Ninja Gaiden II is a great game and a maddening one. In some respects, it improves upon the core Ninja Gaiden gameplay to exhilarating effect. It's flashier and it's bloodier, and when those enhancements are in full force, the game offers the best action available on the platform. You de-limb werewolves and slice up legions of rival ninjas and demons, and pulling off these moves produces a gory, showy explosion of particles and body parts. And, as any fan of its Xbox and PlayStation 3 predecessors should expect, it's incredibly difficult, which makes a successful confrontation still one of the most rewarding moments in all of action gaming.
Hold still--this might pinch a little.
Team Ninja also went back and fixed a few of the frustrating issues from the previous entry. For example, should you lose a boss battle (and you'll do it frequently), you can restart most of them at the beginning of the encounter, rather than having to revisit 10 minutes of lead-in gameplay. There are more save points, which also replenish your health, and your health will replenish on its own after action sequences. But for every step forward, the game takes an infuriating step back. It isn't as slickly paced as its precursors, and it isn't the visual leap forward that Ninja Gaiden was. Most noticeably, the camera has taken a turn for the worse, seemingly more interested in flaunting the game's flamboyant flurries of steel and black spandex than in being functional. Ninja Gaiden was hard, but it was rarely cheap; when you died, you knew it was because you needed to perform better. In Ninja Gaiden II, the badly implemented camera and other factors (more on this later) can lead to trial-and-error repetition that relies more on dumb luck than on your controller-wielding prowess. Sure, this sequel is a fantastic game, but it isn't as good as the game that reintroduced the franchise.
The core action is both familiar and remarkably intense. As returning hero Ryu Hyabusa, you hack, slash, and decapitate your way through hordes of nasty-looking foes, many of which are returning enemies from the Xbox original. What makes it so satisfying is how fast and fierce these encounters are. Using just two attack buttons and a jump button, and pulling a trigger to block, you can execute a flurry of slashes, ground-pounds, and high-flying feats with ease. And it looks fantastic in motion. The particle-heavy, blood-spattering special effects and silky animations will make your jaw drop, thanks to the exciting spectacle they create. Each battle keeps you focused and engaged, and the speedier your thumb waggles, the more satisfying and explosive the resulting acrobatics are.
In fact, the standard combat is even better than before, thanks to a few violent touches that take the series to new levels of adrenaline-pumping ferocity. Humanoid combatants routinely lose limbs at the mercy of your steely weapons, but rather than collapsing in a pool of spurting blood, they just get angrier. Amazingly, a werewolf with one arm is more dangerous than one with both limbs intact, but this fact is nicely offset by the possibility of a finishing move. If you get close to a de-limbed demon and hit Y, the camera will move in close and showcase a fantastically over-the-top fatality, complete with flying viscera and the ghastly sounds of spurting blood and squashed tissue.
Bosses are more frequent now and vary in terms of quality and challenge. Some of them are maddeningly difficult, such as dual armadillos that spew fiery rocks toward you. Others, like a blood-dripping, sword-yielding she-fiend, hit all the right notes. And one of them, a giant worm that speeds through subterranean caverns, will get stuck in walls due to a glitch and is easily defeated by slashing at its head while it tries to extricate itself. You can slash and bash using some of the old weapons, including the dragon sword and the lunar staff, but you may want to go into these battles with some of the newer additions such as the blade tonfas, which deliver some excellent combo moves and are fun to wield.
The action looks spectacular...