On the Xbox, Ninja Gaiden 1 was a solid game; it married high quality visuals with a solid combat system and numerous upgrades. The enemies were fairly generic and the boss fights went from hard to blazingly hard in a few steps. The learning curve was steep and the hardcore gamers managed to complete it, demanded more and were given: Ninja Gaiden Black, an even more pumped version of the original with extra content and bone breaking difficulty settings that made the casual gamer weep.
Now Ninja Gaiden 2 bursts onto the 360 and brings with it the return of ninja, Ryu Hyabusa and the next-gen outing plans to try and oust the original from its throne of ninja glory. The story is convoluted with twists and plot turns that whilst not original and can be seen coming from a mile away, are there to entertain and move the story along. It all boils down to the fact that Ryu's dad is killed, a demon statue is stolen and the resurrection of the Arch Fiend is imminent. Armed with this knowledge Ryu sets off to kick some ass in the name of saving the world again.
Ninja Gaiden 2 is a bone-crunching blood-caked festival of violence that has a deep visceral combat system that isn't just about button mashing, you have numerous weapons and these can be upgraded, the special moves are incredibly powerful and it has just the same kind of learning curve as the first game, where it leapfrogs from one battle to the next where you feel as though you've mastered the game's awesome fighting moves, to feeling like you're club fingered and can't even hit a single enemy without losing three quarters of your health bar.
Some of the biggest changes are in the move system itself; Ryu now has Obliteration techniques for each weapon that can be used against wounded enemies with a tap of the Y button. Over the top charged combat moves, Ultimate Techniques that can be powered up by holding the attack button down until the visual cue completes and you unleash seven thousand levels of hell on a group of enemies, who can still survive the onslaught. You'll be thankful then for the self-healing health bar that refills after you take a breather or two, the only catch is that it refills up to the critical damage on the right hand side.
The red bar fills from right to left as you take damage after your defences are broken, whilst the blue bar drains from left to right as you take the initial damage. There are numerous defence moves and counter moves that Ryu can pull off and each weapon has a move set that can be powered up by levelling that weapon. It's going to take some time to learn and master all of the weapons in the game and so far the Lunar Staff has been a firm favourite here.
There has been a significant upgrade in the number of enemies on screen, the effects have been souped up but in essence the game is running on the same engine and that means a lot of the problems that were in the original Ninja Gaiden are present in the console versions, not just on the Xbox 360 either. There are frequent slow downs when too much is happening on screen, usually shown in the challenge arenas of the game and not the actual core story levels. Lastly for the underwater swimming segments of the game Ryu has an infinite oxygen capacity so there's no need to worry about drowning in the game, unlike a certain Lara Croft.
The camera has the typical and annoying habit of swinging around behind the player into a wall, blocking the view and generally being unhelpful as per usual in this kind of game. Enemies can often become stuck in certain areas and go into a repeated pattern of movement, allowing you to finish off some of the harder foes with ease especially in the water later on.
The game is great though, if you overlook the obvious niggles it has a solid fighting system and a plethora of weapons and enemies to chop through. The blood and gore has been ramped up to leave the battlefield looking like a slaughter house when you're finished with blood and bits lying everywhere. The moves are well animated and the eyecandy is superb, the level design is linear and there are no open world elements at all, so sandbox gamers won't find much to tempt them. Fans of hard core action and combat will lap this up.
Boss fights are excellent with the bigger meanies providing a suitable challenge, and the slimmer humanoid opponents are fast, agile and most of all packed with their own special moves that can decimate a casual gamer's health bar in seconds. This game is definitely one for the fans of the series and pitched at the gamer who must master every combo, who can walk through entire combats making the game look simple to the rest of us.
The music is nicely composed and there's a real sense of tension to some of the pieces, especially during the more crucial battles. The sound in the game is likewise excellent with the bone crunching and limb chopping married to the clash of swords and the swish of steel. The voice work is decent and there are no performances that made us cringe, usually we're often cringing at some of the dialogue and the voice combined in these kinds of games. The Onimusha series and the Devil May Cry series are often guilty of this.
Enemy AI has a few problems as mentioned earlier, it can get stuck on some objects (this is not a frequent occurrence) but overall it provides a good level of challenge, blocking, defensive movements and offensive attacks/grapples are used to keep you on your toes and some of the enemies can pin explosives to you, so you'll need to shake them off quickly. The more wounded an enemy is, the more dangerous it becomes since even bodies with one arm, one leg will crawl towards you and stick you with an explosive shuriken.
What Ninja Gaiden 2 lacks however is an online multiplayer, going one on one using the same combat system and move set as the game's single player would have been a rare treat, providing extra replay value to the title. But it's not to be in this incarnation either and Xbox Live gamers can only look forwards to competing score wise to see who will become the greatest ninja on the face of the planet. With the AI quibbles, some graphical slowdowns and the annoying camera it feels as if the shiny new graphics, blood and dismemberment aren't quite enough to lift this game into the halls of greatness.
It's one that you should at least play to sample the incredibly satisfying combat system, try out the new weapons and see where the story goes in the series. It lacks anything else to make it replayable however, and whilst it unlocks more difficulties when you finish it...most gamers probably never will due to the leapfrogging difficulty and rock hard boss fights in places.