Ninja Gaiden II is a great game and a maddening one. In some respects, it improves upon the core Ninja Gaiden gameplay to exhilarating effect. It's flashier and it's bloodier, and when those enhancements are in full force, the game offers the best action available on the platform. You de-limb werewolves and slice up legions of rival ninjas and demons, and pulling off these moves produces a gory, showy explosion of particles and body parts. And, as any fan of its Xbox and PlayStation 3 predecessors should expect, it's incredibly difficult, which makes a successful confrontation still one of the most rewarding moments in all of action gaming.
Team Ninja also went back and fixed a few of the frustrating issues from the previous entry. For example, should you lose a boss battle (and you'll do it frequently), you can restart most of them at the beginning of the encounter, rather than having to revisit 10 minutes of lead-in gameplay. There are more save points, which also replenish your health, and your health will replenish on its own after action sequences. But for every step forward, the game takes an infuriating step back. It isn't as slickly paced as its precursors, and it isn't the visual leap forward that Ninja Gaiden was. Most noticeably, the camera has taken a turn for the worse, seemingly more interested in flaunting the game's flamboyant flurries of steel and black spandex than in being functional. Ninja Gaiden was hard, but it was rarely cheap; when you died, you knew it was because you needed to perform better. In Ninja Gaiden II, the badly implemented camera and other factors (more on this later) can lead to trial-and-error repetition that relies more on dumb luck than on your controller-wielding prowess. Sure, this sequel is a fantastic game, but it isn't as good as the game that reintroduced the franchise.
The core action is both familiar and remarkably intense. As returning hero Ryu Hyabusa, you hack, slash, and decapitate your way through hordes of nasty-looking foes, many of which are returning enemies from the Xbox original. What makes it so satisfying is how fast and fierce these encounters are. Using just two attack buttons and a jump button, and pulling a trigger to block, you can execute a flurry of slashes, ground-pounds, and high-flying feats with ease. And it looks fantastic in motion. The particle-heavy, blood-spattering special effects and silky animations will make your jaw drop, thanks to the exciting spectacle they create. Each battle keeps you focused and engaged, and the speedier your thumb waggles, the more satisfying and explosive the resulting acrobatics are.
In fact, the standard combat is even better than before, thanks to a few violent touches that take the series to new levels of adrenaline-pumping ferocity. Humanoid combatants routinely lose limbs at the mercy of your steely weapons, but rather than collapsing in a pool of spurting blood, they just get angrier. Amazingly, a werewolf with one arm is more dangerous than one with both limbs intact, but this fact is nicely offset by the possibility of a finishing move. If you get close to a de-limbed demon and hit Y, the camera will move in close and showcase a fantastically over-the-top fatality, complete with flying viscera and the ghastly sounds of spurting blood and squashed tissue.
Bosses are more frequent now and vary in terms of quality and challenge. Some of them are maddeningly difficult, such as dual armadillos that spew fiery rocks toward you. Others, like a blood-dripping, sword-yielding she-fiend, hit all the right notes. And one of them, a giant worm that speeds through subterranean caverns, will get stuck in walls due to a glitch and is easily defeated by slashing at its head while it tries to extricate itself. You can slash and bash using some of the old weapons, including the dragon sword and the lunar staff, but you may want to go into these battles with some of the newer additions such as the blade tonfas, which deliver some excellent combo moves and are fun to wield.
Make no mistake: All of this is really hard, and the second half of the game in particular is certainly just as hard as the original game. You'll face a number of enemies at a time, but they aren't content to lounge around like Dynasty Warriors refugees. They jump around quickly, may tackle you and execute an overpowering assault, and are often remarkably in tune to the actions you're trying to pull off, ready to counter with their own violent reply. The insane level of difficulty may not seem apparent in the first few chapters, which franchise fans may notice are hard but not as hard as Ninja Gaiden's. However, the challenge ramps up considerably as the game progresses, and you'll eventually be repeating certain sequences multiple times until you find a way to dispose of the brawny baddies. Much of the time, death brings with it the realization that you simply need to be a better ninja. When Ninja Gaiden II relies on its formula, it's not unfair; it's tough, certainly, but not punishing.
