Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Ninja Gaiden Sigma - Thoughts

I finished going through Sigma for the first time, making it my sixth run through of the "original" Ninja Gaiden campaign (2x NG, 3x NGB, 1x Sigma). Besides wishing that harder difficulties were unlocked at the outset, I stand in complete reverence to the game mechanics each and every time I pick up the controller. At the core of the beast is the smooth-as-butter gameplay, where Ryu runs, rolls and slices the moment the player hits a particular button; while such a thing is easily noticeable in any action game, this is punctuated here due to the crisp speed of the animation. Needing to dodge or execute an attack at a moment's notice makes the player feel like they’re in absolute control of Ryu, not just conscious of where the block & heavy attack buttons are like various middling action games. This is complemented well since the enemies are fast, smart and aggressive, pinning the player to a wall with a spry lunge or popping up behind them for a not-so-friendly grab. Running a rigmarole of split-second calculations—like figuring out which combos you can execute on a nearby fiend in order to quickly nab a blue essence for a landing UT against an incoming Arioch—is what Ninja Gaiden truly excels at.

The high difficulty is another reason I enjoy delving into the shoes of Ryu Hyabusa, as it makes few attempts to coddle the inexperienced (even Ninja Dog mode still demands the understanding of core mechanics). The game doesn't just let you inhabit an avatar of great strength—it demands you make Ryu into the chill, dominant character he resembles in the cutscenes. It also plummets you headfirst into the action and refuses to let up, hitting hard with Murai, Masakado and the black spider ninjas. The inclusion of dozens of healing items sprinkled throughout the chapters does make the affair pretty manageable (if you can set aside frugal inclinations), but the fights themselves continue to have bite even on the sixth go for me. This is thanks to a large enemy variety, although how fun some of them are to fight may differ largely from person to person... like the Ghost Fish.

On this playthrough I tried to spice it up a bit by only giving myself the Dragon Sword for specific boss fights, opting to use the other weapons in Ryu's arsenal once I obtained them. Realizing the strengths and weaknesses of each weapon slowly over the course of the journey was personally fascinating and rarely frustrating; I felt like I had a wider array of ways to handle the encounters in each chapter (though the Dragon Sword still remains most versatile). It felt fantastic to get decent with the flails—a weapon I previously saved solely for the fishy aberrations—and learn how flexible the Dragon's Claw and Tiger Fang blades are, minus their achilles heel of a slow startup. Perhaps the greatest accomplishment is when a moveset becomes embedded into your memory and can be used precisely when you want to; the fluidity of executing a perfect series of strikes as you nimbly block between flanking attacks is oh-so-satisfying.

Beyond the traditional gameplay I've grown accustomed to over the years, Sigma reintroduced me again to Rachel—or rather, her gameplay segments. They are, to put it bluntly, pretty terrible. I partly say this because I'm inexperienced to her playstyle and begrudgingly tolerate the War Hammer (my least favorite unique weapon in the game), but also because she doesn't move nearly as smooth as Ryu. While I understand the thematic reasons behind making her so specialized, forcing the player to jump from Ryu's story over to her forgettable segments broke up the overall pacing and felt needless. Making her sections optional, or side-missions, or at least selectable from the main menu would've helped, as I now dread a playthrough on Hard or Very Hard using her. I didn't ask for this, and I'm unsure who did.

The other changes from Black to Sigma are... interesting. The canals have been replaced with straighter, more streamlined tunnels, along with an obnoxious mermaid-like enemy that's difficult to confront as they dangle above water. Due to the forced fight with them in combination with the flying drones, this makes the entire area just about as boring as it would be in vanilla. Ore is no longer required to be collected for making the metal plate in the ice and lava caverns, and the fire worm section has been completely replaced by a sole fire worm battle (which has multiple of them hunting you with only one health bar requiring depletion). The most fascinating change to me is the deletion of the claustrophobic parasite-ridden temple with a trio of Knightmares, which are still the hardest enemy in the entire game for me (and therefore quite unfitting for a Normal playthrough). The other minor changes are enemy arrangements and chest goodies, which aren't really worth mentioning (although the penultimate chapter's tower only contains bulky enemies on each floor, which is somewhat dull to churn through). Music itself has taken some overhaul, with boss themes being changed out, including Alma's which seems like an odd decision. Most of these may seem like knee-jerk reactions from someone very accustomed to the original Xbox editions, and I must confess that I have no real defense against this particular criticism.

Besides those, it was a pleasant and entertaining experience overall. I think I still prefer Black upon review if only for the absence of the Rachel segments, but both games are nonetheless fiercely sublime (plus Sigma gets DC&TF which is a joy to mess around with). Looking back on this iteration fills my heart with a gentle warmth, partly because I know the days of Team Ninja's unparalleled workmanship are now behind us.


Images obtained from: thescrubdaily, cheatcc, ninjagaiden.wikia

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