Crispy Gamer

Ninja Gaiden II

Ninja Gaiden in its many different forms has always been the bane of my existence. I've been highly attracted to its phenomenal graphics and animation, and its teeth grinding and strategic artful combat. However, until it was made easier in Ninja Gaiden Black and Ninja Gaiden Sigma, it would take me forever to get anywhere in the game due to its difficulty. Yes, it's true, I could only handle the game in Ninja Dog mode or Easy mode. For the sequel on the Xbox 360, Team Ninja master Tomonobu Itagaki has decided to be kinder to the gentler ninjas and make the game more accessible. After some time with the near-final version of the game, I've learned that even a Ninja Dog like myself now actually has a chance to survive through Ryu Hayabusa's latest adventure.

Upon beginning the game, users will have the option to choose the difficulty level at which they will play -- either Path of the Acolyte or Path of the Warrior, Acolyte being the simplest difficulty level. While only two difficulty levels are available from the outset, we're assuming that the final product will ship with many harder difficulty levels that you will potentially have to unlock.

The game begins with a beautifully mysterious scantily clad woman (ohhh, shocker!), Special Agent Sonia, showing up at Muramasa the swordsmith's shop in Tokyo. She's looking for Ryu Hayabusa, but Muramasa explains that he's missing. She speaks of some danger -- the Archfiend -- and needs Ryu's skills. As night falls, the Black Spider Ninja Clan shows up to bust up the "Blade Runner"-esque Tokyo. Sonia is captured, but Ryu swoops in, launches a few shurikens, and drops a remaining soldier. A few more minions appear, and one nabs Sonia and disappears as Ryu becomes surrounded.

Here is where you'll become one with the new control scheme. Much like in the original Ninja Gaiden, Ryu has light and strong attacks, can use projectiles such as shurikens and arrows, and block. As you move through the levels, you'll encounter crates and fallen fighters that will reveal some of the early techniques such as the Reverse Wind technique (dodge), the Technique of Shadowless Footsteps (wall run), and the art of the inferno (fire Ninpo).

Combat overall feels much more refined and comfortable than its predecessors, and after laying waste to a number of enemies, it's clear that the game is a bit more gory. Lopping off enemy limbs is now possible, and while it will stall them a little bit, they're not dead until they're dead, and they will crawl after you until you've finally killed them. Adding an extra super-brutal finishing move using an Obliterate technique will gib them into oblivion.

The game holds your hand a little bit in the beginning as you become acquainted with the moveset. If Ryu takes too much damage, the game will remind you block. The general combat hasn't changed too much, and requires you to strategically block and counter effectively throughout the barrage of normal attacks. The initial clawed and sword-carrying goons you encounter aren't too difficult, but get into a pack of them and they'll surround and corner you. Nothing a few hops, dodges and flips can't remedy, and with a few well-placed light and strong attacks, you can quickly diminish their numbers. We only witnessed a few initial bosses, but they're tough until you find the correct way to counter their crushing attacks.

More often than not, you'll find yourself getting into in tight spots where you'll need to refuel your health. The revamped d-pad from Ninja Gaiden Sigma allows you to quickly use items or change weapons, projectiles and Ninpo styles instead of having to exit out into the menu to configure elements. If you run out of health or Ninpo items, you'll periodically run across Muramasa shop statues to buy healing potions, Ki herbs to replenish Ninpo, and eventually upgrades for your weapons.

Visually, Ninja Gaiden II looks quite a bit better than the Ninja Gaiden PlayStation 3 regurge Sigma, but while it is ultra-crisp, a few things look rather sterile. The environments look fine, but more or less on par what we've seen in previous versions. Character models and Ryu's animations are fluid and elaborate, but it would have been nice to see his costume take some damage. For example, when Ryu reaches the rainy New York stage, he doesn't actually get wet. While the game runs at a blistering 60 frames per second, I wish the developers would have sacrificed the frame rate in favor of attention to detail.

As you finish each level, the game grades you on your performance. Your kills, essence, remaining Ninpo, and time it took to complete the level are all tracked, and you can view the online leaderboards to see how well you stack up against other gamers. A new Ninja Cinema feature has been added for Ninja Gaiden II, which allows you to record your entire gameplay experience to analyze your tactics and also upload your clips to Xbox Live for other gamers to peruse. This is perhaps my favorite addition to the game. When checking out the leaderboards, you'll see an icon next to a player's name that will indicate he has uploaded his clips. Going to the best of the best and seeing how they survived in a certain level should provide plenty of helpful tips.

After so many reiterations of the same Ninja Gaiden with Black, Sigma and even Dragon Sword, it's nice to finally get some new Hayabusa ass-kicking. With a refined control scheme, accessibility for newbies, depth and difficulty for the hardcore, and an inspiring Ninja Cinema mode, this could be what gamers of all types of skill sets have been waiting for.

This preview was based on hands-on demo of a near-final version of the game.