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`Ninja Gaiden II' takes its violence over the top — and the blood splatters more realistically

Justin Hoeger
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

Ninja Gaiden II

3 stars

PUBLISHER: Microsoft

SYSTEM: Microsoft Xbox 360

PRICE: $59.99

AGE RATING: Mature

Master ninja Ryu Hayabusa returns as the hero of "Ninja Gaiden II" when his clan's mountain village is burned (again) and bad guys make off with an ancient and powerful relic (also again).

Ryu seems to be the only ninja able to pull his own weight in the clan's stronghold, which seems to be a clearinghouse for every world-threatening artifact in the world (in the first game an evil sword was snatched). The town seems startlingly easy to overrun.

This time the villains are the Black Spider ninja clan, whose leader steals an ancient statue said to hold the power to unleash an Archfiend upon the world. Not good.

That stuff happens in the second level. The first is a nighttime jaunt through the rooftops and skyscrapers of a futuristic Tokyo; the third is a trip to a fiend-infested New York under a drenching rain. Wherever it takes the player, "Ninja Gaiden II" is a gorgeous game.

That's no surprise - four years ago, when the first "Ninja Gaiden" came out, it was probably the best-looking game on the Xbox, and it was certainly the hardest. In the sequel the impressive visuals are intact (though the graphics have the same synthetic veneer that the first game did). But the punishing difficulty has been toned down at the default setting.

In some ways this is good; "Ninja Gaiden" could be absolutely merciless at its standard setting, and even insulted the player for picking an easier one.

A lot of the difference this time is due to the new health system - as in the recent DS title "Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword, Ryu regains most of his health after each skirmish, with only the portion marked in red left un-restored without the aid of an item; he also regains health at save points. It's a new direction to take for a series that has been unabashedly hostile to casual players, and those wanting a tougher challenge should start out at the higher setting.

Difficulty issues aside, the hack-and-slash game play remains intact. Ryu is still an unstoppable warrior in the right hands, and his Dragon Sword can cut through enemies like butter - and that's not just fancy talk. Though "Ninja Gaiden II" is obviously not for kids, readers should know that the violence is considerably more graphic in this sequel than in the original.

In "Ninja Gaiden" a finishing strike would occasionally lop off a head. In "Ninja Gaiden II" Ryu doesn't mess around - his strikes take off arms, legs and heads with ease; he can even perform an instant kill on enemies missing a limb. Blunt weapons break off arms and legs and smash bad-guy heads as easily as blades cut them.

It's ludicrously over the top, like the Black Knight battle in "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," but messier and not as comical. There's so much blood and gore that it's hard to take seriously. And it may explain why Ryu wears a rubberized ninja outfit - all the mess would wipe right off.

Aside from his standard Dragon Sword, Ryu finds weapons like the weighted Lunar Staff and the deadly Falcon's Talons, a set of arm- and foot-mounted blades. Each weapon has a different set of moves attached to it, though Ryu can always execute certain moves, like counterattacks.

He also has an unlimited supply of shuriken, and later gains a powerful long-range bow. Other weapons follow; the player is never at a loss for combat options.

Ryu can employ several ninja magic techniques, called ninpo. There are four of these, starting with the Art of the Inferno. Ninpo is powerful stuff, and its use is restricted by a limited supply of essence energy.

Yes, essence is back - the multicolored energy globs rise from the bodies of the dead to heal Ryu, restore his Ninpo power or serve as currency for items and weapon upgrades, depending on the hue.

If all this sounds familiar, well, it is. "Ninja Gaiden II" is a heck of a lot like "Ninja Gaiden," just prettier and with lots of new moves and toys to play around with.

The camera is always a struggle - it hangs at too low an angle and has to be adjusted manually to get a good view of the fight, and it can get hung up behind obstacles to block the view entirely.

Even worse, Ryu is often tagged by flaming arrows fired from far off the current screen, with no way to easily retaliate without charging through to the archers. These sour notes were fairly commonplace years ago, but they shouldn't be issues in a modern big-name game.

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White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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