An over-the-top, splatterfestive tour de force.
Ninja Gaiden has none of that.
In fact, one could say that Tomonobu Itagaki, the now decommissioned lead designer of the series, poured the consensus of what makes ninjas cool (the twitch reflexes, deadly precision and the katana) into one superhuman character and said "And now we'll make this dude fight creepy sh#t."
And it works! About a minute after starting the game, all bets are off (as well as a few limbs) and you nose-dive straight into a gory, relentless and decidedly unstealthy action game. Faint-hearted need not apply.
Summarizing the story of Ninja Gaiden 2 is like painting a fence in the rain: pointless. Not because the story is so complex that it cannot be explained in few lines (hahah, don't be silly) but because ultimately, the story doesn't matter. You know full well that whatever cutscene sends you on your way is just some far-fetched excuse for you to travel across worldly and otherworldly plains, turning every enemy into a bloody DIY-kit as you go. But just for the sake of continuity, let's set up the story.
Ninja Gaiden II begins when the blond all-natural buxom Sonia, a fearless CIA-agent with her own attack chopper, travels to Tokyo to find series protagonist Ryu Hayabusa and tell him about the Archfiend's revival. For those not yet in the know, fiends are horrible monsters that ruled the Earth before the dawn of man, but were imprisoned deep underground by dragons. Of course, the dragons are now gone and the fiends, having found a file to cut their prison bars with, come back to menace the planet. It's up to Ryu, as a descendent of the Dragon Ninja clan, to get out there and smack those no-good fiends in their blood-craving mandibles.
On the surface Ninja Gaiden 2 is about as straightforward as action games can get. You go from point A to point B in a linear fashion, cutting down anyone you meet along the way. Once you reach the end, you defeat the boss and go to the next stage. Like I said: straightforward.
Where Ninja Gaiden 2 differs from other action games, however, is in its layered combat: it's quick, smooth and flashy enough for novice players to get a kick out of it, yet has so many nuances and complexities that mastering it is a whole different beast.
If you've played any recent action game, you'll feel right at home with the controls: X is a light attack, Y is a heavy attack, holding Y charges a power-attack (from now on referred to as the Ultimate Technique - the game's naming, not mine) and you can counter an enemy assault by pressing either attack-button at the exact moment that his weapon hits your block. Defeated enemies drop essence orbs, being either yellow (currency), blue (health) or red (magic).
Yellow essence can be spent on improving any of the eight vicious weapons you find, ranging from the returning Dragon Sword and Lunar Staff to welcome new additions such as the Eclipse Scythe. Each weapon can be upgraded twice, increasing its look, power and moves list, some of which get pretty complex. An XYXXXY-combo, for example, is not an exception. While not all moves are mandatory learning material to hack 'n slash your way through the campaign, memorising some key moves, such as the aforementioned one-hit kill Izuna Drop, become a must on higher difficulty levels, where simply mashing buttons will only get you killed.
In fact, if you truly want to survive the highest of difficulties, you'll need to learn about the i-frames (animation frames that make Ryu invincible) and the On-Land Charge (holding Y after landing from a jump to charge your Ultimate Technique faster.) You'll need to know which weapon to use against which enemy type based on the speed and attack radius. You need to know enemy patterns, and how to chain your combos via shurikens for a higher essence reward. If you're looking for a deep and hard-as-nails challenge, the game has you covered.
But even if you're not, Ninja Gaiden II has had an overhaul to accommodate newcomers, making it less punishing than its predecessor. A new health mechanism means that most of the health you lose during a fight will regenerate afterwards, save statues now completely heal you the first time you use them and there is a checkpoint before each boss fight, making your many unavoidable deaths a little more bearable. There's also an easy difficulty to select from the get-go, meaning you no longer have to be scolded by the game for dying numerous times in a row before being able to walk the path of the Acolyte.
