GOONL!NE Review – Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2

ngs2-packshotDeveloper: Team Ninja
Publisher: Tecmo
Also On: N/A (Sigma is a PS3 exclusive, although the original Ninja Gaiden II is available on Xbox 360)
Console Played On: PlayStation 3
Release Date: Friday October 2nd 2009
Age Rating: PEGI 16+

I’d better get one thing said straight away – I’m a self-confessed Ninja Gaiden fanatic. As far as I’m concerned, the first Ninja Gaiden on the original Xbox is not only the greatest action game ever, but also the greatest single player game of all time. I’m sure you may be wondering how such a fanatic can review Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2 then, how can I give it an unbiased review when I obviously love the style of game so much? I’d like to think my own love for the original game actually makes me the perfect person to review the sequel. As I played the original game so much (somewhere in the region of 180 hours), if the sequel falls down anywhere, be it level design, enemy design or controls, I’ll be sure to spot it..

When Ninja Gaiden was first released on the Xbox it was critically acclaimed, averaging around 92% per review according to the aggregate site GameRankings, and it must be hard coming up with ways to improve a game that was so impressive upon its release. The guys over at Team Ninja obviously thought that instead of wholesale changes, the best way to improve the series was with subtle strokes instead of broad sweeps. To veteran Ninja Gaiden players they’ll be able to dive straight into the game without so much as a misstep, but the small changes that have been made will be noticeable straight away.

For gamers new to the series, Ninja Gaiden lets you play as Ryu Hayabusa, Dragon Ninja and part of the Dragon Lineage, a group that has ancient ties back to the times of Dragons. Ryu is the current holder of the Dragon Sword, a legendary weapon passed down through the Hayabusa clan. Ryu’s abilities are well-known, as at the start of the game a beautiful member of the CIA, Sonia, enters the shop of the world-renowned blacksmith Muramasa looking for Ryu. She asks Muramasa for any information on the location of Ryu as she has information regarding the raising of the great Arch-Fiend. Seconds later, Sonia finds herself surrounded by members of the evil Black Spider Ninja Clan who kidnap her. Enter Ryu out of nowhere to take down the bad guys, rescue the girl and save the day.

The story in action games isn’t always a key concern for gamers, and Team Ninja have to be thankful for that here. The story, regarding the resurrection of the Arch-Fiend and Ryu’s attempts to stop it, is pretty poor, even by action game standards, and if you decide not to spend too much time trying to follow it, you won’t be missing too much. Suffice it to say, bad guys are doing bad things, and you need to kill them all to stop them. It’s a shame the story isn’t better really, but I doubt anyone will lose any sleep over it.

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One thing new Ninja Gaiden players will notice right away is the difficulty level. Even on the easiest of the four eventual difficulty levels, you will often find yourself shouting at your TV in frustration as you find yourself being pummelled by a group of enemies or a boss, wondering how the hell you’re expected to beat them. One thing that made the first game special, and it still holds true here, is that the game isn’t cheap. If you find yourself dying repeatedly, it isn’t because the controls are letting you down, or you’re being hit by unavoidable attacks, it’s simply because you need to practise more. Everything in Ninja Gaiden 2 is beatable if you’re willing to push your frustration down and to continue trying. Once you put the time in and learn your enemies and the boss characters, before long you’ll be kicking ass, taking names, and marvelling at just how good you’ve become, and wondering why those guys ever gave you trouble in the first place. It’s an incredibly rewarding experience.

Variety is the spice of life, so they say, and in Ninja Gaiden it’s also the spice of death. To make sure you have plenty of ways to slice and dice your opponents you’ll gain access to plenty of weapons throughout the game, each of which can be used to turn your enemies into several small pieces. Alongside the Dragon Sword, Ryu will gain access to weapons such as staffs, tonfa, scythes, claws, and more. The claws are one of my favourite, with Ryu wearing Wolverine style claws on his hands and feet allowing for lots of fast-paced close combat while ripping limb from limb with the claws. Every melee weapon has its own combos and becoming a master of every single weapon will take someone a very long time. Most people will stick with the Dragon Sword as it’s probably the best all-round weapon in the game, but you owe it to yourself to try the others out.

