Ninja Gaiden II is out and I’ve played the part for three chapters’ worth, all the way up to the first “Game Over” screen I got. I am not sure I want to continue.
I played the original a lot, completing it on all difficulty levels and I think twice on the hardest. It was one of the defining games of the last console generation for me. It had three problems: the art direction was at times uninspired and juvenile, the difficulty level was too much for some, although it was always fair, and the camera should have been better. I never found the original’s camera that much of a problem, but it was critiqued en masse regardless.
The much-awaited sequel ups the ante across the board, and unfortunately that goes for all of the problems, as well. Bizarrely, the game has become more accessible to less dedicated gamers by rethinking its checkpoint and health system to a far more forgiving model, yet it’s more difficult than it ever was.
The health system is great, actually: if you survive a fight, you get back to full health quickly, except if you’ve really taken a beating, when some of your health goes away for good. It doesn’t feel cheap, because most fights are very big and intense. You’ll be glad to survive.
The problem with the difficulty is two-fold. For one thing, the game relies on bombarding you with constant missile fire. These are hard to block and very hard to dodge, which becomes frustrating in no time. The missiles tend to come in salvos, where the first one breaks your block, the next one hurts you and the third one throws you back, leaving you wide open for attack by the group of enemies in melee range. In a game with a supremely fine-tuned melee combat system, this reliance on its frankly broken ranged combat is, well, foolish.
The other problem with the difficulty ties into the larger issue of the camera. It’s broken beyond repair. Whereas the original’s camera sometimes left you without a clear view of the enemy, the sequel’s camera cannot follow you at all. Most of the time, you’re not actually seeing the fight. In a game requiring very precise combat control and timing, this is unforgivable. You can control the camera with the right stick and center it with the right trigger, but it swings into a useless angle within the next move you make, and besides, you need your right thumb on the face buttons all the time to attack. You might be alright in an open space, but you’ll be doing a lot of close quarters slashing in cramped corridors. You might be alright if all you do is block, but most of your moves zoom you off, way off-screen, in the blink of an eye.
The art direction is better than it used to be, the characters aren’t quite as ridiculous as they were, but we’re not out of the woods yet. This is a “CIA agent” (via Costume GET!). Overall, I’m not getting that “next-gen/current-gen” vibe when comparing it to the very accomplisehd last-gen version, obviously apart from the HD makeover. The cutscenes are not good at all, the animation and characters don’t work in closeups and the lighting is flat. It looks great in action, not so much when standing still.
The locations are more engaging and I appreciate the old-school approach in the first level. Some of the weird, entirely unrealistic settings remind me of the series’ 8-bit origins. It’s great, especially because the fights are huge and much faster than the original’s.
This time Europe is not getting a censored version, which would’ve been impossible, anyway, due to the amount of flying limbs and heads on-screen at any time. Finishing off de-limbed enemies becomes a priority, as they can execute a very nasty suicide attack, if they can creep up to you without legs, that is. It might look nasty, but possibly because of the insane speed and overall clinical properties of the visuals, it just feels like a ninja title should. The gore doesn’t bother me here.
And the shuriken are useless as ever. I don’t know. It should have been so much more, yet I think I’ll keep trying, because when it works, there’s nothing in action gaming that comes even close. It’s out next Friday in Europe.