Technically, this is a port of Sigma 2, released for the PS3 in 2009. The main story mode is fundamentally the same, but graphics have improved for the Vita screen, touch controls have been added for projectile weapons like the bow, and 2 new modes, Ninja Race and Tag Mission, are introduced. I’ll have more on these details later.
First, let’s discuss the story. The main story mode is exactly the same as Sigma 2, following in the footsteps of previous Ninja Gaiden games. Honestly, as someone who had never played through a Ninja Gaiden entry before this game, I couldn’t keep track of the story, and I was more concerned about getting back in the game to slice up enemies. Veterans to the series may care more about plotlines, but might skip through if they have played Sigma 2. The basic structure is this: a villain steals a treasure, threatens to harm someone close to Ryu, and Ryu must defeat the villain, recover the treasure, and rescue his loved one. There is also an animated prologue that tells events and characters leading up to what you will experience playing through the game. There are no playable sections in the prologue, just cutscenes in the style of a comic book with voice acting. I thought the voice acting was well done, and the length was just right at around 8 minutes.
Now, the most important element in a game: gameplay. Cutscenes in the main story look absolutely stunning on the Vita. Yet, the stage environments can feel stale after a while. There isn’t much movement in the background, except for occasional faraway enemies. The controls are fairly simple: square for weak attacks, triangle for strong attacks, circle for weak projectile attacks, x to jump, Left Shoulder to block, Right Shoulder to center the camera or point the way forward; the D-Pad to cycle through items, weapons, and Ninpo spells; the left stick to move, and the right stick to move the camera. Advanced techniques can be obtained from treasure chests or from dead bodies. The most useful ones would have to be dodging, powerful attacks, and running on walls.
Speaking of the camera, it has always been an issue in the Ninja Gaiden franchise, at least in the modern 3D games. Unfortunately, it is still a problem here. When you run, the camera is always far behind Ryu. Sometimes, during fights in closed spaces, or close to a wall, the camera will zoom in too close to Ryu, and occasionally get stuck behind a pole or another object, so that you don’t see other enemies rushing towards you. There have also been some known framerate issues reportedly due to the camera; I didn’t experience framerate troubles, but Tecmo Koei gave the fix of turning the rotate speeds as fast as they will go in the Options menu. Going back to the stage environments, I ran into several invisible walls; it’s mildly annoying, but it didn’t severely ruin my time with the game.
The structure of levels can feel repetitive: defeat a group of enemies, move on to the next area, defeat another group, and keep going until the boss. The game mixes it up in one chapter where you control a female character with different sets of moves. I think there are other characters you can play as, but I only encountered one in the time I spent on the game.
The difficulty is extremely tough, no matter which difficulty option you choose. Yet, difficulty is what Ninja Gaiden is known for. Enemy AI is also tough; many enemies will bombard you with attack flurries, and will dodge your attacks. Bosses will either massacre you several times, or be pushovers. One boss took me at least 20-30 tries to beat, while the next boss went down with only projectiles on one attempt. Let’s talk about the bosses for a little bit. Each one is larger than life, and requires different strategies to defeat. These moments are easily the highlights and the lowlights for me, depending on how well I am performing.
The brand new modes in the Vita version are Ninja Race and Tag Mission. In Ninja Race, you race to defeat the enemies in each area, and rush to the end before time runs out. In Tag Mission, a computer-controlled ninja fights waves of enemies with you. You can switch between characters at any time. Unfortunately, there is no local or online co-op available in this mode. Tecmo Koei could have added a lot more fun and value by letting you play with a friend, or even allowing co-op in the normal story mode.
Some other points to mention: there are shops you can visit where you can either buy powerups with yellow “Essence” orbs you collect from enemies, or upgrade your weapons. Some sections require precise jumps and wall runs. If you miss a jump and fall, you have to make your way back up and try again. This is another source of frustration in a difficult game. Blood and sliced body parts can be turned on or off. Subtitles are available for cutscenes. Only the English voiceover is available; hardcore fans might be disappointed with the lack of Japanese voices. There is plenty of gameplay value; it took me close to 10 hours to reach Chapter 6, and there are 17 total chapters! At that pace, finishing the game would take under 30 hours to accomplish, but your experience will vary.
Overall, if you are a loyal Ninja Gaiden fan, and want a good action experience on the Vita, this may be a worthwhile purchase. If you’ve played Sigma 2, there aren’t enough new features to justify spending $40 on the same game.