future Tokyo, complete with flying cars. This mix of beautiful backdrops also helped keep the game moving forward, avoiding the trap of sameness that often can tear a game's level design down.

Fast-Paced, Tactical Combat: There is a moment, I imagine, for everyone, when they foolishly approach Ninja Gaiden II as a button-masher, but the game's subtle level of tactics, timing and defense eventually come through and they learn the pace of Ryu's frenetic battles... or they die a bunch and give up on the title. For me Ninja Gaiden II is at its heart a game about timing. The game can approach the insanity and necessary perfection of a hardcore shoot-em-up, but instead of facing waves of bullets, players must deal with masses of enemies filling the screen. One misstep can lead to a chain of attacks that leaves Ryu depleted or dead. Never is this analogy more fitting than with the boss battles. Each of these fiends have very specific attacks and can really only be dealt with in one or two ways. Defeating them is more about figuring out how to do so than taking them head-on.

Save System: The game's new save system, which makes the save points much more plentiful and automatically saves before boss battles, is a welcome addition to a game notorious for its difficulty.

Hated

I'm Ready for My Close Up: The camera controls remain problematic at the best of times. At the worst of times it can make the game frustratingly hard to deal with. It seems that Team Ninja, when tweaking the camera, was more worried about capturing the action from a cinematic view than they were dealing with the need to make Ryu easier to control. This isn't in anyway a deal breaker, just frustrating at times, especially when you're forced into first-person perspective and the game sort of freaks out.

Blinded By the Fight: What? You're complaining about the camera angles twice? Yes, strange voice in my head, I am. Actually this is more about a confluence of problems that occurs a handful of times in the game. There are four or five major battles in the game that become so crammed with people, so lit up with bloom, effects and colors, so confused by the camera angles that you have no idea what's going on. At times you can't even see where Ryu is.

Double Down Bosses: Each boss, and there are quite a few of these in the 14 levels of Ninja Gaiden II, are painfully hard to defeat, but I can deal with that. What I can't deal with is that with the exception of a single boss, you end up having to face off with every one of the bosses two different times. It feels more like a device to lengthen the game than something meant to add to the experience.

Slooooow Motion: I like what the game is trying to do, overwhelm you with mayhem on a level rarely seen in an action title, but there's a reason it's rarely seen: It's too intense for a console to handle. It doesn't happen often, but occasionally, on the slicker levels, when the screen fills with bad guys the motion slows down to a crawl, a slow motion crawl. It manages to stay smooth, which helps, but it's annoying to see such chug in a triple A title.

Weak Community Features: It's a minor complaint, but why add something like the ability to record and playback chunks of gameplay without putting some effort into it? You can't edit, you can't control the playback at all and you can only share your full save-point-to-save-point recordings if you are ranked on the leaderboards. Seems like a waste to me.

Ninja Gaiden II is a spectacular game but it's marred with some of the same tragic flaws that have followed the series since its introduction into the world of 3D, most notably the camera angles. Despite that and some of the most painfully hard boss battles I've encountered, I thoroughly enjoyed playing through almost every bit of the game. In fact, I've already started through a second time on a harder difficulty level.

Ninja Gaiden II is a game you should expect to frustrate and to reward, and it does both quite well, you just have to deal with a bit of design pettiness along the way.

Ninja Gaiden II was developed by Team Ninja and published by Microsoft Game Studios. Retails for$60. Available on Xbox 360. Played to completion on easiest "Path Of The Acolyte" setting. Played first two chapters on "Path of the Warrior" setting. Saved one film.

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