Ninja Gaiden II

Meant to be the ultimate action game in 2004, Ninja Gaiden was a violent graphics powerhouse that pushed gamers and the original Xbox to their limits. Revised twice, the title was still on store shelves last year as the PlayStation3 exclusive Ninja Gaiden Sigma. While Ninja Gaiden II is a proper sequel, it looks and feels far too much like that PS3 remake of a 4-year-old game. Once cutting-edge, the series now projects smug satisfaction.

The story, which pits leather-clad warrior Ryu Hayabusa against werewolves, demons, and impossibly large breasts, is a forgettable, absurd excuse for violence. Equally ridiculous but far more enjoyable is the fluid combat. Ryu casually severs limbs, leaving crawling amputees desperate to dish out some final harm. He explosively scythes through overconfident bosses and smashes scorpions magically assembled from a mountain of bones.

The surrounding game is comparatively dull. Developer Team Ninja nods to modern gaming with streaming maps, health regeneration, and instant save points, but also relies upon levels built as relentlessly linear series of sterile corridors and invisible barriers. Ryu and his enemies are more convincingly realized than the world around them, like a master thespian troupe dropped into a school play.

Worse, the game camera (a source of complaint since '04) still insists upon looking at Ryu rather than his opponents, and the difficultly, which still leans toward monumental, veers erratically throughout. Massive bosses fall easily to undisciplined button-mashing, while a group of no-name beasties will take a dozen attempts to conquer.

Beyond the game: Locked in an informal technical feud with the similar Devil May Cry and God Of War series, the exacting Ninja Gaiden demanded—and rewarded—memorization of deep attack techniques. This time, you'll get by with more luck than skill.

Worth playing for: An astonishing suite of brutal combat animations that tops everything in action gaming. The variety of unique combos and finishing moves for each weapon is matched only by the gore they unleash.†

Frustration sets in when: The impetuous point of view and cheap unblockable attacks combine to undermine your skills, no matter how finely honed.

Final judgment: The combat is too beautiful not to appreciate, but players will find the camera a far tougher opponent than Ryu's enemies. The rush is diminished.