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[ Writer ] = PurpGuy
[ 08/12/08 ] = Ninja Gaiden II

The story of Ninja Gaiden II is a simple one: The Black Spider Ninja Clan kidnaps a really hot chick and beats the crap out of her. That's not cool, so Ryu Hayabusa flips out and kills the whole town. Along the way he saves the world, but that's beside the point.

Team NINJA have succeeded in creating a game that is both one of the most beautiful, and one of the most violent. Ryu's travels take him to such locales as Sky City Tokyo, New York City, the Amazon, and even the depths of Hell. The detail rendered in all of these is impressive in it's extent, and provide the backdrop for a virtual gorefest. One almost feels bad for staining such beautiful scenery with huge splatters of blood and bits. The game has a Mature rating, and it is well earned; the dismemberment of Ryu's enemies is a vital part of the game's strategy.

Combat centers mostly on two attack buttons: X (light attack), and Y (heavy attack). The two can be linked together, along with a few miscellaneous directional presses, to execute moves and combos. Ryu begins the game equipped with the Dragon Sword. During the course of his adventures he can upgrade it several times, up to a maximum level of 4. With each new upgrade comes a selection of new moves and combos. While certain key hits in the various combos seem to have a higher chance of dismemberment, it does appear that any one individual attack does have the ability to do so as well. Once an enemy has lost a limb, getting close to that enemy and pressing Y will perform an instant kill move, known as an Obliteration Technique. During these, the camera zooms in for a closer look at the carnage, as Ryu chops heads off left and right without even thinking twice about it.

Thus the dismembering of enemies, followed by Obliteration Techniques, becomes a central part of the game. The corpses, severed limbs, and blood puddles become permanent landmarks of Ryu's passage; they never fade or disappear. Often they'll even stick to walls.

In addition to Obliteration Techniques, Ryu can also perform massive super combos referred to as Ultimate Techniques. These are done by holding down the Y button to build up a charge. At a level 1 charge, Ryu will emit a blue glow. At level 2, the glow will turn red. Releasing the Y button will execute the Ultimate Technique on the nearest enemy. If the enemy is defeated partway through the Ultimate Technique, Ryu will teleport to the next nearest enemy and continue the combo.

Ultimate Techniques are, of course, extremely powerful, but they do have a slow charge time. Luckily there is a way to instantly change them. Whenever an enemy is defeated, it drops either a Yellow, Blue, or Red Essence. Yellow Essence is used as currency at the weapon and item shop. Blue Essence restores Ryu's Hit Points. And Red Essence refills his Ninpo (Ninja Magic) meter. However, if you initiate an Ultimate Technique charge with any of these in the air, Ryu will absorb them for an instant charge. Putting two and two together, it doesn't take one long to realize that chaining Ultimate Techniques together is a very useful and powerful strategy. The one downside to this is that any Essence absorbed into an Ultimate Technique does not count towards Ryu's money, HP, or Ninpo values. Thus some discretion is advisable, especially when Blue or Red Essence is nearby. Those are better off collected for their normal benefits.

While progressing through the game, Ryu will find additional weapons to add to his arsenal. These are the Lunar Staff, the Claws, the Tonfa, the Kasari-gama, the Eclipse Scythe, the Vigorian Flail, and the Dual Katanas. All of these can be upgraded at the weapon shop, in exchange for Yellow Essence. While some weapons are better suited than others in different situations, there does not seem to be any one particular weapon that is overall better than any other. Opinions will vary, but it all comes down to personal preference, as it is possible to complete the game using only one weapon all the way through. There are even achievements for doing just that.

Ryu also has a variety of ranged weapons at his disposal. He starts the game with an unlimited supply of Throwing Stars. As in Devil May Cry 4, as they are a ranged weapon of unlimited supply, they are also incredibly weak. The Throwing Stars main purpose is to interrupt enemies using ranged or magic attacks against Ryu as he closes in on them. Early on in the game, however, Ryu will find a Bow, and a supply of arrows. The Bow is much more powerful than the Stars, but Ryu can only carry 30 arrows at a time. When using the Bow, Ryu will automatically aim at the nearest target, however it is possible to enter third-person-view mode to aim his shots manually. This is, of course, especially useful when trying to hit moving targets.

There are also Incendiary Shuriken, little throwing daggers that somehow manage to explode when they hit something. As with the arrows, they can be carried up to a maximum of 30. Both the arrows and Incendiary Shuriken can be charged in the same manner as Ultimate Techniques.

Rounding out the Ranged weapons are the Underwater Gatling Gun and the Windmill Shuriken. The Underwater Gatling Gun is extremely powerful, but yeah, it only works underwater. The Windmill Shuriken is a throwback from the old NES Ninja Gaiden games; a large star that behaves as a boomerang when thrown. It's a neat addition but of very limited use.