Unfortunately, the game strays all too often from its roots and meanders into the abyss of cheapness that Ninja Gaiden only rarely peered into. There are some hints of this early on, but the first third of the game and the final third are incredibly satisfying. Nevertheless, the center portion relies on tricks that simply don't cut it. Ninjas who you can't see pummel you with unblockable rockets over and over again, a defeated boss explodes and takes you down with it, and under- and over-water sequences feel more like work than fun. These sections are where the camera is at its most annoying. Apparently designed to focus on Ryu's exciting swordplay, the camera has been pulled in closer and moved a bit downward, which isn't ideal, but at least it isn't a hassle in wider levels, like one in a postmodern New York City. However, for the majority of the time you're in confined spaces and narrow corridors, where the camera gets stuck in corners, moves into uncomfortable positions, and requires more resets than before.
Then, after the infuriating middle section comes to a close, Ninja Gaiden II jumps an impressive hurdle. During its final third, everything clicks into place, and brilliantly so. The enemies become more interesting, unfair difficulty is replaced by breathless challenges that reward your skill, and the level designs take advantage of the platform's visual strengths. In the best of these levels, you fend off flying fiends while fighting ground foes across bridges and on ledges, as lava cascades down the cliffsides. Other quality levels throughout the game include a nail-biting trek through a hulking airship and a tour of duty in a sprawling castle, where you slice up dining-room chairs in addition to growling lycanthropes.
It's disappointing that the same amount of attention wasn't given to other levels, or to environmental design in general. Devil May Cry 4, Ninja Gaiden II's closest competitor, showcases sumptuous backgrounds that stand in beautiful relief to its furious action. By contrast, Ninja Gaiden II's environments are generally bland and utilitarian, such as the ugly and repetitive green caves that one of the previously mentioned bosses calls home. Some trips back to Hyabusa Village provide some needed narrative connections to the previous game, but it looks barely better than it did before. As far as its environments are concerned, Ninja Gaiden II does not feature the technical prowess you would expect from a game in 2008. It also suffers from some occasional hits to its normally smooth frame rate, which was simply never an issue in the past. Another familiar visual glitch is a returning one: Splotches of blood and goo still stick to the invisible walls, and because there's so much gore, this flaw sticks out all the more. By now, this sort of thing should have been addressed. By contrast, the vivid special effects, excellent enemy design, and fluid animations are fantastic, and they make it easy to notice that the rest of the visual design is decidedly behind the curve.
The cutscenes are great as well, if a bit cheesy, and they give some flair to Ninja Gaiden II's throwaway story. Not that it's bad, but the tale's just an excuse to pit you against a series of greater fiends, and to introduce you to the game's femme fatale, Sonia. She's exactly what a Ninja Gaiden fan would expect: blond, beautiful, and buxom. So buxom, in fact, that you will marvel at how she manages to move at all without suffering from back pain, and at how much breast physics have evolved over the years. Ryu's archenemy Elizebet is just as curvy, and a scene that features blood dripping from her bare bosom is wild, intense, and disturbing. You probably won't get invested in any of these characters, but the cutscenes are good enough to look forward to, and the finale may very well knock your socks off.
Leaderboards and unlockable, masochistic difficulty levels provide some replay value. You can also record sections of gameplay and upload them for other players to watch, but though this feature is neat, it isn't implemented very well. You're stuck recording entire swaths of gameplay, and the frame rate takes a bit of a hit when you turn the option on. But it's a feature that, like its amped-up combat, will please the game's core audience. If you're one of those folks, you'll enjoy what this sequel offers. Its various inconsistencies and visual deficits are obvious, but the fluid, heady action makes Ninja Gaiden II a great game.