Which is a good thing, because anything higher than the Easy-difficulty quickly turns into a blood-soaked struggle for survival. That's partially because your opposition is drilled in one objective: to kill you, and they come at you in droves to do just that. Rather than waiting for their allies to be sliced open one by one, they all attack you whenever they see an opening. Even if you manage to cut an enemy's legs off, he'll still come after you in a blood rage, and either jump on your back to commit harakiri, or throw an explosive shuriken. Or commit harakiri with an explosive shuriken. Luckily these delimbed enemies can easily be destroyed by using the game's new Obliteration Technique: press Y near an amputee to finish him off in a brutal fashion.
The other part of the struggle comes from less pleasant aspects: the game can get downright cheap when it starts spamming you with bombs, the framerate can take some serious dips (to the point of unwanted slow motion) even when the game is installed on the hard drive and the camera remains an obstacle, seemingly content to just show you Ryu instead of his enemies, making it impossible to react to attacks appropriately. The long loading times can be remedied by installing the game, but the time between deaths and reloads could have used some more trimming.
Playing through the fourteen chapters will take about thirteen hours. You'll spend some of these chapters in a ruined New York City, a werewolf-infested castle, a floating fortress, an underground sacrificial temple and even Hell itself. Enemy diversity is pretty good as well, lead by swathes of ninjas and large-fanged monstrosities. Each chapter usually introduces a handful of new enemy types with higher difficulties mixing things up even more by giving familiar enemies new and powerful abilities, or by simply throwing new monsters at you altogether. The bosses, impressive as they are, never require any other tactic than "dodge and attack" except for one whose defeat causes him to explode, instantly killing you if you fail to react accordingly. Half of these towering behemoths will give you an encore, some of them up to three times throughout your journey, while others become regular henchmen in the later stages.
Some of these chapters also have an optional arena-type combat scenario where you have to survive an onslaught of enemies. Completing these will reward you with health-boosting items, a resurrection talisman or jewels that power your magical Ninpo-attacks. These items can also be found in chest around the world, if you venture off the beaten path. You can also find a total of thirty crystal skulls throughout your trek, unlocking a gamer picture and a giant crystal skull (whose effects are still debated) when you collect them all. On top of that there are two unlockable difficulty settings alongside a slew of unlockable costumes and a new game plus option for whatever difficulty you've completed the game on. Online leaderboards allow you to compare your best scores (or amount of deaths) with the rest of the world.
The biggest compliment I can give Ninja Gaiden II is also its biggest set-back: it's a lot like its predecessor. That the game is built from the ground up for the Xbox 360 doesn't exactly show as well as it should, what with the aforementioned technical issues and the visuals that are only a small step above Ninja Gaiden Black. But that just goes to show how good-looking the original was. Ninja Gaiden II is still very pleasing on the eyes with its vibrant colours, neat particle effects and weapon blurs, and gorgeous backdrops. The real showpony, however, is the animation: the action looks spectacular, even if it can be a little hard to follow at times.
Since the action is as delightful to watch as it is to perform, Team Ninja have added Ninja Cinema mode, which allows you to record your own gameplay footage. You simply switch it on in the options menu, with deaths and save statues serving as automated cuts for your clips. The replays themselves are barebones: your HUD shows at all times as it would during gameplay, you get no camera- or timeline-control whatsoever and you can't combine or edit clips in any way, other than laying on a grainy black and white filter. What's worse is that you can't upload any of your recordings to the internet until you rank somewhere in the top 2000 on the Leaderboards. Good luck with that.
The clips themselves are marked as save files shy of 100kb and as such, you cannot import them onto your pc to edit them there. The Ninja Cinema could've been a great addition but instead it's a waste of effort and a throwaway feature.
So that's it. Ninja Gaiden II. Yes, the game can be unfair and punishing with the difficulty flailing around unpredictably like a tube man and, yes, the technical issues can strain the nerves at times, but Ninja Gaiden II still provides an action romp worth sinking your teeth into. Action junkies with a boon for flying limbs and blood geysers will certainly be kept satisfied at all times. Anyone else might want to check this game out too, not in the least to know what a proper action game should play like.
Fun little extra: completing the game on the second to highest difficulty level, Path of the Mentor, took me 736 deaths. I never claimed to be any good at this...