Mark these words down, because you’re going to most likely read them again in nine months: Ninja Gaiden is easily one of the best games of the year, if not the Xbox title of the year. Yes, I know that I’ve probably just pissed off the Splinter Cell purists, and I know that Pandora Tomorrow is still a ways off, but Ryu Hayabusa and his long awaited return has seriously staked a claim for Sam Fisher’s coveted awards. And it’s not without justification either; this is one of the trickiest, most beautifully crafted and slickest games to have graced a console in a long time, and it’s worth every second you’ll dedicate to it.
While this is the first game in almost a decade for the Ninja Gaiden series, players don’t have to be intimately familiar with Ryu’s previous adventures to understand what’s going on. The basic gist of the story begins with an impressive CG movie telling the story of the Dark Dragon Blade and its counterpart, the Dragon sword. Both weapons are guarded by the Hayabusa clan, descendents of powerful warriors who defeated evil centuries before. One day, the Dark Dragon Blade is stolen while Ryu is training, with the thieves burning his village down to the ground. With the fires of his home smoldering in his eyes and revenge on his mind, Ryu takes up the Dragon sword and swears to regain his property and mete out justice.
If you’re going to call yourself a ninja, you’d better have the skills to back it up. Well, Ryu brings plenty of superhuman talents to the gaming table, the first of which has to be his incredible agility. Ryu can perform huge vertical or horizontal leaps, often resulting in gymnastic tumbles and rolls in midair. He can also bounce solidly off walls to launch himself up sheer surfaces or openings, and in certain instances, he can also run along vertical surfaces just as if they were flat areas of land. There are also moments where sheer strength comes in handy, such as swinging from poles or shimmying along ledges to hidden platforms or areas. These talents are immediately available to players as they start the game, and are the first skills that are built upon as levels progress and enemies are encountered.
Now, when you think of ninjas, you typically think of shadowy assassins skulking around in the shadows killing their intended target. Well, Ninja Gaiden will totally make you forget about the rogues from Tenchu, as Ryu’s style is a much more direct, slice and dice approach to your opponents. In fact, the speed with which you’ll flit from foe to foe, slicing enemies in half or decapitating thugs is nothing short of astounding. The amount of carnage inflicted on these monsters is merely defined by the weapon that Ryu has equipped at the time, which isn’t necessarily limited to his Dragon Sword or unlimited shuriken. Later on in the game, players will be able to acquire additional swords, nunchuks and hammers, amongst other projectile weaponry.
Each weapon bestows different attack combinations and skills upon Ryu, so a midair combo using the Dragon Sword (such as the Helmet Splitter) will be completely different than a similar strike from the Vigoorian Flail (such as the Red Hot Iron Brand). Some of these combos are incredibly powerful – it’s not uncommon to wade through scores of harder opponents later in the game and fire off a 50 or 100 hit combo. What’s more, each melee weapon can be upgraded a number of levels by shopkeepers, unlocking new skills and abilities to unleash upon enemies. Shopkeepers are paid off in essence (or the souls of your vanquished opponents). Creatively, essence can also be used in combat to trigger more powerful strikes with Ryu’s primary weapon, spawning combos which can generate larger amounts of essence ad infinitum. This lends a level of strategy to collecting the souls of the dead. This form of payment can also be used to acquire restorative health items or even ninja magic. While not strong enough to destroy a boss during a major fight, the elemental ninja magic can be wielded to clear an area crawling with numerous opponents.
On paper, the sheer number of moves and abilities available to Ryu may seem somewhat confusing and potentially daunting. However, Gaiden does an incredible job of parceling out new moves by incremental costs at shops, allowing players a chance to incorporate and hone their pre-existing abilities. Bottom line: by the time you’ve augmented a weapon, you’ve become such a master at the other moves that you’re now simply fitting new tricks into your arsenal. Even better, the control system for Ryu is one of the most intuitive systems ever implemented, meaning that just about anyone could slap Gaiden into their Xbox and become a Ninja Master within 30 minutes. However, within that 30 minutes, you probably would’ve gotten involved within the action and storyline so much that you wouldn’t even notice it’d passed.
Don’t expect that this is just another hack and slasher, either. Inevitably you’ll face a certain degree of puzzle solving, item fetching and other typical elements of adventure games to be found within Gaiden (backtracking, anyone?) However, quite a bit of this winds up floating in the back of your mind as you try to get Ryu to unlock a new gate you’ve found or as he’s being attacked by 6 warriors at the same time. (Don’t rest on your laurels either; as you get farther into the game, it keeps pumping out newer and much harder enemies that can take and dish out damage.) Interestingly enough, quite a bit of the game takes place in, around and under a massive city, whose size is deceptively hidden until you travel further throughout the game and realize just how connected each stage is to each other.
