Ninja Gaiden 2 Hands-on Preview

Do you like Huey Lewis & The News?

I only ask because, like Huey with Sports, Team Ninja has really come into its own with Ninja Gaiden II. The whole game has a crisp, catchy clarity that makes it hard to put down.

Many will still look at the sequel as a foreign instrument, too intimidated to pick it up and practice. This is a mistake. Every fan of over-the-top combat and ridiculous video game violence owes it to themselves to play a part in this hilarious symphony of carnage.

In fact, Ninja Gaiden II is probably the most violent rhythm game you'll ever play. For those new to the series, the idea here is all-out ninja action, with an emphasis on careful timing and pure speed. Each blocking pause and staccato strike must be precisely executed, a continuous refrain of action and reaction, with the eventual reward of gory victory.

And oh, the gore has never been this plentiful. Every swing of the sword spills another bucket of blood across the stage, to the point that lead character Ryu becomes more of a Pollock-style painter, desperately wanting for a rain coat.

If Gaiden is a work of brutal art, Team Ninja leader Tomonobu Itagaki is its devious composer. Hiding the truth behind his trademark sunglasses, this leather-donning maestro wants you to believe that his newest movement is easier to play.

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At first, things did seem like a walk in the park on the lower difficulty level. Unlike the previous game, which tamed me by the third level, not once did I become unduly frustrated after blasting through five chapters of Gaiden II. This was mainly due to the numerous save points littered throughout the sequel's stages, shrines that now instantly boost your health to full. If that's not enough to welcome you with open arms, your health will now rejuvenate automatically inbetween battles, only a fraction of the bar permanently staying red and unhealed. These perks are present in either difficulty mode.

But like one of their giant bosses, this is all part of Team Ninja's program. It wants you to enter the fray, if only to prove how silly you were for thinking it's gone soft. Because while the overall progression may have been smoothed by a better sense of save-point pacing, even playing in the easier of two modes, each fight is a potential game-over situation. Monsters can get the best of you in seconds if you let your guard down, and only the rare health potion will save you in the middle of a pitched melee.

So while the health regeneration makes the game less frustrating, newcomers will still be sufficiently challenged by the enemy encounters. It goes without saying that the hardest difficulty mode will have even the most experienced players scrambling.

Players will have several ways to dig themselves out of tough combat situations. Chief among these are Ryu's flashy primary weapons, bolstered by a few new additions. In this preview build, I got my hands on the Falcon's Talons, the Lunar Staff, the Kusari-gama, and the traditional Dragon Sword.

The new claw-like Falcon's Talons are a short-range menace, ripping enemies to shreds in seconds. The Lunar Staff is a useful tool to keep some distance between yourself and the enemy, all twirly spins and jabs. The Kusari-gama is a sort of counter-weighted flail. Much like long-range version of Nariko's blade in Heavenly Sword, Ryu spins the Kusari-gama in circles, a weak but wide-ranging attack.

A simple d-pad menu now allows you to set your Ninpo magic--instant-cast spells that wipe the screen clear of enemies in a single blast--primary, and ranged weapons on the fly. I found myself changing up my armament to adapt to various situations, switching from long to short range depending on each specific scenario.

As in the previous title, all of the weapons can be upgraded at shops found throughout the levels, with their visuals changing as they grow in power. These shops also offer up a selection of health potions and ranged weapons. Arrows for the bow--able to take out an enemy in one shot with a charged hit--and explosive throwing daggers make for useful supporting trinkets.

Perhaps the most entertaining addition to the series is that of physical dismemberment. Now Ryu can whittle at his enemies like a mad wood carver, hacking away branches until only a stump remains. However, even a de-legged enemy remains a potential danger, crawling across the floor and grabbing hold of Ryu before detonating himself in a suicide attack. As a result, Ryu's finishing moves--dubbed "obliteration" techniques--are varied and intensely satisfying, encouraging players to stab and slice their enemies to finality.

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Though players will be dealing with everything from sword-wielding dogs to four-armed monsters over the course of the game, I ended up having to fight the camera more than anything. Left to handle the winding alleyways of the game's levels on its own, the automatic view is downright unwieldy. Sometimes it will hit a perfect angle, only to completely obscure the view a moment later, settling behind a railing or enemy. You can correct for things with manual camera controls, but this is little consolation. If the game has a major flaw, at least in preview form, this is it.

So far the levels themselves are an interesting mix. The game begins in Tokyo, with the twisting hallways and metallic catwalks of skyscrapers providing plenty of narrow combat scenarios. After a quick stop at a rural Japanese village--in a second stage that echoes the original game's--Ryu air-drops into an apocalyptic New York City, complete with vampire bats, samurai sword-wielding dogs, and Team Ninja trailers playing in Times Square. By far the most stimulating stage was the bright Aqua Capital environment seen in early demos, a refreshing change of pace from the game's typically gritty aesthetic.

The new Ninja Cinema feature allows for the recording and uploading of game clips, and it's a simple affair in practice, requiring only to turn it on through the menu at any time. This is best combined with the provided cinematic filter, which drops the game's vibrant color for a black-and-white, 1940s-style presentation.

I may be stating the obvious by saying Ninja Gaiden II is a video game, but hear this: Ninja Gaiden II is a real video game. It's full of power-ups, high scores, camera problems and forgettable storylines. It doesn't ever hold your hand; there are no green arrows pointing the way, no giant minimaps, no helpful voiceovers. There are no fancy crowd simulations, no elaborate minigames or fanciful side quests. It's a sequel only in content--there aren't any radical changes to the formula, only refinements and additions.

It's just a stage, some enemies, a bunch of weapons, and a lot of blood.

But what more does a gamer really need?

Ninja Gaiden II is set to release on June 3 for the Xbox 360, with a demo hitting Xbox Live in May.