Another classic move, the Windflip Throw, is also present in NGII. Pressing A+X together will execute a flip directly at Ryu's nearest enemy; press them again to perform the Windflip Throw from the original Ninja Gaiden arcade game! This move does not actually damage enemies, unless they are thrown into each other, or into walls.

The final Ace up Ryu's sleeve are his various Ninpo arts. There are four different types of Ninja Magic to be discovered and upgraded. They are Flame, Windblade, Piercing Void, and Phoenix. The Flame Ninpo targets up to three enemies at once for massive damage. Windblades, at the very least, dismember all enemies in a 10 meter radius, and often kill them outright. Piercing Void does ridiculous damage in a straight line, but must be manually aimed. And Phoenix does something like reduce damage Ryu takes when he gets hit, but as soon as he does get hit, it disperses. It's universally considered to be the least useful of them all.

The music in NGII is great. You may even find yourself humming it on your way to work. Sound effects likewise are pretty adequate. Slashes, blunt impacts, and the various assortment of grunts are all done very well. Even the English voice actors did a terrific job, although Japanese voices are available if you so desire. The game is subtitled into about 8 different languages, so regardless of which language you speak, you will probably be able to follow the storyline.

The game plays very much like Devil May Cry 4; when trying to figure out which one is "better", there really is no clear winner. It really is 16 ounces of one and a pound of the other. Perhaps the biggest difference between the two is the way they are balanced. DMC4 has extremely easy monsters, offset by extremely difficult bosses. NGII, on the other hand, has much more challenge during the actual stages, coupled with bosses that are not as hard as their DMC4 brethren. Boss fights generally don't last longer than one minute in NGII, and can often be over much sooner. You can actually see their HP bars move when you hit them. Personally, the smoother balance spread is what makes NGII a better game, in my opinion. Even still, if I were to give NGII a 9, DMC4 would be a close 8.9.

If you were to browse the NGII community, however, you would find ample supply of whiners complaining that NGII is "too hard". So allow me to put things into perspective here. The game comes fresh out of the box with two difficulty levels immediately available: Acolyte (Easy) and Warrior (Normal). I played through the game first on Acolyte, and while I continued many times, I never thought it was "cheap" or "too hard". The second time through I played on Warrior, and I actually continued LESS times than I had on Acolyte. So while there is a learning curve, it is certainly not insurmountable. Warrior difficulty is pretty standard fare once you get the hang of the game.

Once you beat Warrior, though, Mentor (Hard) mode becomes available, followed by Master Ninja (Insane). These modes are INTENDED to be ridiculously hard, but should not be used as the basis for complaint that the game, as a whole, is too hard. As of this writing, the game has been released for one week, and already there are many people who have beaten all four difficulty modes. Kudos to Team NINJA for having the balls to make a game that is actually going to provide gamers with a bit of a challenge, regardless of the vocal minority and their incessant whining.

But with so much right, could there possibly be anything wrong? Absolutely. The game is chock full of issues and glitches, some of them game-breaking. The most infamous of them all is the Chapter 10 slow-motion staircase. Team NINJA thought it would be funny to have Ryu ascend a set of stairs with (quite literally) 100 enemy Ninjas attacking him at once. It is at this point that the game slows to an absolute CRAWL. But that, in itself, is part of the comedy of it all. They HAD to have known, through internal testing, that this part of the game was incredibly laggy, yet they left it in there. Kind of like "Yeah, we know it's slow, but it's 100 ninjas, isn't that kickass?!"

Other glitches are not as common, such as various camera and monster behaviors. One time during the Chapter 6 midboss, my camera got stuck inside the wall. Several times during the Armadillo bosses, my camera got stuck in first-person view mode. And there were a few times when a few of the Skeleton worms of various levels became transparent, and stuck in an eternal spawn loop. The latter has even caused major problems for gamers in Chapter 10; all of the worms must be defeated in order to open the door to the next area. If Ryu defeats all of the worms, then dies, they do not respawn when the last save point is loaded. If the player has been using Autosave, they're quite simply screwed. Only if the player has a manual save at an earlier point can they resume play without losing too much time. Hopefully these issues, particularly the latter one, will be soon resolved by Team NINJA in a downloadable patch.

Tomonobu Itagaki has been at the reigns of Team NINJA for the past several years, bringing us lots of great Xbox games, including, of course, Ninja Gaiden and Dead or Alive. Sadly, in July 2008 he will be resigning from Tecmo due to unpaid bonuses for his work on Dead or Alive 4. As Tecmo owns the rights to Ninja Gaiden and Dead or Alive, those two series will no doubt continue without him, but without his guidance they may not live up to their predecessors. Ninja Gaiden II marks the last of his games with Team NINJA and Tecmo.

As such a huge contributor to the Xbox platform, perhaps Microsoft itself will snatch him up into their own studios. I, for one, hope that he goes to work for Sega, and breathes new life into their Shinobi series. In reality, it is unclear what his intentions are, but few believe that we've seen the last of Tomonobu Itagaki.