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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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