You have to hand it to Microsoft. Sure, they might make questionable hardware from time to time, and occasionally release operating systems with thousands of known bugs, but if you ignore that for a second and focus on their marketing skills, you can't help but admit that they know what they're doing.
Ninja Gaiden II is a case in point. Not only are we looking at what will almost certainly be the best ninja title conceived to date, it's only going to be available on the Xbox 360. Consider just for a second what type of leverage you have to have to score an exclusive blockbuster ninja title, coded in Japan largely by Japanese developers, for a console that doesn't have Sony stamped on it. No matter what you think of Microsoft, that's impressive.
At Gameplanet, we happen to think a lot of Microsoft, namely due to their fantastic habit of dropping off preview code for some of their upcoming titles. You can achieve a whole new level of smugness when playing a game that only a handful of people worldwide have even seen, and if you resist the temptation to edit mistakes on Wikipedia you can get a huge head start and a fantastic appreciation of the game before it's even released. So when Ninja Gaiden II appeared one afternoon this week, we didn't require much encouragement to fire up the preview disk and attack the first chapter.
Fans of the franchise will know all about Ryu Hayabusa, the sushi-eating curio-shop owner who just happens to be one of the most lethal fighters on the planet. Ryu makes a welcome return in Ninja Gaiden II (literally "ninja side-story") and through the customary cut-scenes at the beginning of the game, we learn of his immediate objective; to rescue the requisite damsel-in-distress Sonia from the evil clutches of the Black Spider Ninja Clan.
Although this might sound like a particularly average episode of Scooby Doo, nothing could be further from the truth. Sonia is an ex-CIA operative who has been searching for Ryu for reasons not immediately made obvious, and with the abrupt close of the first cinematic, we're thrown directly into combat against some of her kidnappers.
Ryu's animation has never looked better. Although the opening few minutes of the game serve more as a tutorial than anything, it's somewhat necessary just to get a handle on the array of moves he's capable of. Not only can you perform amazing combinations that leave your enemies drenched in gore, you can jump, spin, block and weave your way through them with ease. The combat is highly intuitive, so much so that you feel like an expert the second you start fighting, although upon closer inspection it can be necessary to back up and practise because some of your enemies know a few moves too.
Although you're constantly being reminded that blocking attacks is an integral part of Ninja Gaiden II, the real hook lies solidly in button combinations and bonus moves. The sword Ryu is initially equipped with is capable of some serious damage, but it's not until you pick up the Lunar Staff that things really get interesting. Our favourite move consisted of building up a huge charge by holding down a button for several seconds, releasing it, and tapping wildly at the main attack button. If done correctly, Ryu will enter a frenzied state whereby he initiates multiple strikes, causing dismemberment and decapitation, literally showering the scenery with blood and causing some dizzying visuals. It's not uncommon to see up to fifty consecutive hits on your enemies over the space of a few seconds.
When you dispatch an enemy, you receive a quantity of yellow essence, which acts as the game's basic monetary system. Yellow essence can be swapped for various items at Muramasa's store, the operator of which is a character making a return from the original Ninja Gaiden on the old Xbox. In the first chapter we played, we saw two such stores, and each offered the same health potions and basic weapons for sale. No doubt there will be more of a selection as the game progresses, but even on the easiest setting we were thankful for the additional health we purchased.
There also appears to be some fairly solid RPG elements included this time around, as we managed to extend our maximum health limit simply by locating a specific treasure chest - one of many situated throughout the level. These chests frequently contain additional health, magical potions or various other intriguing items that will come into use later on in the game. Some contain a red essence that can be used to initiate a massive magical attack, causing nearby enemies to burst into flame - a handy attribute when you're outnumbered ten to one.
Although we only got to see a very small part of the game, we've been promised a full review build, so we'll bring you a comprehensive look at the game around the time it's released on June 12. We're amazed at what we've seen so far, so if you're a fan of fast-paced martial arts and gratuitous violence, Ninja Gaiden II will not disappoint.