To go along with the variety in weapons you’ll also find a large variety of bad guys to kill with those weapons. You’ll face human foes in the form of Ninjas, and a variety of beasts called fiends, who are all intent on killing you in the most gruesome way possible. There are several types of fiends you’ll meet throughout the game, each with their own attacks and style, and you’ll need to learn them all so you can take them all out with as little trouble as possible.

When you’ve taken an enemy out, you’ll notice they drop a different coloured orb. These orbs are called essence, and they come in three different flavours – blue essence will restore some health, red essence will restore some of Ryu’s ki, used for magic attacks, and yellow essence is used as currency in the shops. These orbs will obviously be very useful, but they have a secondary use as well. If you haven’t sucked in the essence yet, which happens automatically if you’re close enough, you can use them to unleash a devastating attack. By holding down the strong attack button, Ryu will draw in any essence lying around and allow him to execute an Ultimate Technique. These are exceptionally powerful attacks capable of taking out all but the most powerful enemies in a single hit. These attacks will vary depending on what weapon you’re using and some are capable of taking out multiple enemies at once, so make sure you know your weapons if you think you may need to clear a room in a hurry.

If you’ve played the original Ninja Gaiden at all, one thing you’ll notice that is different here is the ability to chop off the limbs of your enemies. With a well placed strike you’ll soon find legs and arms missing from your adversaries. Rather than kill them, this will often only make them move dangerous, especially with human enemies, as they can become suicidal, leaping at you and trying to tag you with an explosive to take you out with them. To take out these now enraged bad guys, you now have the option to use the new Obliteration Techniques. With a press of the strong attack button, Ryu will attack the now crippled enemies and finish them off completely, often by chopping their heads off or by slicing them in two at the waist.

ngs2-2One thing any high-octane action game has to get right is the controls. It doesn’t matter how beautiful the graphics may be, how wonderful the level design is, or how varied the enemies are. If the controls are poor or not responsive enough then there’s often not much point playing the game as you’ll generally find yourself dead the moment you get surrounded by enemies and the controls let you down. Thankfully that’s not an issue here at all. The controls are superb and as responsive as you like, and you’ll never find yourself dying and blaming the controls for not doing what you wanted from them. You have buttons to block, quick, strong and ranged attacks, jump, as well as button combinations to activate your ninja magic. The quick and strong attacks can be used in various combos for the melee weapons, and they work flawlessly. One change to the controls from the original is that all weapons can now be swapped without going into the pause menu. By simply pressing up or down on the d-pad, the game pauses and brings up a small menu on screen allowing you to take a herb to replenish health, select a different weapon, or equip a different ninpo spell. This unfortunately doesn’t allow for some Devil May Cry style action where Ryu can launch an enemy into the air with out weapon then insta-swap to another to finish them off, but for such a fast paced action game, any way of reducing the down time in the menus is a good thing for me.

One of the main criticisms levelled at Ninja Gaiden in the past was in regards to the aforementioned difficulty. Many casual gamers thought the game simply too hard to be enjoyable, while the more hardcore and determined gamers thought that the difficulty was simply a challenge to be met and overcome. Team Ninja have gone a little ways to improving this in NGS2 with a change to the health system in the game. In the original Xbox game, you obviously took damage as enemies struck you, and the only way to regain that health was via health potions or blue health orbs dropped by fallen foes. The difference in Ninja Gaiden 2 is that while you’re taking damage, you’ll notice a small red bar filling up on the right side of your health bar. After your current battle has finished, you will regenerate all your lost health up to the point of this new red bar. This bar indicates the permanent damage Ryu has taken, and can only be cleared by the potions and orbs mentioned above, as well as the save statues which now fully regenerate your health too. This new regenerative health system definitely makes things easier, for as long as you don’t take too much damage in each fight you should never find yourself too low on health, and the save points are never that far apart so should you find half your health bar has turned into permanent damage you’ll still be able to sort it out pretty quickly.