All of this is tied together within an incredibly well done yet intensely hard title. That’s right, you’re not going to blow through this title without sweating through a number of tight spots or difficult bosses. Gaiden hearkens back to the old school method of game making, where it took some time and effort to decipher and understand the precise timing necessary to beat a level. There are some sections of Gaiden that will simply beat the crap out of you again and again until you either submit in frustration or figure out what you need to do and move on. The plus about this is that once you’ve actually succeeded against those odds, you actually feel a sense of accomplishment. Casual gamers need not apply to play this game; you’ll probably splinter your controllers.
Graphically, you’re easily looking at one of the best looking titles ever made for this, or any other system to date. Huge, incredibly detailed character models that are fluidly and realistically animated, larger than life environments and incredible particle effects simply frame this beautiful product from Team Ninja. Ryu, or for any matter, ANY classic video game character has never looked so good, tough, or heroic as he does in this game, and the fiends he fights truly look otherworldly. This creates a great juxtaposition to the level environments, which are especially detailed and play their surrounding features to the nines. The more impressive facet of the backgrounds is that each area seems to be completely different from that of its predecessor, giving you a much grander sense of scale to the epic story behind the game. Then again, having a game packed with incredible CG movies doesn’t help either.
There are merely two things that I’d possibly see as a graphical issue with the game, both of which may seem minor but should be raised. First of all is the half-hearted inclusion of breakable environmental items, which almost comes across that the designers wanted to include some stuff to break to keep things interesting, but not enough destruction to make things overtly fantastical (i.e. Otogi). The second, and perhaps harder to spot problem, sometimes comes with the camera provided within the game. Personally, this is one of the better cameras to be implemented within a title in years, tracking and capturing solid angles on most of the fast paced action found within the game and Ryu. What’s more, players can re-position the camera behind Ryu’s back with the click of a button if the angle becomes obscured. What’s the problem then? There are some moments when the camera seems to automatically or purposefully imbed itself into objects, requiring fast clicking to reposition the camera. Sometimes enemies or bosses will take this quick time to launch an attack against you, gaining the upper hand. (I know, it’s a minor complaint, but it’s a facet of the view.) That aside, however, this will most likely become the game you use to convince friends to get an Xbox.
Sound is rather well delivered, with plenty of different effects scattered throughout the game. The thick sound of a weapon hitting an opponent versus missing or bouncing off armor is discernible and satisfying. Personally, I couldn’t help but smile when Ryu picked up the pair of nunchuks and started twirling them around with (seemingly) the same sound effects used in Enter The Dragon starting the immortal Bruce Lee. While music does tend to loop itself quite often, the musical score for Gaiden is very good and unique for each section of the game. This can’t be said for the English or Japanese speech of the game, both of which are decently delivered, yet somewhat lacking simply because of the lines present within the script. Most audiences will pick up on this more playing without the Japanese option turned on, but for the most part the dialogue is good.
Although Gaiden is one of the most impressive titles for the Xbox, there are a few facets of the game that could’ve been better. First of all, the shopkeepers could’ve been scattered throughout the game a bit more. Most times, access to these helpers are few and far between sections of levels, placing the acquisition and use of healing potions a premium during gameplay. This isn’t too bad during some of the earlier, smaller levels, but when things really expand, you may find yourself doing a bit of backtracking, This is especially true before massive boss battles, where untimely saves can restrict your chances of success with reduced health or magic items.
Speaking of backtracking, there is a very little information delivered in game as to your objectives from level to level. With the exception of the information darts that you might stumble upon in later levels, you have no explanation as to what you are supposed to do or need to get to continue through a level. This can be somewhat confusing since you’ll often pick up maps to describe the levels you’re on, but no understanding of what you do. In older games (such as the previous Gaiden titles) they wouldn’t provide a map, but would give you a general region or specific target to look for. It may seem like a whiny complaint, but would it be possible to get both? You could ramp up the difficulty in response for all I care, but I’d rather have a little better idea of where to go and what to do than sometimes stumbling past the same area multiple times, only to find out that I missed one little detail.
Finally, you may find yourself hard pressed to use all of the weapons found within the game. There were very long stretches where I barely used any of the projectile weapons at all (I’m talking one or two shots per multiple hours of play). Similarly, the Dragon Sword is incredibly capable of dealing most damage necessary to take out just about any opponent. With the exception of trying to trigger multiple hit combos, there’s really no reason to use the nunchucks, especially once you get the Vigoorian Flail. What’s more, it’s easier to settle into a number of effective combos or button presses that you’ll constantly use, disregarding some of the more complicated button presses with each weapon upgrade.
Complaints aside, Ninja Gaiden is a great taste of old school, hardcore gaming wrapped in a beautiful package with solid control and combat mechanics. This isn’t counting the number of secret unlockable items found within the game, the additional difficulty levels and inclusion of Xbox Live support for future downloadable content. What’s more, the inclusion of the Master Ninja Tournament will allow an even grander worldwide tournament of competition with those gamers who’ve honed their skills with Ryu’s considerable abilities. Even though details are still rough, it’s good to know that Tecmo placed so much thought into this masterpiece. If you own an Xbox, go out and slash your way through game store lines to get a copy of this game if you haven’t already. It’s well worth the price.