Review: Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2

NinjaGaidenSigma2.jpg I am amazed by how my perception of Ninja Gaiden II has changed so drastically with the passing of a year and a half, a change of platform, subtle gameplay tweaks, a wealth of new content, and a graphics resolution boost. Back last summer when Ninja Gaiden II originally released “exclusively” for the Xbox 360, I just couldn’t get into the game. The shoddy camera and cheap difficulty balancing frustrated me to no end. Now, though, with the release of the enhanced PS3 port, Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2, Tecmo has delivered what the original Xbox 360 version should have been.

That’s not to say Sigma 2 doesn’t carry over some of the 360 version’s flaws, because it most certainly does. While the camera does seem to do a better job keeping up with the action this time around, it still falls well short of ideal and once again earns the dubious distinction of being one of the clumsiest 3D camera systems in gaming. Controlling Ryu’s acrobatic maneuvers remains inconsistent as well, as the momentum behind his movements and animations feels too light and twitchy. I also very much tire of the series’ use of repeated boss battles – seriously, there are a couple bosses you fight like three or four different times, and the battle dynamics barely change with each confrontation!

But for Sigma 2, Team Ninja went back and re-balanced much of the gameplay and augmented the experience with additional levels, characters, bosses (how does fighting a possessed Statue of Liberty sound?), weapons and modes. Let me first start with the gameplay tweaks, because those are the most important.

Anyone who has played the Xbox 360 version will immediately notice numerous changes for the PS3, including things like unlimited ammo for projectile weapons, slight modifications to the level designs in terms of certain areas being opened up/closed off and altered (in some cases even deleted) enemy spawns, free weapon upgrades at Muramasa statues (you can only upgrade one weapon at a time, though), and so on. But what’s changed the most – and many of the aforementioned items play into this – is how much more balance there is to the difficulty level. Sigma 2 is still a challenging game, no doubt about it, but it’s no longer cheap. There are now fewer enemies on screen at one time, and enemies that would cheap-shot you from off the screen or projectile spam you to death before are gone, so in general completing the game feels more in your control as a gamer. You don’t have to “learn” to cope with cheap AI tactics and faulty mechanics.

This improved balancing makes a world of difference. What frustrated me so much with Ninja Gaiden II in its original form was how the game’s exquisite combat system was essentially ruined by the frequent cheap deaths and sloppy camera control. In Sigma 2 you don’t have to fight with these issues any more (or as much), and thus the combat system is able to shine through.

For those who have never played Ninja Gaiden, it is a third-person action/adventure game in the same family as Devil May Cry, God of War, Heavenly Sword and the like. In a nutshell, you play as ninja assassin badass Ryu Hayabusa and hack up nasty demons and all-powerful boss fiends with a vast arsenal of swords, clubs, claws, hammers, scythes, bows, Ninpo spells and more. From time to time you must also perform various acrobatic feats, such as wall-hopping and running on water, but combat is really the focus here. And the combat is absolutely divine, striking a razor-sharp balance between visceral attack mechanics, flashy (and quite vicious) finishing moves, and deft, skill-based blocking and evasion techniques. Every enemy you encounter is a potentially deadly foe demanding focus and sound strategy to defeat, while the larger-than-life bosses require you to patiently observe their attack patterns and wait for the most opportune moment to sneak in an attack. If you think you will be able to button mash your way through this game your are sadly mistaken.

Strangely, though, a lot of the gore has been toned down in Sigma 2, and that’s one area the Xbox 360 game tops the PS3 version. For some reason Team Ninja thought it necessary to replace most of the realistic red blood spatters with purple or green mist, and all of the dismemberment effects, including those from the Obliteration finishing move techniques, have been completely removed, leaving me to question why the game is still M-rated. I must admit, this sanitization does cause the game to lose some of its blood-thirsty satisfaction, though this is hardly a game-killing drawback.

Getting past the gimped gore system, Sigma 2 outpaces its predecessor in other more important areas. In addition to Ryu, the ninja hottie threesome of Ayane, Momiji and Rachel have been introduced as new playable characters, each with their own unique weapon sets, play styles and missions within the campaign. These three femme fatales offer a nice change of pace from Ryu’s more acrobatic levels, and their levels fit into the flow of the story in a natural way.

These new heroines also join Ryu as playable characters in the exclusive Team Mission mode. Team Mission mode pairs you and another fighter – you can join another player online or play offline by yourself with an AI helper – in arena-style survival missions in which you and your partner help each other fend off waves of enemies while also competing to earn the most Karma Points. During my time with the game, online performance was fairly inconsistent – one match would run perfectly smooth, then the next would sputter along with persistent lag – but when the servers complied I probably had even more fun playing these mini-missions than tackling the solid, 12-hour story mode. Surprisingly, playing offline is great too. The partner AI is actually pretty good at pitching in with kills and, more importantly, staying out of your way so you can do your thing without distraction.

Between the new playable characters, the new Team Mission mode, and the more finely balanced gameplay and difficulty settings, Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2 is, to my tastes, far superior to the Xbox 360 version in virtually every way, and is right there neck and neck with Heavenly Sword as the best of its kind on the PS3 (at least until God of War III comes along). It may not be as bloody or unforgiving (to the dismay of Ninja Gaiden purists, I’m sure), but it sure does play a hell of a lot better, and that’s what matters most.

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Pros:
+ Combat is quick, brutal and satisfying
+ Balanced difficulty eliminates cheap deaths and frustration
+ New playable characters fit in well and are fun to play
+ Team Mission mode is great fun, online or off

Cons:
– Camera can still be a pain in the ass
– Noticeably sanitized gore system
– Online co-op performance can be shaky
– Too many recycled boss battles!

Game Info:
Platform: PS3
Publisher: Tecmo
Developer: Team Ninja
Release Date: 9/29/09
Genre: Action/Adventure
ESRB Rating: Mature
Players: 1-2
Source: Review copy provided by publisher

About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!