Is there any sweeter in-game persona than a badass ninja with a katana to grind? This reviewer says no. Sure, the commandos from the Contra series or the over-used space marine may be cool alter-egos too, but for my money, nothing beats slashing my way through hordes of baddies, for whatever reason the game feels fit to throw my way.
It's a good thing too, because Ninja Gaiden II has nary a semblance of a storyline. I won't even attempt to get into the details of it, because there's really not much there. The game begins with Ryu Hayabusa, series protagonist, trying to rescue a slightly top heavy CIA operative with enough leather in her outfit to make a nice hand towel. From there, it degenerates into a random assortment of demons that want Ryu dead, so it's up to you to fight through hordes of demons in order to beat said creatures into oblivion. Anything beyond that was either lost on me, or not present. I'm betting on the former.
Still, the lack of storyline does little to diminish a great action game with outstanding fundamentals. As Ryu, you'll use a variety or weapons, ninja magic, and platforming skills to get from point A to B. Throughout NG II, you'll wield such distinct weapons like katanas, claw blades, a scythe, and several others. With roughly a dozen handheld and throwable weapons at your disposal, you'll never lack for a fresh way to bludgeon and slash your enemies into bloody pulps. As you kill enemies you'll collect various coloured orbs that work as money, health, or magic power. An intuitive upgrade system located at conveniently placed statue shops allow you upgrade your weapons and buy new items by spending yellow orbs.
The ninja magic is also indispensable, but not quite is powerful as it was in the last instalment. Most spells render you invincible for a short time, so thankfully the ninpo has a useful purpose nonetheless.
While a good 75 per cent of your time will be devoted to hacking and slashing dozens of enemies at a time with the grace or a psychopathic ballerina, the rest of your time will be spent in some very well done platforming sections. You'll be able to swing from poles, run up walls, ninja jump from wall to wall in thin corridors, and still attacking your enemies at the same time. The controls for such sections are fluid and intuitive, and rarely will you fall to a sickening death by fault of the controls.
What might result in a few cheap deaths, however, is the game's lousy camera system. It will definitely result in a few cheap deaths here and there, and it never seems to give you a truly great view of the action. You eventually learn to work with and around the camera system, but it just seems that the game and combat is too fast and furious for the camera to keep up.
I've made mention of the difficulty above, but it certainly bears repeating. NG II is really, really challenging. It mostly plays fair but tough, but a few sections certainly fall face first into "cheap" territory. Some bosses are very fast and have insanely small weak points, all while doing intense amounts of damage to your character. Successfully getting through any boss battle while only using one or two healing items is certainly an achievement worthy of any hard core gamer. It's also unfortunate that every death results in a 30 or so second load time, as you'll be seeing that load screen pretty often. I was personally able to make steady progress throughout the "warrior" difficulty without too much controller-throwing rage, but casual gamers will not be so lucky. Even the acolyte difficulty will make the average gamer's head explode in a murderous rage. A little patience and practice however, and progress will certainly be made.
One concession that the designers decided to toss our way is the addition of a slightly more forgiving health system. Unlike the past titles that worked on a traditional health system, NG II has a recharging health system similar to Halo. You still take damage like normal, but whenever you do, you maximum health goes down with each hit. So when you finish a battle your health still recharges, but only to a point determined by how much damage you took. Healing items will bring your maximum health back up. Once you get to a save point, the maximum is reset again.
It also bears mentioning that the achievements available for NG II are not worth much points and pose a significant challenge and time sink. As an example, there's an achievement available for each weapon in the game, which is obtained by playing through the whole game using only that specific weapon. Considering the game's 12 or so hour length, getting all of these achievements will require an insane level of dedication. Oh yeah, each one is worth, wait for it… a majestic five points each. Achievement whores will certainly have their work cut out for them.
For the heavily dedicated, the game features a Ninja Cinema mode that allows you to upload your best butt-kicking clips, and also features full leaderboards for each level.
Graphically speaking, NG II is very solid, but far from perfect. Most importantly, the frame rate is smooth and consistent, which is a absolute requirement considering the acrobatics and intense combat on display. The game makes great use of lighting and detailed textures, but does not try to emulate realism. NG II is essentially representing high definition anime, so all the character have large eyes and exaggerated features. Also, the environments, while certainly good looking and varied among different cities around the world, are devoid of life and lack substantial detail.
Gorehounds however, will be thrilled with the blood and gore on display here. It splashes and flies around realistically, and even stays on Ryu's weapons. Stay still for a few seconds and Ryu will throw the blood off his blades and onto the environment. Also, as you'd expect from the makers of Dead or Alive and a lead designer who's had a sexual harassment suit filed against him, NG II also features rampantly skimpy outfits and full blown breast physics. I've come to affectionately refer to this technology as "full-melon jumbling niplomatics."
The sound design is fine, but certainly nothing special. The boss battle themes are appropriately intense, accented by calmer tunes during the middle portions. These were fine, but I found the game played better with some hard rock custom soundtracks. The slashes and bludgeons into monster flesh also sound like I would expect them to, although the constant repetition of these sound effects do begin to grate after a while. Throw in some hilariously awkward cheesy voice acting and you wrap up a decidedly average acoustic presentation.
Whether or not NG II reflects a purchase for you really depends on two things. Are you a fan of the previous games in the series and are you sadistic enough to put yourself through one of the most challenging games of this console generation? If you answered yes to either of these questions, then congratulations and good luck to you, you're going to need it. As a fan of the series since the original title on the NES (which remains the hardest game I've ever completed), I give Ninja Gaiden II a whole hearted recommendation.