Console Yourself: Ninja Gaiden II
“An exhibition to teach people about the way of the ninja. Unfortunately, they seem to have got most of their information wrong.” -Ryu Hyabusa
Format: Xbox 360 • Developer: Team Ninja • Released: June 2008
Few games have had as rocky a release as Ninja Gaiden II. Tomonobu Itagaki’s Tecmo swan song was published two days after the head of Team Ninja announced his resignation from the company. In a public statement, he railed against the firm’s overly commercial president, and claimed that he had been denied payments due for his projects. Tecmo initially refused to comment on this outburst by the admittedly egotistical director, but the firm was soon on the receiving end of a class-action law suit by most of its programming staff over illegal overtime and non-payment. As Team Ninja’s staff were rumoured to be close to joining their former boss in quitting, the company’s president resigned, with the remains of his firm snapped up by Square Enix. This game doesn’t just need a review- an autopsy is called for.
After his two journeys around the Vigorian Empire, Hyabusa stretches his wings in a world tour, as he pursues the Black Spider Clan and seeks to destroy the ancient Fiends they resurrect. The series’ famously varied tone remains intact, as Ryu’s journey includes influences from many other games. Gaiden II’s Moscow, with streets full of militarised ninjas, carries more than a hint of City 17, while the New York chapter climaxes in an assault on Liberty Island, in scenes familiar to fans of Deus Ex. This rich mix of influences extends to other aspects of the game. At first the bosses appear anticlimactic, but after a few chapters, you’ll have fought a giant metallic flying fish, a King Kong clone and an extremely impressive water dragon. Team Ninja largely manage to strike the difficult balance of making the game less frustrating without reducing the difficulty level. It’s now possible to continue from the start of a boss battle, while save points serve as a supply of health in addition to the first game’s potions. The changes aren’t just concessions to players less experienced with the series, as the different types of damage introduce another layer of strategy into the conflict dynamics. Ryu can shake off the effects of some blows after each fight is concluded, while the impacts of others, such as hits taken while charging Ulitmate Techniques, remain with the ninja. It’s a very intelligent system, punishing players for errors of strategy while allowing recovery from silly mistakes of timing.
More deep routed issues are also addressed, such as Ryu’s original over-reliance on the dragon sword at the expense of his other resources. In the original, the ninja’s signature weapon was so perfectly balanced that there was no incentive to experiment with many of his other armaments. Here, the increased computing power results in larger opponents, with the launcher-move dependant sword less effective against these larger foes, forcing the player to become adept with the entirety of Ryu’s arsenal. As a game, it’s a stronger effort than its processor, with both trivial and substantial irritations removed. There are some moments when the title takes your breath away, such as the deliberate use of slowdown to enable Ryu to emerge victorious from a clash with over one hundred and fifty individual opponents. However, a feeling of missing content is hard to shake. While Ryu’s journey from Venice to Moscow is carefully documented, as he brings down the Black Spider Clan’s flying fortress in the Russian mountains, the remainder of the character’s globe trotting is strangely unremarked upon, with Ryu’s travels simply presented as a fait accompli. This episodic style contrasts strongly with the original game, where a remarkably coherent setting was slowly unlocked as the story proceeded. Stone ruins found in a number of locations suggest that a teleport-powered last-minute backtrack through the game, as in the first title, was intended, but this element remains unexplored as the game concludes. Accompanied by a far weaker soundtrack than the original, it’s the lack of little touches that grate, with this title’s collectable (Crystal Skulls, in a nod to the Amazon-based level) providing nothing more than a source of Xbox Achievement points. The camera is even more problematic than the first game, and control over it is as much a part of the player’s strategy as the stringing together of moves.
This bare-bones ethos is felt most keenly where story is concerned. Both the Xbox game and DS follow up were remarkably successful in terms of plot, building up a coherent mythology while allowing the player to investigate a genuine mystery. In sharp contrast to the veritable family of supporting characters in the DS title, this time around Ryu is accompanied by the world’s least convincing CIA operative. Sonia’s bondage outfit has been rightly mocked, although blame may not entirely lie with the developer. The cut-scene storyboards show her wearing normal clothes, and the comical final design used may well be another example of interference from Tecmo’s senior management. There are cameo appearances from Ryu’s father and Dead or Alive’s Ayane, but the lack of characterisation hurts the story, leaving the uncomplicated pursuit of the forces of evil painfully obvious.
Dwelling on the game’s weaknesses is inevitable where in many respects the instalment is inferior to its immediate processor, but it’s worth restating that at the title’s core is a superb action game which stands proudly at the head of its genre. Given the turmoil behind the scenes, it’s a tribute to the talents of its creators that the standard of the product reaches even these heights.