I wanted to love Ninja Gaiden II, and for a while I did. The combat was faster, smoother and more brutal than ever before. The new weapons were amazing. The blood and gore were widespread and uncompromising. For those first few levels, it was every bit as cool and stylish as its predecessor. Yet I couldn’t ignore a subtle sense of disappointment. Tomonobu Itagaki’s sudden departure from Tecmo on the eve of NGII’s release was the first sign of trouble, but it was by no means the last. Sure enough, the further I got into the game, the faster its shiny gloss and bloody splendor began to fade. What started out as a thrilling sequel to one of the best action games ever made became my biggest disappointment of 2008. How did this happen?
Let’s start with the good parts: if you love Ninja Gaiden’s basic combat, you will still enjoy NGII. Ryu Hayabusa looks and moves better than ever before, and he’s given some amazing new toys for slaughtering his enemies. From the decapitation-happy Falcon’s Talons to the air-blasting Eclipse Scythe, each weapon offers just as much depth and style as the venerable Dragon Sword, Vigoorian Flail and Lunar Staff. The new dismemberment and instant-kill system is amazing. Any enemy missing a limb can be killed by pressing Y, prompting a quick and bloody animation of Ryu sending them to the afterlife. Fighting hordes of ninjas quickly becomes an orgy of gore, combos, projectiles, and gruesome executions. Later levels contain increasingly-bizarre enemies, including werewolves, rocket ninjas, cybernetic demons, giant armadillos, flying skeletons, and old-fashioned Fiends. When sticking you in large arenas with waves of enemies, NGII is at its best.
If only this pattern held true for the entire game. Ninja Gaiden has always been known for being difficult. Even the first game could be punishing at times, but it still managed to offer a fun (albeit challenging) experience. The first third of NGII continues that trend before brutally eviscerating the player with bad game design and a severe lack of polish. The one major area where Ninja Gaiden’s combat does not shine is in its boss fights. Most of the skills learned from fighting regular enemies become useless, replaced by dull, repetitious grinding and evasion with little room for error. Unfortunately, the latter half of the game features an excessive number of boss fights, including a final stretch that could easily doom your television to being struck by a controller throw in frustration.
Adding salt to the wound is the game’s camera. Team Ninja’s approach to challenging the player appears to be based on ensuring they are attacked by enemies they cannot see, as often and as brutally as possible. Resetting your view to face Ryu’s back can only make things worse, especially when near a wall. Against normal enemies, the camera is manageable but still frustrating. Against bosses, it can easily get you killed by getting stuck on a wall or failing to keep up with the action.
Compounding these issues is a severe lack of polish, indicating the game was severely rushed. The framerate often dips into the low teens or single digits, although the result is like watching Ryu fight in slow motion; while distracting, it’s otherwise playable. Still, NGII is not likely to win any awards for technical achievement. The environments are generally dull and lifeless, featuring bland coloring and textures. Bugs are widespread and obvious. Enemies will often be stuck behind an invisible barrier, having failed to spawn in the right location. One encounter in particular proved problematic as the final enemy I was meant to kill never materialized, thereby preventing me from advancing. Against a pair of fire-breathing, skeletal dragons, Ryu would occasionally die after landing from a jump for no reason whatsoever. What would otherwise be an inspiration for cholesterol-related puns is instead a sad reminder of this series’ fall from grace.
Should you buy Ninja Gaiden II? If you loved the first one, yes…but make sure you do so for the right reasons, namely the weapons and new additions to the system. Also be prepared to spend some extra cash on the downloadable Mission Mode, as there are almost no extras to speak of on the actual disk. For the rest of you, Ninja Gaiden II is, at best, a glorified rental.