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In Memory
Sean Pettibone


Ninja Gaiden II (Xbox 360)
Those who played Team Ninja's first remake will find much to love about Ninja Gaiden II for Xbox 360. While the basic parameters of the original title are very much in evidence, a deeper and more elaborate combat system, dramatically improved visuals and intense battles make for a brilliant, engaging experience that's not to be missed. Enemies attack from all directions, and can even damage the player if a limb has been severed, which adds to the challenge. The sheer intensity of combat, aided by multiple weapons, devastating special moves and brilliant combo-moves makes this a challenge that should test even hardcore gamers. These elements combine to make Ninja Gaiden II one of the more impressive action titles on the console.

Set several years after the events seen in the last installment, Ninja Gaiden II has players once again in control of master ninja Ryu Hayabusa. This time, he's battling a beast known as the Archfiend, a demonic force who's been locked inside a temple for thousands of years and is plotting his revenge - the destruction of humanity. Ryu's mission is to stop him before he can succeed in this endeavor and his progress plays out between levels in elaborate cut-scenes. Those who played the original game should be immediately familiar with the basic parameters in the new game, though there are numerous changes and enhancements to the combat system that make for a deeper game. When he's battling waves of standard foes, Ryu can use his standard attacks at close range, to slice and dice opponents. He's got a number of familiar weapons at his disposal including his trademark Dragon Sword, the devastating Lunar Staff and a cool new weapon, called the Falcon's Talons which are claw-like extensions that allow him to slash opponents at close range. There are also several projectile weapons such as bow and arrow from the first game and shuriken which allow you to attack enemies from a distance. All of this should be somewhat familiar to Ninja Gaiden veterans, but there are a few surprises as well. One of the biggest changes this time around are the smarter, harder and much more dangerous enemies. They're much harder to defeat for a number of reasons. They tend to cluster together and fight smarter. In addition, instead of being killed immediately as in the previous games, many times foes will survive minus an arm and a leg. They'll still attack you if they can, so it's important to finish them off, even in their weakened state since they can still cause significant damage. One of the coolest things is the new Obliteration technique which allows you to finish off these fallen foes in dramatic fashion when you're standing near them. As you defeat foes, you'll collect their life force in the form of essence which increases your own health bar. There are several types of these which replenish your energy in different ways. Since the enemies now attack you from all directions, and won't stop until they're completely destroyed, you'll need more than just Ryu's standard weapons to survive. Fortunately, he has a lot more than meets the eye in his arsenal, and its these elements that give Ninja Gaiden II more depth than a standard hack and slash title usually offers.

Ryu has a number of abilities that he can master as he moves through the levels. He can run sideways along walls, jump over gaps in the levels, swing from bars and climb over objects to escape attacks. He can also move very quickly and instantly change position to attack unsuspecting foes in his way. There are also a number of special attack techniques called Ninpro that he can learn along the way. These devastating attacks can kill or damage any nearby foes, though they can only be used a certain number of times depending on Ryu's energy bar. Each of these moves can be learned by collecting scrolls, which detail how to perform them. As an added bonus, mastering these moves also unlocks additional achievements. Other scrolls and magic items allow Ryu to increase his skill set, add to his energy bar or collection more essence from fallen enemies, all of which helps him to survive his brutal mission. The game offers frequent save points, which have the added benefit of completely restoring his health. Additionally, he can purchase items at Maramusa's Shop that can further enhance his endurance and abilities. The game's menu selection screen is fairly easy to navigate and use and can be called up at any point during the game. His weapons are quite powerful on their own, but he can carry two at a time later on and these can be further upgraded as he catches essence and earns Ninpro by defeating fallen foes. Most of the action can be viewed from a third person perspective, but the game gives you the option of viewing some areas in first-person mode, which is decent. Some of the camera angles can be distracting and annoying, and allows opponents to attack you unseen. This can make for some frustrating moments but they aren't enough to ruin the experience. Additionally, some of Ninja Gaiden II's puzzles are a little oblique and can be annoying because they get in the way of the action, making things come to a screeching halt. However, these are usually temporary diversions that don't significantly detract from the game's overall quality.

Despite the camera issues that can become annoying after awhile, Ninja Gaiden II's beautiful production values and intense combat more than compensates. It's range of environments ranging from sleek, futuristic office towers, to isolated villages shows an incredible versatility that the developers at Team Ninja have become known for. Ryo himself is an impressive character and he moves through the levels with an elegant grace and style befitting a master ninja. The other characters in the game are also impressive, and show Team Ninja's singular style of hyper-realism. Ninja Gaiden II's beautifully rendered character models move with an incredible amount of grace and realism, and feel quite natural. The game's impressive environments feel alive and authentic. Nearly flawless light-sourcing, richly detailed textures and seamless renderings allow you to focus on the action. However, even the smallest details, such as air vents, and weapons designs show a great amount of care which gives Ninja Gaiden II a beautiful design that's consistently impressive. A silky smooth frame rate shows no signs of slowdown and clipping, which helps to keep the action moving along at a breathless speed. The game's overall look shines on Xbox 360, delivering sleek HD visuals that put players right into the action. An excellent soundtrack mixes techno and traditional Japanese themes to create a score that fits the futuristic yet traditional action perfectly. Ninja Gaiden II's elaborate cut scenes give things a nice cinematic feel, but they don't overwhelm the story. You can see that a great deal of attention has been paid to every element in the game, and this helps to create a coherent and believable game universe.

You can find minor faults with some elements of the title, but it continues the uncompromising tradition of the series. Most importantly, the controls allow you to perform incredible chain attacks and breathtaking special moves without having to memorize extensive moves lists. It's all about the player's skill, which makes the game's sleek and intuitive interface all the more impressive. It takes some time to get used to all the systems and abilities, but once you get the hang of things, Ninja Gaiden II's gameplay flows like butter. The trajectory of its levels slowly ramps up as you move along, with ever more difficult enemies leading to increasingly difficult boss encounters. It's intuitive controls make switching between weapons is simple, and they deliver quite a variety of attacks from close range to distant combat. The upgrade and power-up menus are seamlessly integrated into the action, with frequent save points and shops available to make the journey a bit easier. Between the pacing of its storyline, with loads of intense combat, pausing only for the occasional puzzle, Ninja Gaiden II delivers an absolutely relentless experience that will challenge even the best players throughout. It's difficulty can become a bit frustrating at times, but the game's skill level never feels impossible. This is definitely not a title aimed at button mashers, but the intense gameplay gives the player a sense of satisfaction that each victory has been earned, which makes for an occasionally difficult but consistently rewarding experience. This makes it one of the best action titles on Xbox 360 to date and a must-own title for any gamer looking for a real, sustained challenge.

- Michael Palisano

Grade: A-

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