Ninja Gaiden 2: great but not quite finished

Today I completed my run-through with Ninja Gaiden 2. This is the successor to what is in my opinion the finest game on the Xbox, Ninja Gaiden Black. I used the Warrior difficult, on the grounds that Acolyte (the introductory difficulty setting) is not how the game is intended to be played.

This is an old-school game: single player, third person view, clear focus on one thing, which is combat. The enjoyment of the game (and it is very enjoyable) is in the intensity of the battles. The depth of the game is in the combat system, which features multiple weapons with many different attacks. You also need to keep your character on the move, rolling and jumping; much of the fun is in working out the best strategy for each enemy or boss.

One word to describe the game experience: drama. Everything is larger than life; the bosses are fantastic creations; the architecture is soaring; the sound effects are thunderous; the special effects are gorgeous.

However, this is a game which sticks closely to the formula of its predecessor. In some ways it has gone backwards. Ninja Gaiden Black is more or less free roam in its later chapters; this one is linear and you can rarely retrace your steps. Other things have improved. There is more variety in weapons; the scenery is even richer; the health system is a little more sophisticated, distinguishing between long-term and short-term damage.

Some reviewers have complained about the shallow plot. It didn’t bother me. Ninja Gaiden 1 also has a weak plot, in which you discover after fighting through numerous tough chapters that you are back where you started. That’s not the point; both games are about a sequence of combat challenges. The replay value is great; simply start again on a higher difficulty and face new enemies and much tougher challenges.

Unfortunately there are flaws. The one that everyone will notice is slowdown when the action is particularly busy. This is not as bad as it sounds; mostly the game plays fine provided you have the "cinema" feature off (this saves a video of your game so you can show it off later). It’s still disappointing; occasionally it’s like playing in slow motion. Maybe there will be a downloadable update to fix this.

Some players have discovered glitches which prevent progress, forcing a return to the previous save. I didn’t hit any of these. I did however miss a crucial item in chapter 2, which means I have to replay the game to use a feature called “Tests of valor”. The reason I missed it: a bug which stops a cut-scene appearing if you happen to kill certain enemies in the “wrong” place.

Hard-core Ninja Gaiden players are complaining about flaws which casual players will miss. For example, there is an online leaderboard where you can upload your score. The way this works is that you get points, called karma, for each enemy you kill. More stylish kills win greater points. Unfortunately there is a point in the game where you can kill the same enemies again and again racking up unlimited points. That’s a major bug if you are trying to compete.

The other common complaint is about the balance between what is difficult and what is just annoying. Ninja Gaiden is known to be a tough game; I certainly found it so. That’s OK if it is a matter of skill; not if you just have to be lucky, die nineteen times but succeed on the twentieth go when the AI finds a favourable sequence. In my opinion there is far more skill than luck in this game, but there are times when it seems impossible to survive other than by good fortune, or perhaps resorting to magical attacks that are blunt instruments.

What this means is that to fulfil its potential Ninja Gaiden 2 needs a process of refinement like that which worked so well in the Xbox Ninja Gaiden. Unfortunately designer Tomonobu Itagaki has left the development company. Still, this is not a one-person effort; let’s hope the team releases updates that fix glitches and fine-tune the combat.

None of this should put you off if this is the kind of game you like. I’ve enjoyed it more than any other 360 game to date.

Is the game in good taste? Ninja Gaiden delivers extreme gore. Limbs fly in all directions; blood gushes. It is a kind of gaming grotesque; it is too gory for my liking yet something you soon hardly notice as you concentrate on winning battle after battle. You are of course on the side of good against evil, if that helps.

Amazon links:

US: Ninja Gaiden 2 360

UK: Ninja Gaiden 2 360

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