Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2
The resurrected Ninja Gaiden series directed by Tomonobu Itagaki earned its reputation as a man’s man’s challenge, an alternative to all the games that held the player by the hand with frequent checkpoints and regenerating health bars. Taking the template created by Devil May Cry, the formula was altered with a generous dose of speed, smart enemies, and mythic levels of difficulty that combined into one of 2004’s most-celebrated titles. After two re-releases, one legal snafu, and one sequel later, the latest chapter in the series aims to specifically address the problems found in the original Ninja Gaiden II with mixed, but overall positive results.
At its core, Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2 is about keeping the frantic action found in NGII and fixing the frayed edges around it which would seem like an easy task—rework the steep-and-cheap difficulty curve, fix up the various glitches, and most importantly dump that awful camera— which, for the most part, Team Ninja does. What works in NGII is still there—Ryu Hayabusa, the world’s greatest ninja, battles his way through hordes of demonic fiends and Black Spider ninjas with his assortment of ninjitsu-based weaponry in traditional Japanese settings, New York and in the finale what appears to be a sort of hell for the fiends.
Ryu still has a regenerating health bar once battles are finished, though if you take too much damage a chunk of health won’t come back but this is balanced with more save points that grant full health which are peppered throughout the game. The difficulty is further tamed with enemies that take fewer hits to kill and incidents of Ryu getting bombarded by exploding shurikens are much less frequent. Which isn’t to say the game is a cakewalk—just that on the initial play-through you’ll be challenged without getting so frustrated you want to chuck the console out of the window. A few boss fights have been either significantly edited or completely excised, most notably the irritating worm-boss who has a bad habit of completely disappearing due to a graphical glitch.
While the framerate chugged far too much in the original, Sigma 2 doesn’t have that problem and the graphics are overall sharper than its predecessor, made better with smoother textures and a richer color scheme. Unfortunately the trade-off for the slight graphical improvements come at the cost of frequent screen-tearing and way too much loading between menus and opening item chests. Come on now, what happened to the all-mighty power of Blu-ray? So the settings have a better graphical sheen to them, but they’re still completely devoid of NPCs or anything really happening in the background. There’s a definite sense the hardware is being underutilized.
Maybe having less enemies overall and the entire absence of gore is why it runs better. In a strange design decision, all of the over-the-top blood has been deleted, though limb-removal still plays a huge role. One of the key strategies is to hack at enemies until an arm or leg has been severed and quickly dispatching them with an Obliteration Technique, an insta-kill, before the enemy attacks you with a deadly kamikaze attack. Instead of spewing fountains of blood, it looks like Ryu’s blade cauterized the wound with purple fire. It’s not as if blood makes or breaks a game, but it was an enjoyable spectacle and without that the experience feels slightly neutered.
The remaining changes are for the better, though. Your bow automatically targets enemies and Ryu controls better overall—his attack-patterns are more focused and the dodge move feels more effective. There’s also a button that hones in on the direction you need to take, so there’s no more guesswork involved or annoying lulls in the action. Furthermore, any keys or quest-related items you had to hunt down in NGII are now completely absent; you only need to kill every enemy thrown at you before you can proceed to the next showdown. While this may sound like this is dumbing it down, removing such annoyances allows for the game to do what it does best: action. From throwing shurikens, dodging and countering at the right moment while unleashing a devastating combo, it’s all just as satisfying as it was in the original.
The campaign is lengthened with three new levels each starring one of Ryu’s buxom sidekicks. Rachel returns as does Ayane and the shrine-maiden Momiji makes an appearance outside of Ninja Gaiden Dragon Sword. None of them have the amount of depth Ryu has, but they’re each fun and effective to use in their own right. Ayane is a little speed-demon with Rachel as the slow-but-powerful tank and Momiji plays the happy medium between the two. A new feature of dubious entertainment value is the ability to “jiggle” their breasts with the controller. It’s just as juvenile as it sounds, and the way they jostle around make them look like giant, possibly sentient Jello cups.
Choosing from an additional three characters also plays into the new Team Missions mode, a replacement for the standard Mission Mode. Two players team up online to take down an arena full of enemies, but there really isn’t much teamwork going on. You can both cast magic at the same time which unleashes a devastating attack and if your partner is downed you can resurrect them, but otherwise you’re just two people going about their own business. As to why there’s no two-player in the main game or local play is anyone’s guess, but you might as well be playing by yourself because lag is present in many online bouts. The game is all about speed, and without a reliable sense of timing you’ll see the Game Over screen more times than you’d like.
The camera, no matter what mode you play in is still a bit of a problem. It’s not nearly as awful as it was before, but this is the fifth try at it and it’s not an unreasonable request to have a camera that doesn’t whip around senselessly like the town drunk riding a mechanical bull. But even that doesn’t ruin what is an overall positive experience. There’s a good game here and with the various tweaks made it’s an overall better experience.
The fun of slicing hordes of difficult enemies and finding the nuances of a deep combat system manage to escape the clutches of Ninja Gaiden II’s unfair difficulty curve. Still, if you already have a copy of Ninja Gaiden II the additions in this version aren’t justification enough to buy it again for a higher price. Anyone who was either turned off by the difficulty in the original or passed over it the first time around should check out Sigma 2. While bloodless and far from a definitive version, it’s a still a fun and challenging game that any action fan worth their salt should play.