Tucked away in a corner of the Microsoft booth at CES was a small cluster of Xbox kiosks, all of which featured a new playable version of Ninja Gaiden. Tecmo's upcoming revival of its classic ninja franchise is a highly anticipated game for the system, especially given its software library's notable ninja deficiency. We spent some time hacking up evildoers to see how the game, which is due out soon, is finally shaping up.
The version on display appears to be something created for an upcoming demo disc and features the Ninja Fortress level we've seen before, although it has been tweaked. Whereas the stage originally began at the foot of some stairs leading into said fortress of ninjas, the demo starts you off on a waterfall. You'll now have to guide the game's main character, Ryu Hayabusa, up to the entrance. The brief journey serves as a light tutorial, complete with gameplay hints provided by decorative throwing knives that come flying at Hayabusa from offscreen. When you see one, you can go up to it and choose to interact with it. You'll then be treated to a tip on playing the game. While the tips showed off some gameplay that we've previously seen, including the wall-jump, combat, and running along walls, there was also a sequence that had Hayabusa swinging and leaping from a wooden pole, Prince of Persia-style, to reach a ledge. Once the level switched to the entrance of the fortress, the demo stuck pretty closely to the flow we've seen before. You'll navigate through a few corridors, dispatching ninjas along the way, and you'll solve a puzzle in order to gain a key that will lead to you the level's boss.
The demo of the game featured three different weapons that Hayabusa could switch between on the fly, which included his trusty sword, a larger broadsword, and a wicked pair of bladed weapons that looked like the unholy mating of nunchakus and a kusarigama. Each weapon featured a unique set of combos that varied in speed and power. Ryu's default katana offered a sweet spot that balanced speed and power when dealing with enemies. The broadsword featured much more powerful and brutal attacks but was considerably slower. The paired weapons were fast and didn't dole out huge amounts of damage at a time, but, if used properly in large Cuisinart-like combos, they could bring death to Ryu's foes quite nicely. In addition to the aforementioned primary weapons, it was also possible to use three different types of shuriken, which are quite useful when trying to stagger enemies long enough to start a combo. Finally, one of Ryu's elemental spells was also available for use.
The combat mechanics in the game have been tightened up nicely since last we played the game, and they work well with the responsive controls. The context-sensitive and timed nature of some of the attack inputs may take some getting used to, but once you do, the blood will flow, and heads (among other bodies parts) will roll. The camera system still takes a bit of adjustment time, but while you can reset it with the right trigger at any time, it's not always opportune to do so in the heat of battle. However, the jury is still out on whether it's something that can be compensated for or if the camera needs to be worked on a bit more. Still, in spite of that, combat seems very fun and quite bloody. The game eggs on your bloodlust by including a combo meter that will invariably have you working to pull off longer and longer strings of attacks, which are very possible once you get into the swing of things.
The game's difficulty has been refined some and now forces you to be much more conscious of Ryu's health meter. Early enemies aren't terribly bright, but when the white-clad ninjas appear later in the level, you have to be much more conscious of blocking and countering. And as for the level's boss, a tough-looking nunchaku-wielding behemoth with a health bar that seems to run on forever across the bottom of the screen... Be afraid. Be very afraid.
The graphics, much like the gameplay, have been polished up and offer a high level of detail, thanks to a generous polygon budget and clean textures. Hayabusa and the other ninjas in the game all look and move very well. The fortress and surrounding area feature a unique design that blends organic and old-world elements nicely. The special effects for Ryu's various attacks, such as motion-blur, have been beefed-up, as have the blood and assorted body parts that get hacked off as you go about your business. In spite of the improvements to the visuals, the game's frame rate stays high.
Overall, Ninja Gaiden is looking much improved over what we've seen previously, and it appears to be coming together well. Given the polish that it's been given so far, we're anxious to see how the final game pulls together. Ninja Gaiden is currently slated to ship early this year. Look for more on the game soon.