Could have fooled me. One of the bloodiest rides in video gaming, Ninja Gaiden 2 will be described as visceral, brutal, and any number of intense adjectives--and they will all be accurate. Ryu's latest romp hits that special level of gore that spurs spontaneous laughter. The pure artistry at work behind the cringe-inducing animations is something to behold.
And behold it I did. Behind closed doors at the Tokyo Game Show, Team Ninja's Okamoto was on hand to walk us through the Aqua City level, footage of which is already available to download. As Ryu was steered through the stage, dozens of limbs rained down from the sky, enemies in flames ran in circles, and chest cavities were rendered vacant. This is one seriously visceral, brutal game.
"We actually wanted to do this level of violence in the first game," explained Okamoto, "it just wasn't really wasn't possible for a number reasons. But now that we have the Xbox 360 hardware, we can do a lot of things that we couldn't do before."
However, Okamoto professes that the violence is secondary to the desired impact of the combat. "Just to make one thing clear, we didn't set out to make a violent game--that wasn't the goal, to put as much violence in as we could. It was about what's the best way to make Ninja Gaiden 2 the greatest action game on the planet, and we felt that having that [brutal, visceral] element to the battles made things so much more immediate, like you were really fighting to the death with your opponents."
The succulent detail present in each of the varied attacks is apparent even at the game's frenetic pace. In an effort to make each frame count, Team Ninja goes through a long process to get Ryu's attacks looking as elegantly sick as possible.
"I think it's really about saying, 'Okay, we're giving Ryu a giant scythe,'" said Okamoto. "'Now what can we do with that? What would be cool for him to do?' And then we have our artists kind of draw up storyboards kind of showing what they envision would would be cool for him to do, and then the animator animates that and then we tweak it from there. Then of course you have assign all of the variables, in terms of damage and all that kind of stuff."
Speaking of combat, one of the major turn-offs for prospective Ninja Gaiden players was its notorious level of difficulty. When asked whether the game will take those users into account, Okamoto indicated that subtle changes--rather than a superficial decrease in difficulty--will be the approach to increasing Ninja Gaiden 2's appeal.
"We definitely want to take into account the broad user base of the hardware," said Okamoto. "And the goal of any developer is to get as many people as possible in the world to play his game, right? So we certainly want to make concessions not only for the hardcore fans that have been with the franchise before, but also those coming from a more casual end of the spectrum."
While improvements have been made to help out those new to the series, Gaiden fans should rest easy. This isn't a title that's being dumbed down in the least. "The key to Ninja Gaiden is the battles," Okamoto noted. "You want the battles to be visceral, you want them to be immediate, you want them to be challenging and life-threatening, because that way when you defeat a difficult enemy, you get that sense of accomplishment. So it's not just about going in and dumbing down the AI and making the enemies easier. It's about looking at other ways to kind of reduce the frustration level and making it more approachable."
Keep reading to find out how Ninja Gaiden 2 might be a little easier to play than its predecessors. _PAGE_BREAK_ Okamoto provided one example of an improvement to the game that smooths out the Gaiden experience for fan and newcomer alike: an auto-healing system, which will kick in after winning a battle and provide a quick boost of health to reward the player for victory.
"So if you're able to survive that fight, you have a better chance going into the next one," he continued, "which reduces the number of times you have to pause the game, go into the menu, and use a health item and things like that. And we feel that makes the game more approachable, so somebody can pick it up and say, 'Hey, this is cool.'"
As far as the AI is concerned, Okamoto seems confident that the adaptability of the enemies will provide enough challenge for hardcore players. "For instance as you obviously saw in the demo, you can dismember enemies, you can cut off their arms and legs, but they don't die instantly--they're gonna come after you again. But what happens is their AI patterns change, their animations change, their attack patterns change. So what we're really trying to show is this is Hayabusa versus a ton of enemies that are there to take him out, and they're going to stop at nothing to do that, regardless of what happens."
Ninja Gaiden 2 may not look like a huge graphical step up from the recent Ninja Gaiden Sigma on the small screen, but in person it seems a significant upgrade aesthetically speaking--particularly when it comes to Ryu and his enemies. Comparisons to Sigma have already been made, however, prompting Okamoto to defend the look of his game.
"I think Sigma had a certain approach that they went for, which was almost like a flat painting, trying to make things beautiful in a two dimensional sense," added Okamoto. "What we're going for is more of a feeling of atmosphere and three dimensionality and kind of the feeling of being in an open space, so you feel like Hayabusa is in this area, there's air flowing around him. When blood is spurting in the air it actually feels like it's flying through real air, and that's kind of what we focused on in terms of the graphics."
Eight stages were shown in the menu of the demonstration, but more will be included in the final version. "We certainly are shooting for an overall density of gameplay, as long if not longer than the first game," said Okamoto of the target length. "But our philosophy is not to say, 'We have X number of hours of gameplay.' Because that would be kind of pointless if it isn't fun, right? It's more about how much you can enjoy that time."
With the game set for release next year, how far along is development at this point? "I'd say overall, it's a probably a little less than halfway done, if you count every little thing. As you can tell it's pretty polished already, but we've still got a ways to go."
Finally, Okamoto rationalized the world that Team Ninja has created in the Ninja Gaiden series--a world that includes futuristic airships and feudal-era villages--by concluding that logic never wins out over cool.
"I think to give you the short answer... you've got medieval fantasy, you've got modern settings--anything we think is fun we'll throw in there. I've never really thought about what happens in the world, other than Ryu and what he's doing... Maybe he's out in space, or on another planet or something. Who knows."