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Saturday, June 28, 2008

Game Review:Ninja Gaiden 2

Epic disappointment.



The Good:
Beautiful environments * Superior combat animations * Deep combat system * Challenging

The Bad:
Insane number of invisible walls * Dead environments that lack any significant lifeform * Extremely linear * Difficulty is cheap in some parts * Horrendous experience-ruining camera * Minor technical glitches

Touted as the direct sequel to one of the greatest action games on Xbox, hype and high expectations are the ineluctable accompaniments of Ninja Gaiden 2. Coming out a full 4 years after the debut of its predecessor, Ninja Gaiden 2 retains the basic formula of the said game – which means more fast, slick and furious combat, but still manages to improve upon the original in a few areas. Enhanced visuals and new weapons are just some of the additions, but truth be told, for every step forward, Ninja Gaiden 2 takes a step backwards – something that could only be described as disappointing.

Ninja Gaiden 2 starts off brilliantly enough, thrusting you into the heart of Tokyo in the first chapter. Its majestic pagodas and magnificent skyscrapers are reflected palpably in the game, and these are moments when you know you must shift into the first person view and pan the camera around to take in the scenery. Throughout the game, you will travel to numerous locations around the world, including a trip to a dense forest in one of the South American countries. And I am amazed at the impressive amounts of thought and effort that have been put into making the diverse environments as realistic as possible. However, the moment you start moving around, you realise it isn’t all a bed of roses. For a game that is released in this year, this age, the insane number of invisible walls is atrocious. These barriers preclude any form of interaction with the environments and while some of the environments may seem wide, they are actually not. There are several moments where I thought I could access an area because the said area is an open space, but as soon as I started running towards it, an invisible wall pushed me back. For such beautifully produced environments, you really expect them to be populated with more life, but again, Ninja Gaiden 2 disappoints. The environments are literally dead. How else can you explain the lack of any lifeform in New York City other than fiends, the enemies in the game?

Ninja Gaiden 2 attempts to redeem itself with some really competent combat animations. For most parts, the spectacular animations move at a silky smooth rate. Blood and guts spill out and splatter everywhere as various body parts get dismembered in a style so unprecedented that you can’t really help but to jump out of your seat and scream with excitement. In fact, every contact with an enemy has a chance of a body part getting dismembered. Occasionally, an intestine or two will get extricated out of enemies’ bowels. All these make for a pretty satisfying combat. If you like the Saw films (where there is blood, blood and more blood, and at times, body parts) like me, you would certainly like Ninja Gaiden 2’s gore-driven artistic style.

Fueling all the blood-filled animations is the deep combat system. During the initial chapters, combat may feel considerably shallow, but as you progress further into the game, more convoluted techniques get unlocked. Although combat is essentially executed with 2 attack buttons, one light and one strong, and a jump button, it isn’t all mindless button-mashing; stringing moves together and initiating combo after combo is a necessity. Ninja Gaiden veterans would also relish the achievements for 100-hit and 1000-hit combos. Weapons can be upgraded progressively as well, making for an even deeper combat system. Each of the 8 weapons has varying move sets and the game does a commendable job in making each weapon unique – the weapons suit different play styles. For instance, if you are craving for some Wolverine action, just equip the talons. If you prefer more power and the ability to inflict more damage in one swipe of a weapon, the large blade Eclipse Scythe is for you. Players who prefer fast jabs and spins could select the Lunar Staff. Enemies in the game also have different weaknesses for different weapons, so choose your preferred weapon wisely. But before you forget, there is also the Ninja Gaiden staple: Ninpo. After being pampered with close to a dozen Ninpo varieties in Ninja Gaiden Dragon Sword for the DS, it is a pity that only 4 are in this game, but for those that make it into this game, they are useful. On a sidenote, the wind Ninpo offers a bonus. Used mainly for wiping out hordes of enemies (upwards of 20 enemies), you get a fantastic animation when it is utilised for that function – the wind sweeps across the horde, slicing through the heads of all the fiends as it passes them. Now, that is a nice touch.

