Expert ninja Ryu Hayabusa, the star of the Ninja Gaiden franchise, may just be Tecmo Koei’s most iconic and long-running character. Originally debuting in arcades in 1988, Ryu sliced his way onto older systems like the NES and Genesis, before receiving a 3D revival on the original Xbox, which has since had two direct sequels released on current-generation systems.
The first of those, Ninja Gaiden 2, originally made its debut on the Xbox 360 in 2008, and was followed by a 2009 PlayStation 3 port called Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2, which included numerous additions and enhancements. Now, the game has a second port of the portable variety with Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2 Plus for the Vita, and despite some issues with the graphical presentation, the core gameplay still provides a solid hack-and-slash experience.
The story has Ryu traversing numerous linear levels in an attempt to stop the evil Black Spider ninja clan from resurrecting an all-powerful demon from the underword. Numerous cutscenes detail the plot, and while they look very nice, upon playing the actual game I got the impression that they were prerendered video files taken from the higher-resolution home console versions of the title. This isn’t necessarily a complaint, but it does provide some dissonance between the look of these cutscenes and the real-time gameplay.
The game still looks good overall on the Vita’s smaller screen, with nicely designed environments and efficiently brutal combat animations for Ryu and his adversaries. And make no mistake, it’s as violent as can be. Aside from the occasional wall running and jumping, the vast majority of gameplay revolves around combat, and the overall experience is very gory, with blood and body parts flying everywhere as Ryu makes his way through each level.
Indeed, dismemberment is actually a key gameplay element, and not just a cosmetic one. The square button provides a quick but less powerful attack, while the triangle button provides a slower but more powerful attack that can even be charged up. When Ryu has sliced and diced an enemy enough for them to lose a limb, pressing the triangle button while he’s close enough to them will enable a brief cutscene showing him delivering a vicious finishing blow.
All the while, players also learn the ins and outs of the game’s combat system. Holding L will block basic enemy attacks and will also enable dodging via a dash with the left analog stick. Both are key to surviving onslaughts, as simply mashing buttons with no planning or precise timing will lead to a quick death. While this is a series notorious for its extreme difficulty, it’s nice enough to ease players into things as far as gradually bumping up the challenge goes.
Players have a good amount of choices in determining their own methods of attack. While you start out with a default sword, you’ll find more weapons along the way, including staffs, bows, and even Wolverine-esque claws. Each weapon can also be upgraded at vendors spread throughout each level, via the spending of karma, the game’s main currency that can be found on defeated enemies. Weapons can be switched by pausing the game with either the Start button or D-pad, but there are exceptions, such as the bow, which can be swapped in and out in real time via an onscreen icon that can be touched to go into an aiming mode.
Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2 Plus‘ combat works well, but those interested in the game shouldn’t expect to see much else in terms of gameplay variety. You’ll fight a lot of the same enemy types multiple times, and while you’ll keep unlocking new weapons and abilities for Ryu, the basic fighting mechanics stay the same. The game does throw some curveballs in the form of some genuinely challenging and large-scale boss battles, though, and is even gracious enough to allow players who lose one to respawn at its beginning instead of making their way to it all over again from a previous checkpoint. The basic Ninja Gaiden 2 gameplay may be showing its age compared to more recent character action games like the newest Devil May Cry and Bayonetta, but it’s still enjoyable.
Two side modes are included for those who want to get more replay value out of the game. Both allow players to choose between Ryu and three female partner ninjas, including Ayane of Dead or Alive fame.
Ninja Race is essentially a time attack mode, with players running through environments from the main campaign within a set amount of time, which can be extended by defeating enemies along the way. Then there’s the Tag Missions mode, which has the player select two characters and accomplish various mission objectives with an AI-controlled partner. Players can also swap between characters using the D-pad.
The above-mentioned side modes are generally serviceable, but do feel like a missed opportunity in terms of possible multiplayer. That’s especially true in the case of the Tag Missions mode, as it feels like a natural fit for online play.
In terms of other flaws, there are some issues with the graphics. One frequent problem I encountered regarded the finicky camera. When fighting in close corridors, it often jiggles around without warning, sometimes even blocking Ryu or the enemies from the player’s view. When the environments are more expansive, the game’s default camera position feels too far away from Ryu, considering the smaller size of the Vita’s screen. Also, the game has a strange issue where coming back to it from a pause screen causes the whole thing to look much lower in resolution for a few seconds. Finally, slowdown can occur when too many enemies are on the screen, though Tecmo Koei has noted that this can be fixed by turning up the default camera speed in the options menu.
Almost five years after its original release, Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2 Plus isn’t going to set the world of character action games on fire these days, but fans of the genre who’ve never played the original version might still want to give it a look. There are definitely solid combat and weapon systems in it, and those provide some fun, but numerous graphical problems and side modes that don’t amount to much make for a game that is merely good, but not great.
This review is based on a PS Vita copy of the game that we were provided with.