Years ago, a cover blurb in the kung-fu section of my neighborhood video rental shop caught my eye. The movie, Shaolin vs. Ninja (otherwise known as Heroes of the East), promised more weapons than in any other martial arts film. And while Bruce Lee and a single pair of nunchaku go a long way, there's nothing quite like an explosive exhibition of technique featuring swords, spears, staffs, sais, sickles, and stars.
Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2 Plus could have gotten by with a sword and a projectile attack. Really, that's all you need to complete the game. Protagonist Ryu Hayabusa's famed Dragon Sword is upgradable and enables some truly impressive techniques (the move list is about three dozen entries long just for Ryu with the Sword). It's definitely not a case of "here's your puny starting weapon, which you should replace as soon as possible." Ryu with a sword can easily put away all but the top tier of video game titans.
Why just be great when you can be a legend?
But why just be great when you can be a legend? Throughout the course of Sigma 2 Plus you will acquire and upgrade an arsenal of both bladed and high-impact weaponry that almost gives Heroes of the East a run for its money. But it's Ryu's ability with all that deadly hardware that makes this a Ninja Gaiden game. It's true that some weapons work better against certain enemies, but the gameplay is never hampered by that fact, and you are free to explore the intricacies of each weapon to your heart's content.
The story mode gives you seventeen chapters to become familiar with the mechanics (if you are one of those unfortunate gamers who have never played a Ninja Gaiden game before). You play as Ryu for all but a few of those - three female warriors are also playable and are assigned one chapter each. I checked every corner of the map for boosts and health items and took about seventeen hours to see the end of the story. Less-patient gamers may beat it in much less time if they're good, but the risk is in overlooking an item that would save you from a lot of wasted time dying and restarting.
Ryu's built-in ninja sense tells him which way to progress, but it's usually a good idea to use it to figure out where the path forward is in order to avoid it until you've checked every other place.
The action spans the globe and even goes off the map with a section set in the underworld. There are plenty of oversize bosses, with some coming back for seconds, but the rank-and-file soldiers and demons are generally tougher due to their numbers and unpredictability. These are enemies that will keep coming after you even after being separated from their arms or legs, inching forward with a single-minded obsession: to see you dead. Depending on the situation, an enemy may die with just one blow (decapitation) or may take many hits. Some switch from ranged attack to melee. And they come from everywhere.
Unlocking weapons, upgrades, and spirit attacks in story mode will make them available to you in Sigma 2 Plus's other playable modes: tag missions, chapter runs, and Ninja Race. Unfortunately, there is no multiplayer option in this port for the tag missions. You just set up a couple of characters and you and the A.I. go to work. The missions are easy initially and go up through Master Ninja level. Earning "karma" in the non-story modes encourages the more competitive among us to repeat chapters and scenarios for bragging rights, adding even more of an arcade feel to the Ninja Gaiden package.
Technical limitations do drag down the stellar gameplay in a couple of areas. First off, you are always battling the camera. It simply isn't very smart, even when you're just walking Ryu down a corridor. I can understand it lacking some sense when faced with a string of fast flipping leaps and dashes, but it pretty much fails on a consistent basis. Framerate dips considerably from time to time, though this is ameliorated by changing the first- and third-person camera speeds to the fastest settings in the options menu. There are also points where the game's anti-aliasing drops, but these don't impact the gameplay and are very brief.
The only real downside for me - as someone that doesn't get hung up on technical issues as long as the game is fun - is the thrill level. Controlling Ryu and seeing his different movesets is exhilirating, but the action takes place in bursts to such an extent that the game doesn't feel quite right. My review of the original Ninja Gaiden Sigma Plus for the Vita touched on what I'm missing with the sequel. In the previous installment, there were sections where the game leaned very heavily on you. Consequently, the post-battle rush was magnified. The difficulty seemed a little tough, but it made victory all the sweeter. There's some of that here, but not quite enough.
It is also to the game's detriment that the bosses are so simple and repetitive. You fight some of them multiple times and none of them has any kind of complicated pattern to figure out. Hence, Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2 Plus is a tremendous hack-and-slash experience but could use a little more strategy in its combat, particularly in boss encounters. Once you get the hang of continual defense, counters, and ultimate techniques, new enemies don't seem all that scary.
In the end, though, this is yet another Tecmo Koei Vita title that was a joy to play and comes with abundant replay value. The Ninja Gaiden and Dynasty Warriors Next games are centerpieces of my Vita library, and I will be playing Sigma 2 Plus a lot in the future, mastering combos and enjoying the spectacular detail. I'd still lean toward the original if you only own one on the Vita, especially if you like a game that's unapologetic about trying to destroy you, but this one is definitely worth your time and money too.