For such a deep combat system, you would expect Ninja Gaiden 2 to be a very action-focused game. If you expected that, then you just hit the nail on the head. But then, there’s a problem. I have to admit that Ninja Gaiden 2 is one of the most linear games I have played to date. The game pushes you from area to area with a consistency so questionable. There are doors? Okay, keep them locked. There are gaps? Okay, keep them plugged with vehicles, trees, and rocks. Well, there are open areas that seem accessible? Alright, bring in invisible walls. I can just imagine these suggestions running through the minds of the developers as they designed the stages. Platforming is kept to a minimum and for those that are there, they are really basic. The lack of any puzzle in this game only serves to exacerbate matters, making the linearity stick out like a sore thumb.

Being action-focused does have its advantages, though. Let’s face it: Ninja Gaiden 2 is a difficult game. There are 4 difficulty levels, but the harder 2 will have to be unlocked. Even on the easier of the 2 starting difficulty levels (which means the easiest difficulty level), the game is challenging. I have noticed that the number of enemies increase with each proceeding difficulty level. This isn’t a game for amateurs – get it: even if you are, you are going to have to become an expert within the first few chapters to have any chance of progressing further into the game. More often that not, you are going to get thrown to the game over screen, so be prepared to blow a vein or two. For added security, be sure to insure your television set because you may be instigated to throw the controller at the screen. Games that are challenging often cross the line of being rewarding to being cheap. So is Ninja Gaiden 2 rewarding or cheap? Well, actually, both. At times, you get killed because you are just not capable enough. But at times, there is no denying the game is pulling some cheap tricks off its sleeve. For instance, one of the chapter bosses explodes when it dies, taking you down along with it if you don’t shield (which you will not know that you need to on your first play-through). In another of the later chapters, you will be fighting a pair of armadillos on a lava-laden ground at the same time. Coincidentally, the pair of armadillos will also turn red when you start to battle them and their attacks include spewing out glowing red rocks from their backs and blasting red lava from their mouths. Notice the word ‘red’. Using a fatal visual combination that irritates your eyes, the game attempts to divert your attention from the bosses to the discomfort experienced in a move that is ridiculously unjustified.

But the biggest culprit that causes some parts of the game to be so cheap in the first place must be the horrendous camera. This is the FIRST game I have played that has such an awful camera. Itagaki deserves to be executed for this, really. The camera ruins the entire experience – for 1 step forward, the camera squeezes the game 10 step backwards. The camera seems to be more interested in displaying Ryu’s black spandex and back than his enemies. I would prefer that the camera pull out a little so that I am able to get a more coherent view of the playing field. At times, the camera would get blocked by a pillar, fence, or wall such that a worthwhile view gets disrupted entirely. And when it’s not blocked, it turns into awkward angles, effectively blinding you. It just gets worse: the camera may also veer off on its own, showing absolutely nothing useful. Although there is an option to reset the camera with the pull of a trigger, it isn’t the easiest action to execute when you are in the heat of a battle. The camera is at its ugliest self during some of the boss battles. In a design choice that could only be described as stupid, the camera moves into a low angle, atrociously blocking your view of the dragon in the foreground. There is another dragon behind, but well, you CAN’T EVEN SEE IT! Why is the camera so interested in flaunting Ryu’s buttocks when there is a need to pull out a little so that the 2 dragons can be seen clearly? In the last boss battle against Archfiend, the camera misses Ryu entirely at times. In addition, it moves off on its own such that I don’t even have a view of the skulls that the boss shoots at me. The camera alone is ample for you to burst an artery. You have been warned.

Some minor technical glitches round up the major flaws of Ninja Gaiden 2. Splotches of blood floating in mid-air, enemies getting stuck in one corner, and enemies getting stuck in walls are some of the technical shortcomings that you wouldn’t associate with modern games, but unfortunately, these problems plague Ninja Gaiden 2. The framerate also has some issues. In a particular chapter where the game throws Dynasty Warrior-esque number of enemies at you, the game practically chugs to a halt. If you have initiated the slow-mo effect in F.E.A.R. before, you would know what I mean. In some other seemingly empty areas with not much activity going on, minor framerate issues were also experienced.

Final comments
Ninja Gaiden 2 is an epic disappointment. Play Ninja Gaiden 2 for its combat and action and ask no questions on any other aspect of the game. This game fulfills many firsts for me: the first most LINEAR game I have played, and the first game I have played that has such a poorly-implemented camera. The later is a stab – Ninja Gaiden 2 would hardly be worth playing if not for the deep combat and stylish animations. For Ninja Gaiden fans, Ninja Gaiden 2 is a god-send, but for others, disappointment is inevitable.


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