The Ninja Gaiden franchise has been around in one form or another for the better part of twenty years, and has attracted a legion of followers who have been drawn to the visceral action, pioneering cut-scenes and insane over-the-top animations that are expected with every release.
Let's get this out of the way right now - Ninja Gaiden II is brutal. It's got the lot - decapitations, amputations, huge battles with dozens of foes, crazy combat moves and action so fast you actually can't see what's going on at times. It's also softer in places than its predecessor; a title slanted towards evolution, not revolution.
After all, why reinvent a winning formula? Team Ninja is the first and last word for these frantic fighting titles, and the attention to detail they're renown for from past Dead or Alive releases shines through with this latest offering. Of course, it simply wouldn't be Ninja Gaiden without our erstwhile hero Ryu Hayabusa, who makes a welcome return from (literally) out of nowhere to challenge the Black Spider Clan for dominance, and presumably, the right to wear the tightest leather outfit possible.
Ryu is initially equipped with a Dragon Sword, an able weapon but only one of many you'll encounter throughout the game. Mastering the bewildering array of moves Ryu is capable of can sometimes feel like an impossible task, but happily, simply tapping away and getting the occasional combination will see you through the first chapter, at which point you'll have much more of an idea as to how each weapon performs. The difficulty settings feel far more balanced than the previous Ninja Gaiden title for the old Xbox, and with four options to choose from you're bound to find a sweet spot between a challenge and a cake-walk.
I suspect the hardest option however may only be used by some fairly hard-core fans, and even then probably only to use the games record function and upload combat videos to Xbox Live.
So what's in it for the rest of us? Well, there are a series of platform-inspired puzzles along the way which will see Ryu leaping like a lunatic to clear various terrain obstacles. It's important to note that as wall-walking is now possible, these puzzles aren't always easy, so it's best to make frequent use of the save points littered throughout each level in various random locations. There's also an exceedingly brief foray into RPG territory with various collectable items to be found that artificially increase your health limit, and you can stop at Muramasa's Shop, where your collected essence becomes currency. There's no point in denying it however, Ninja Gaiden II is first and foremost a combat game, with every other aspect simply a mild distraction.
But what a combat game it is; easily one of the best available for the Xbox 360. Ninja Gaiden II provides such a fluid combat mechanism that even as an absolute rank beginner you can feel like the best ninja in the world.
After pulling off a particularly lucky fluke and managing to produce an epic finishing move, you can be forgiven for thinking the game has taken over and you're merely watching - even within the first ten minutes of gameplay. If you can manage an intentional series of combinations you're rewarded with forty, fifty, sometimes over sixty successive hits that slice and dice your enemies, producing a cartoon-style wave of blood and gore that leaves you with no illusions as to the R18 nature of the game.
Satisfying as it is, the combat is so fast-paced it can be exhausting at times, and like a punch-drunk boxer hugging his competition you'll find yourself resorting to button-mashing before too long. In order to counteract this, you'll loot various tomes from corpses and chests that, due to the linear nature of the game, are hard to miss. These parchments are like an instruction manual presented in poetic form, and you'll be taught to extol the virtues of various combinations in order to make you a better killer, or simply figure out how to complete a puzzle. They also give your thumbs a chance to cool down between battles.
But with the good you also have the bad - it's fair to say that the camera angles are fairly atrocious for the most part, and you'll get sick of the constant need to toggle using the right stick.
Your enemies, being ninjas themselves, are capable of appearing without any warning, so it can be a real pain when the camera can't keep up. There are apparently some slight framerate issues on 1080p that might require you to use a lower output setting during intense fighting sessions, but we were unable to reproduce any major graphical lag using our retail edition. Another major annoyance are ranged attacks from enemies you can never get close enough to defeat - this style of AI just seems beneath the rest of the game.
On the upside, if you are defeated by a boss, you can simply fight him again rather than being dropped a long way back in the story, something conspicuously absent from a previous build we trialled. And whilst the game isn't on rails as such, the lack of a mini-map should give you a good indication as to how straightforward each chapter is.
Despite the original NES Ninja Gaiden paving the way by introducing some of the first cut-scenes of any title, Ninja Gaiden II isn't going to win any storytelling awards this time around. Whilst the cut-scenes remain relevant, they're somewhat time consuming and frankly a bit flat in comparison with the incredible gameplay present in the rest of the title. It is really as if the developers have spent most of the time creating a fighting game, then a few weeks before release realised they'd better do something about a story, and trotted out the same good vs. evil line we've seen a hundred times before.
Even so, I can't mark the game down too much based on this - there's just too much to admire elsewhere to be bothered by cut-scenes that you can skip anyway.
Ninja Gaiden II will be bought in droves by fans of the series, and for good reason. You're not going to be able to find a better ninja combat title out there now, so despite a few faults you're still left with a game at the peak of the genre. Even those not normally versed in ninja lore will have a hoot watching Ryu fly around the screen like some kind of demented bat, and although it's hardly likely to knock Grand Theft Auto IV out of the charts, what you see is what you get, which in this case is a damn good fighting title.