Review: Ninja Gaiden - Xbox

Yes it's amazing. Yes it's hard, but not for all the right reasons.

By now you've probably been seduced by the hype of Ninja Gaiden's release. The much-anticipated and much-delayed release is finally hacking away at our gaming abilities. Many of you have heard or know that the game is incredibly hard...but is it really?

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Ryu Hayabusa is pretty ticked off. His village has been burned to a crisp and the creature responsible, Doku, is on the move. Ryu, armed with the legendary Dragon Sword is on his way to have some words with Doku and to also get to the Dragon Sword's sister sword before Doku. There are twists, especially near the end of the game, but the story isn't really that compelling.

NG is a game built by the guys who did the Dead or Alive fighting series, and it shows in the depth of Ryu's moves and combos. You can run and jump off walls (like Prince of Persia), swing on posts, jump off an enemy's head while coming back to hit him up in the air with a sword then performing a spinning pile driver move. That's a small sample of what you can do. Like the Ninja Gaiden's of the eight-bit days, you also have projectiles (like shurikens and several types of arrows) and Ninpo (magic like fireballs and harnessed energy). All of these can be used in conjunction with basic moves to perform an incredible combo upwards of 300-400 hits if you are good at linking them. More than likely, your highest combos will be with the nunchucks or the nunchuck-like Vigoorian Flail.

I remember dreaming of a game like this. I remember playing Soul Calibur 2 as Mitsurugi thinking, "man I wish I could have this flexibility in a 3-D action game." Many times while playing Ninja Gaiden I've felt like my dream had come true.

But, to answer my cheap teaser at the beginning, yeah, it's hard. And it's extremely frustrating for other reasons besides enemy difficulty. More on that in a second.

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The artificial intelligence sets the bar high even in the first level. It doesn't start you off slow and certainly is not forgivable. If you want to sit still and just block everything, eventually the enemy will grab you from behind and take 30% of your health with a certain move. If you try to go balls out into a ream of ninjas, your lack of blocking will also be exploited, usually resulting in a quick death. You must learn quickly to always be on the move and after a missed hit, immediately dodge out of the way by pressing block and a direction with the left thumbstick. But don't sit there after fleeing, whether "puny" ninja minions or the later ghost piranhas, the enemies are relentless, attacking until you or they are a dead and bloody mess.

What's particularly striking once you get the hang of it, is how well the game's difficulty progresses. You thought the White Ninjas were tough? Wait until the Black Ninjas. Thought the Black Ninja's were tough? Wait until the Fiends...and so on. But by the time you've arrived at the next set of new enemy-types, the previous type isn't that hard anymore due to the practiced technique you've perfected and the fact that the new items and weapons you've tempered at the Blacksmith. Despite the primary level of difficulty, it does balance well; the better the enemies get, the more learned and powerful you've already become.

Once the world starts to open up chapter by chapter, it's amazing how well put together the levels are. It's one big map a la Castlevania: Lament of Innocence, but actually streamlined and logical. Although the game is still linear, you won't finish puzzles you encountered in earlier stages until much later. These types of subtleties truly add to its mastery. Plus, there are even certain types of gameplay that are new with almost every chapter. You won't learn the gamut of what Ryu can do until you're finished. In most games you've figured out your abilities by the first or second level. Ninja Gaiden is fresh all the way through.

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Combos are truly fun, but attempting them on many bosses may prove deadly. Many of the bosses have several moves that have to be blocked or avoided. If you are starting in on a combo, you are open to a devastating attack. You are left many times to short hack and slash combos between avoiding the boss's attack. Of course, the bosses range from globs of tissue to demon ninjas to a bone dragon that takes the entire screen...even in widescreen mode.

There is a hearty amount of item finding and backtracking to do. A lot of the item elements play out like Eternal Darkness mixed with the platforming elements of Prince of Persia. Fortunately, the backtracking never gets old due to the cleverness of hidden items and the overall detail of the level design.

Oh wait, I also said the game was frustrating. A hard game is fine. A frustrating game makes you mad because your peril is not your fault. And what do we usually blame in third-person action games if you die for reasons not of your own doing? Say it with me kids: "The camera."

I am unhappy to report that the camera hinders this almost-perfect action game. Countless times you will get enemies blocking the view of yourself. Countless times you will turn a corner and be hit by projectiles before you even knew there were enemies there. You could press the R trigger to set the camera behind you in tight corners, but it never works the way it needs to in those critical times. There are spots of platforming that the camera doesn't help you out in the least. Team Ninja (the developer) should've employed the Prince of Persia option to see an entire room at a time.

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It gets the most frustrating in some boss battles, where you will die 80% of the time because of an uncooperative camera either hiding projectile-throwing enemies off screen or giving you a completely unworkable angle. There are some games that will make you break your controller. This might actually make you break your television.

The save points in the game are just right...until the final few chapters. Not only do you have to fight several brutal bosses in a row, but the save points become sparse. At this point you can easily say the game is unforgivable to a fault. Sure, you may be able to backtrack to a save point, but random enemies will pop up along the way to discourage you from doing so.

The graphics are stunning. The character models are clean and detailed. The environments are equally awe-inspiring and everything runs at a smooth 60 frames per second. There is never a hitch. The bosses are incredibly creative and versatile from chapter to chapter. There is so much going on with the smooth animations and fast-paced battles that your roommates will just want to watch. What's even more is that the enemies constantly change from chapter to chapter. You will encounter countless original enemy designs right up until the final chapter. I can't remember this much variety in enemy design in any game before it.

The voice acting is pretty pitiful, both on the Japanese and English side. But, the clanging of swords and spurting of blood are fun, if not a little B-movie-ish. The music is pretty shallow, but definitely memorable with little guitar riffs and mallet instruments playing more fills than actual songs. But, there are a lot of effects and subtleties that most games care not to venture into. What's here is just right for a furious ninja outing.

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It will probably take you just over 20 hours the first time through. Well, that's what the game will record. What it won't account for is the time spent dying and retrying. So this could end up being a 30-hour action title. Some chapters take as much as two hours to complete while a couple later chapters can be run through in ten to fifteen minutes. And with Ninja Gaiden I, II and III to unlock, among other incentives, I'm sure you'll be playing beyond that.

For the most part, Ninja Gaiden is a phenomenal achievement. It's just a weird juxtaposition of action mastery and unruly camera (not to mention dated swimming mechanics). Few games bring about this much addiction. Team Ninja better be working on a sequel...maybe with a training mode and finer tuned camera perhaps?

It's fascinating to me that Ninja Gaiden has already dethroned an incredible game like Prince of Persia in my mind. Without the camera issues, it could've been a runaway game of the year nominee on many lists. Still, there are moments where I had to pause the game simply because I was in awe of how incredible this game truly is most of the time. Regardless, Ninja Gaiden is the definitive example of a fully realized third-person action game.

Graphics: A
Sound: A-
First Play: A
Last Play: A-
Gameplay: B+

Overall: 93% A

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