Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2 arrives with memories of its predecessor filling most gamers’ hearts with a self-doubting terror from being made to feel utterly rubbish at games and having to call it a day by the time the motorbike ninjas arrived. Only the old school, challenge hungry, were really up for that madness.
Don’t worry if the first one handed your ass to you on a plate though as the sequel is much more accessible. That doesn’t mean you can happy slap it into submission, but you’ll probably make it half way and maybe even whisper it… finish it.
It’s a frantic start as you barely get time to read the first on-screen tutorial message, telling you how to block, before someone’s already ran you through with a sword. The first level is insane. It just won’t quit with the bosses either. After a giant statue is dispatched you get a van sized amalgamation of a spider and a thorn-bush, which takes up your remaining health packs. Then the statue comes back for more! That’s only Chapter 1!
Along with all the standard human ninja types there is one of the most amusing takes on ninja enemies you’ll ever see. Ninja wolves, attacking you with swords held in their jaws. Almost adorable, you’ll definitely want one at home. Until it eats your legs.
The story is a standard ancient demons coming back to rule over the humans like they did thousands of years ago saga and naturally, as Ryu Hayabusa, you’re the only one that can stop them. You’ve been through it all before. It’s all about the fighting though really.
It’s unbelievable how well the combat flows. Within minutes you’ll be pulling off jaw dropping combos like you’ve had a lifetime of training. Purists and hardcore fans be damned, this is what everyone else has wanted, to be able to play Ninja Gaiden without permanently getting your face hacked off every five seconds.
The speed of the weapons is dizzying and the sparks that fly off them whenever they scrape the scenery is absolutely mesmerizing. The vast amounts of combos on offer mean that players can get away with a bit of button-bashing. But the later levels and the higher difficulty settings require more carefully considered attack patterns. So the game just about balances the scales for newbies and (the probably moaning anyway) hardcore fans.
There are charged attacks that unleash a long string of slashes when you get time to warm them up. Finishing moves are also used to kill off any enemies that you’ve hacked a limb off. Enemies crawling on the floor are the deadliest as they’ll climb up you, stab you and then stick a bomb on your chest. Ninpo elemental magic spells are at your disposable which are handy when you get overwhelmed but almost useless against later bosses.
The combat isn’t perfect. The camera does like to mess with you at times, by getting behind pillars, banisters and railings, leaving you to bash the attack buttons hoping you’ll emerge alive. Another problem is that of ninja fashion. With ten guys all in black with swords going mental in a room, it’s no surprise to suddenly not be able to work out which one is you. You might think you’re slicing up a ninja, but then realise you’re health bar is rapidly retreating. And despite the 3GB install there are too many pauses in the menus with everything having to load. It makes them off putting which is a shame as that’s where the moves lists are.
Blocking and countering is key in the game. Blocking can’t be relied upon too much though as it’s easily broken. When the enemies do strike you it’s rarely just one slash, instead it’s usually a long, life-sapping combo. The bosses are even meaner, one of the giant ones gobbles you up and chews you for ages before spitting you out covered in fire and gob and almost dead. You’ll be tempted to restart some bosses when you’re forced to use your one resurrection token (it’s like an extra life) when you’re only a couple of stabs away from victory.
The boss fights can be against huge colossus sized statues like the Statue of Liberty or against smaller demons like a four armed werewolf that is still three times your size. Usually these are mixed in together as string of boss battles that’ll push your nerves and your limited health items to the edge. Unlike main rival God of War, you’ll find no button matching QTEs, leaving you in control the whole time. However all the bosses seem to fight the same with the usual radial stomp attacks, projectiles and combos that you need to avoid to attack from the rear.
The weapons though are fantastically varied with swords, talon claws, spiked staffs, chained sickles, scythes, bow and arrows, shurikens and the list goes on. The primary weapons have three unlockable levels with new combos for each tier. They can only be unlocked by finding a blacksmith who will level up one at each store. This is instead of any sort of experience earning which may have been more appropriate.
The setting and locations are a bit too unspecific. It’s based in the modern day, but with locations varying from good looking Onimusha style feudal villages and jungles to the blander Times Square and giant flying airships. The second level is a real looker and is what you’d expect from a Japanese ninja game with an abundance of cherry blossom trees with the petals floating through the air, but then you get grey subway tunnels in New York.
There are some extra female characters to play as during specific chapters. Momiji uses a halberd and bow and arrow setup and plays similarly to Ryu, but with just the one weapon. Rachel is the slower one with a giant mallet that does some brutal damage at the expense of speed. Ayane from the Dead or Alive games is the nippy one with short swords that zips around the screen like a pink and purple wasp.
All unlocked weapons and characters can be used in online co-op modes too where two of you will compete for the highest score against AI enemies. It’s a fun alternative, but both of you will have to have a clear signal on your broadband as any lag will screw up your combo timing. Shame there isn’t an offline two player version though.
Overall, Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2 does just what a ninja game should. It makes you look and feel like the world’s deadliest ninja, putting on a show. I’d even go as far to say that the fighting here is better than the God of War games for sheer style and depth, although GOW wins hands down with the graphics, setting and story. Looks like Sony’s God of War III is going to have one hell of a fight on its hands next year.