One question that may well be on the tip of your tongue now, is how does the game actually compare to the original Ninja Gaiden/Ninja Gaiden Sigma? Well, one of the problems facing any sequel is how to improve on the original without changing too much of what made the first game special. Unfortunately for Team Ninja, one of the things that made Ninja Gaiden special was the fact it was new to everyone. There were action games like it, but very few had managed to fuse together all the elements of controls, enemies, weapons etc to make such as impressive action game. While Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2 controls just as well as the original, has even more weapons, and just as much variety when it comes to enemies, what it doesn’t have any more is that fresh feeling. It feels harsh to knock a game simply for doing what was so successful the first time around, but it’s hard to deny that feeling when playing the game. Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2 is an exceptional action game, and will offer hours upon hours of enjoyment to anyone willing to take on the challenge, but it doesn’t feel quite as good as the original simply as it’s not as fresh as the original was.

With all that out of the way, what is actually different about this game compared to Ninja Gaiden 2 on the Xbox 360? First of all, the game just looks better on the PS3. The graphics are a little brighter and more colourful, and the framerate is much more solid here. The framerate wasn’t a huge issue on the 360, but it did crop up quite badly in some points, and while it’s still not perfect here it’s a marked improvement over the Xbox 360 version.

ngs2-3Another addition, in a similar vein to Ninja Gaiden Sigma, is the inclusion of extra missions for the female characters. Rachel makes a return from the first game, and there are playable levels for Momiji (from Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword on the DS), and Ayane, who will be familiar to players of the Dead or Alive series. These levels are all pretty fun, but also pretty short and that’s a good thing. After spending time trying to master Ryu the last thing you’d want to do would be to spend the same time trying to come to grips with someone else.

The inclusion of a co-op Team Mission mode will be seen as a big bonus to a lot of players. You can go online with a friend and play through 30 missions together. You can play the mode offline as well, though here the AI will take care of your partner as there is no local multiplayer option.

The biggest difference, for me at least, is not a case of what’s new, but what’s missing. One thing that’s notable by its absence is the amount of gore in the game. If you’ve played the Xbox 360 version of the game, you’ll know that battles generally turn into a violent ballet of blood, with bucket loads of the stuff accompanying every chopped off arm, leg or head. Considering how violent the game in general is, this made perfect sense to me and it’s a very strange omission here, one which I feel actually hurts the game, even though it’s effectively only a cosmetic change. There was just something glorious in lopping off heads and watching the blood spray everywhere, sticking to walls and the floor.

So, with all that being said, should you buy this game if you own the Xbox 360 version? If you own both consoles, is this the better game? It’s very hard to recommend this to anyone who currently owns the Xbox 360 version. The changes, such as the additional missions and online co-op, are good changes, but it’s hard to say they’re worth £40. The same can be said if you own both consoles, as the Xbox 360 version can likely be had for less than half the price in bargain bins as it’s been out for so long. If you only own a PS3 though, then I can’t help but recommend it. If you’re willing to put in the time and effort to learn not only Ryu’s abilities, but the enemies you’ll face, you’ll be met with one of the most rewarding experiences on the console. Finding yourself surrounded by 6 enemy ninjas, only for 20 seconds later to be the only one left standing without taking so much as a scratch makes you feel like such a bad ass, and is one of the great gaming experiences.

Final thoughts: One of the most challenging games you’ll play, especially on the harder difficulties. If you enjoy those types of challenges, you’ll certainly find this to be one of the best action games of all time. Highly recommended for anyone not afraid of a challenge.

Gameplay – 9: A wonderful assortment of weapons to take down the multitude of foes you’ll face. A combo-based system for each weapon gives you lots to learn, and the 4 difficulty levels give you an ever-increasing challenge as you improve your skills.

Graphics – 8: Not a graphical tour-de-force like games like Uncharted 2, but the movement and animations are exceptional and everything moves so quickly. Some of the later levels look beautiful.

Sound – 8: The action sounds sufficiently painful and the music fits the tone of the game appropriately. Weapons clash and ninjas scream in pain just as you’d expect them to.

Presentation – 8: The menus are functional but the cut scenes are presented really well, while the game has a coolness factor running straight through it. Use the SixAxis controller to jiggle the ladies’ boobies as well, winner all round.

Overall – 9: More an evolution than a revolution, Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2 is a worthy follow up to one of the best action games of all time. It’s not perfect, as the occasional problems with the camera angle prove, and the difficulty will prove off-putting to some, but persevere and you’ll find a very deep action game that rewards patience and practise. Until God of War 3 appears this will likely be the premiere action game of this type on the console, and if you’re a fan of action games, you owe it to yourself to give this one a try.

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