Crispy Gamer

Ninja Gaiden II

Blame my disappointment in Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword (which you can read about here), but man, was it ever cathartic to see the series back where it belongs: on a console and doing the things that only a console-caliber game can do.

Once again you step into the ninja slippers of cipher Ryu Hayabusa. The plot, as expected, is more tedious than compelling. Ryu's village is once again on fire, as it was in the first game, and it seems a host of demons is behind this act of arson (as was the case in the first game).

It's really a shame that development house Team Ninja is so reluctant to hire decent writers. Imagine Ninja Gaiden getting the equivalent of what Christopher Nolan did with Batman, i.e. brushing off the cheese topping, stripping away the trappings and clich?s, and treating the character with some respect by boiling him down to his essence. You can see the possibilities here, I'm sure.

While plot and character development will probably never be Team Ninja's strong points -- these guys never met a Dolly Parton-boobed NPC that they didn't like -- Ninja Gaiden II stands tall as proof that Itagaki and his team do third-person action better than anyone else in the business.

And yes, Capcom, "anyone else in the business" includes you and your Devil May Cry series.

Whirling through crowds of demons with Ryu's throwing stars flying and Dragon Sword flashing is even more exhilarating in the sequel than it was in 2004's original. There are two reasons for this. One, the difficultly level, at least in the preview build I got my hands on, seemed remarkably kinder and gentler to me. I'm not saying it's easy, but it appears that Team Ninja is trying to find a more accessible, challenging-but-not-too-challenging sweet spot this time around, as opposed to making the game prohibitively difficult, as they did with 2004's Xbox game.

Two, the game does not skimp on the gore. There are moments when it seems as if a limb-storm has blown in. Arms and legs quite literally rain down from the sky.

Better still, the gore is not merely window dressing; it's not gore for gore's sake. Enemy missing a right arm? Surprisingly, he'll still come at you with his left. When enemies lose a leg or two, they'll crawl on the ground after you. Their tenacity not only gives your enemies more substance and character, it also factors into gameplay in a very real way: enemies, once wounded, are still dangerous, but they can be back-burnered while you contend with those still sporting all four limbs.

If your enemies are giving you trouble, you can always employ the new obliteration techniques on these wounded, sorry-assed foes. Hold down the Y button, and Ryu responds by swinging back the Dragon Sword and begins to quiver with energy. Release the Y button, and he?ll perform an amazingly satisfying decapitation on the enemy, complete with a geyser of blood that could rival Old Faithful.

The obliteration techniques, of course, are risky. Holding the Y button down in the middle of a frenzied battle leaves Ryu's ninja ass in the wind -- in other words, he?s vulnerable to counterattacks. You?ll need to be selective about when and where to use the techniques.

Overall, Ninja Gaiden II is a much more generous endeavor than its predecessor. Within the first few hours of playing the preview build, I'd unlocked at least three alternative weapons along with several Ninpo techniques (i.e., magic). These weapons (including the terrific Falcon Talons), coupled with the game?s everybody's-a-winner Achievement points and the overall more forgiving difficulty level -- I actually looked forward to fights in the sequel in a way that I did not in the '04 original -- makes for a far less stingy gaming experience. That means even casual gamers like your rat-faced grandma should be able to actually enjoy the gameplay.

The game looks terrific, but it's not quite the revolution for your eyes that the Xbox version was in '04. Though the game hasn't yet been optimized, I'd be remiss if I didn't point out the slowdown that vexes Ninja Gaiden II. Any time there are more than 10 or so enemies on the screen, the action slowed to a Super Nintendo Entertainment System-caliber crawl. It doesn't diminish the game or make it unplayable, not by a long stretch, but it does prove that Team Ninja and Itagaki-san still have some work to do.

This preview was based on a build of the game provided by the publisher.