Done Playing: Ninja Gaiden 2 (Xbox 360)
When last I posted I was admiring Team Ninja’s take on Times Square and fighting horrible mutant dogs that always break through my blocks and knock the once-badass Ryu all around the concrete. Hayabusa’s blocking isn’t the only thing this game broke as my heart followed closely behind. How did the epic Ninja Gaiden that I played through three times end up with a sequel so lackluster, so over-the-top, and yet so unimpressive?
It could be because Team Ninja never expected to make a sequel or that Ninja Gaiden’s reboot was a fluke of genius that could only be honed in remakes and updates and never truly expanded on in a sequel. Fourteen chapters, four boss rematches, and two ho-hum final showdowns later Ryu may have saved the world from the ultimate Archfiend and journeyed to Hell and back but I’m sitting here yawning.
The problem I had is that everything felt a little too familiar. New York is the new City of Tairon with its modern concrete devastation and architectural exploration. There’s a new airship stage with narrow corridors and machinery to destroy. Russia serves as the new military installation with heavily armed soldiers. And of course there’s a twisted, alien underworld with lots of fire, fog, and goth-itectural designs that are meant to startle but mostly just felt like echoes of the first game.
There are a few new sights, it’s true, like the canals of Venice and its accompanying castle of terrors and a jungle stage with lots of bugs, but overall the familiar far outweighs the new. The only saving grace is that the level designs are more intricate than ever with lots of hidden goodies to find and the visual detail is seriously impressive. Little touches like finding a dead ninja at the bottom of a staircase and spotting a busted railing and accompanying blood splat on the wall on your way up go a long ways towards giving the stages that “lived in” feel.
Living out your ultimate ninja fantasies is also a mixed bag, especially if you’ve played the previous iterations of the original. Where Ryu’s Dragon Sword was once the only choice for quickly dispatching enemies, here in the sequel it’s overshadowed by an increasingly absurd array of weapons. Clawed gloves and boots, the arguably useless Kusari-gama, and the diminutive Tonfas are all cool ninja gear but I found no use for them once I acquired the Eclipse Scythe. This oversized weapon not only cleaves enemies apart with a few short swings, it deals the most damage and easily busts up the annoying enemy gangbangs you’ll find yourself in repeatedly.
I suppose the weapons must be balanced if there are Achievements for completing the game using only one at a time but I personally didn’t feel compelled to use anything but that Scythe, and that’s a flaw to me. In the original I would switch between a few weapons depending on the situation and enemy type but now, even with a quick switch menu I just stuck with the Scythe and never needed to memorize more than a couple combos.
But at least the weapons (whichever suits your preference) provide visceral satisfaction when it comes to obliterating enemies. The new combat gameplay allows you to cut off limbs (and heads) and awards you more karma points for doing so if you follow it up with a grueling Obliteration Technique. On the other end of the satisfaction spectrum are the enemies and bosses that require you to use the bow and arrow. It was largely used for puzzle solving in the original but now you’ll find a final boss battle that relies solely on the weapon. Completely anti-climactic and yet even this final moment copies the original game in the worst way possible (which is a spoiler so I won’t say any more).
It’s not just the vibe of the original that Ninja Gaiden 2 apes either, Team Ninja somehow managed to retain the agonizingly frustrating camera system. Despite finally letting you move the camera around freely it’s still impossible to keep up with the action. I frequently found a handful of enemies between me and the camera that decided to place itself at an awkward angle, resulting in so many cheap hits, broken blocks, and wasted health items.
It’s funny because the game isn’t bad at all. When the combat works it’s incredibly visceral and you really feel like you’re that ninja leaping from monstrosity to monstrosity, sending limbs flying with no power capable of stopping your momentum. But just then you’ll find the camera wedging itself into a corner or a moment where you have to stop amidst the mayhem and aim your bow and arrow. Overall it flows really well and the adventure lasts ages longer than you’d expect from a modern action game but for someone who played and replayed every iteration of the original, it’s just not balanced enough.
However, if you missed Ninja Gaiden on the Xbox or PlayStation 3, then forget that this game has a ‘2‘ at the end of its title and dive right in. All the mythology is explained and they barely even mention the actual events of the previous game. Just think of the original as a really good prequel; and how rarely does that happen?