[22 October 2009]
This review contains mild story-related spoilers.
There’s a moment toward the end of Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2 in which Sonia, the in-over-her-head stereotypical female who constantly insists on tagging along and being captured by baddies (a completely unnecessary subplot to an appropriately epic primary narrative) can’t help herself anymore and leaps into a hug with her (and our) hero, Ryu Hayabusa. Ryu is taken aback by this sudden infringement into the personal space that he spends an awful lot of time protecting with all manner of sharp objects, and he spends a startled moment before he slowly, half-heartedly returns the gesture—only because it would be rude not to, from the look of it. Ryu spends so much time doing what he does only because he must that an emotional overture from his incapable (and largely unwanted) companion feels completely foreign until he realizes that at that moment, it is his duty to reciprocate if only so as to not send Sonia into emotional meltdown.
This moment, a brief aside as the endgame approaches, points out via contrast just how much of Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2 Ryu spends acting only out of a sense of duty. The world—nay, the universe—is threatened by the return of the four Greater Fiends and the impending rebirth of the Archfiend. It is the dragon ninja’s duty to protect the general populace from these fiends, and Ryu’s father, Joe Hayabusa, slowed by age and injury, is no longer up to the challenge. As such, Ryu’s task is a necessary but joyless one. He must constantly throw himself into situations rife with immense danger only because nobody else will or because nobody else is going to save civilization as we know it. He doesn’t grumble, he doesn’t whine about his lot in life, he just does it.
One of the goals for a developer when producing a game like Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2 is the ever-elusive sense of immersion; if the player can identify with his avatar, if the line between the player’s thoughts and the avatar’s thoughts begins to blur, it’s typically considered a win for the game design. Yet, in the case of Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2, it’s that very experience that works against the game.
The current generation of Ninja Gaiden games has such a reputation for being games that take so much skill, practice, and good old-fashioned tenacity to master that they are slowly becoming exercises in action-reaction. Rather than being sucked in by the narrative or thrilled by the awesome feats of ninja skill that can be pulled off through a few well-timed button presses or even awed by the tremendous and powerful enemies that would like nothing more than to crush Ryu, the player spends much of his time waiting; the player waits for his enemy to do something, and when that “something” happens, the player executes the perfect counter-move. The more difficult levels of Ninja Gaiden are extended mathematical equations at least as much as they are epic battles. The player completes these battles through a series of determinations of what he has to do to not get killed; to run in and start flailing about is an exercise in futility while a careful, measured, aware approach will win every time. The player, as Ryu, does what he must.
Further emphasizing the clinical nature of the game are Team Ninja’s attempts to combat it. Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2 is a “remix” of the Xbox 360’s Ninja Gaiden II, and it differs from its predecessor in a number of significant and not-so-significant ways. For one, it adds a couple of humongous boss fights that go so far beyond the visual scope of the rest of the enemies in the game as to make everything else feel almost rote. Granted, the battles with these giant baddies are nothing special, subscribing mainly to the “hack at the hands, make the boss fall down, and then hack at the face” school of giant boss fights, but the almost panicky style of combat inspired by such a battle lies in direct contrast to the calculated nature of everything else. Allowing the player to play what basically amount to side missions as some of the female characters in the Ninja Gaiden universe feels like a mere game-lengthening tactic. Removing much of the blood from the game also removes much of the tangible thrill, as it were, of disemboweling a particularly troublesome enemy.
And, of course, there’s the pandering and embarrassing “boob jiggle” mechanic, exclusive to Sigma 2, which allows the player to shake the PlayStation 3 controller to make the female characters’ impossibly disproportionate breasts bounce (er, bounce more) during otherwise unplayable cinema sequences.
Aside from perhaps the removal of the blood, these are all attempts to make the game flashier, attempts to make it feel less like a long, drawn out series of equations. The problem, of course, is that their presence, much like the incident in the first paragraph of this writeup, only serves to enhance the feeling that Ninja Gaiden is mostly a game of duty. This isn’t an overhaul of the original game, it is a series of ill-advised cherries on top.
Despite the sense of duty that drives it, and despite a marked lack of “fun” through much of it, Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2 is still a game to be admired. Despite the celebrated and feared difficulty of the game, it does a fantastic job of welcoming newcomers to the easy difficulty levels and gradually forcing them to improve their skills to the point that they’ll be ready for the harder difficulties by the time that they beat the game on the easiest setting. There’s also an addictive quality to pushing Ryu to defeat as many baddies as possible without getting hit given the highly strategic approach you have to take to do so; if at first you don’t succeed, try something else. Furthering the addiction are the highly difficult trophies, which force you to play the ten-hour adventure front to back no less than seven times, forcing the use of many different weapons and characters for extended periods of time for those looking to score the elusive platinum. In a move that bodes well for the future of the series, Team Ninja even added a cooperative mission mode that is playable via the PlayStation Network.
So it is, for all its faults, a good game, but it would be hard to fault a PS3 owner for feeling a little shafted. Not only does the PS3 get the same adventure as the Xbox 360 version, but it would be easy to argue that it gets an inferior version of said adventure. All the new features in the world won’t fix that.