'Ninja Gaiden II' offers challenges aplenty

Image: Ninja Gaiden II
Ryu Hayabusa uses his falcon’s talons to quickly dispatch enemies with pinpoint precision and brutal efficiency.TECMO/Team NINJA
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

So you think you have what it takes to be a ninja? You’re going to need instant reflexes, weapons for every situation, plenty of skill and lightning speed.  It also helps to have a lot of patience because you’re going to fail. A lot. Hey, I never said walking the path of the ninja was going to be easy. In fact, it’s going to be a pretty tough challenge.

TECMO/Team NINJA’s new chapter in the long-running Ninja Gaiden series is certainly not lacking in challenge. In “Ninja Gaiden II” for the Xbox 360, you’ll once again take the role of Ryu Hayabusa, the last dragon ninja of the Hayabusa Ninja Clan. Like the other games in the series, the difficulty level is dialed up pretty high right from the get-go. But cutting down wave after wave of ninja and demon alike has never looked or felt this realistic.

The bloody dance that Ryu performs throughout “Ninja Gaiden II” is truly a sight to behold, thanks to a new graphics engine developed specifically for the title. Not only are the visuals stunning in their brutality and beauty, but the combat feels perfectly fluid as Ryu moves from enemy to enemy, dispatching each with style.  

Games of the action hack-and-slash variety have never been known for having the most engrossing storylines and “Ninja Gaiden II” is no exception. Ryu takes up arms to avenge his fallen clan and stop the resurrection of the Archfiend. The story never really pulls you in, but it certainly doesn’t detract from the real selling point of the game: Bloody, elegant combat.

Luckily, Team NINJA really nailed the combat gameplay. While it’s easy to pick up, it’s extremely difficult to master. As you progress throughout the game, you’ll realize that controlling Ryu is something of an art as you make him dodge, block, counter, wall run and flip around the screen looking for that perfect moment to strike. 

When that moment comes, you’ll initiate one of the hundreds of combos with one of your many ninja weapons, including the Dragon Sword, staff, scythe, shuriken and claws. As you cut through an enemy, your blows will hack off limbs, allowing you to dispatch the injured foe quickly using the Obliteration Technique. While your enemies recover from your onslaught, you can charge up your attack and unleash an ultimate combo when they are foolish enough to approach you again. If you feel yourself getting overwhelmed by incoming attacks, you can activate a magical Ninpo attack and clear out groups of enemies instantly.

The whole combat system blends very smoothly as you learn to react to attacks, prioritize enemies and pull off the most effective combos with each weapon. One sticking point:  Since there are so many combos possible for each weapon, you’ll be tempted to just rely on button-mashing to get through many situations. While this will get you through the early stages without too much trouble, in the later stages you’ll find that if your combo ends unexpectedly, you’ll leave a glaring opening in your defense and enemies will immediately use that to their advantage.

This brings us back to the other main trait the Ninja Gaiden series is known for: the challenge.  Some gamers see the difficulty of the Ninja Gaiden series as a selling point while others see it as a deterrent, but most players should be able to find a setting that suits their skill level in “Ninja Gaiden II”.

There are two difficulty levels immediately available in the game with two more that are unlockable. At the Acolyte difficulty (the easiest level), you won’t have too much trouble getting through the early stages. In later levels, though, you’ll be getting beat up so much that you’ll likely find yourself praying for a restorative item or save point around every corner. But all in all, the Acolyte difficulty level is fairly manageable for most.

The Warrior difficulty is where things start getting dicey. The margin for error disappears as you now take about two or three times the damage from each blow and enemy ninjas and demons are far less likely to miss openings in your defense.

To put it in perspective, I was able to complete all 14 stages on the Acolyte difficulty without too much stress or cursing at my TV. But when I switched it up to Warrior, I hit a snag at the fifth stage where I was out of items and facing a large pack of werewolves that just wouldn’t cut me a break. I’m sure I could practice a bit more and get through the area eventually, but 45 minutes of becoming increasingly enraged at my apparent lack of skill was enough for me.

Since my lack of ninja aptitude kept me from completing the Warrior difficulty, I was not able to try out the Master or Mentor challenges. But since the game allows you to record your gameplay in the Ninja Cinema and upload movies to Xbox Live if you rank high enough, I was able to view other players playing at these higher levels. 

From what I can tell, at the Mentor difficulty — which is the highest level — the room for error is nonexistent and you can only take four or five hits before dying.  That seems a bit too hardcore for me but, if you’re up for the challenge, I suggest you pick up “Ninja Gaiden II” and take up your blade to prove that your ninja skills are far superior to mine.