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by MARTY DEMAREST & r & & r & Ninja Gaiden II & r & Rated Mature; 360 & r & 2 Stars & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & N & lt;/span & injas are tricky to see. Those sly, black-suited masters of stealth are experts at attacking when I'm not looking. The rapid pad of footsteps or the whistle of flying shuriken are usually the only warnings I get before the ninjas' blades slice through the air somewhere nearby, leaving golden arcs lingering in space behind them. Meanwhile, I'm distracted by objects like the pink-glowing flowers that dangle down from the cherry trees, or the wood-textured doorframes that routinely block my view.

Between my character, Ryu Hayabusa, and me, there consistently come endless obstructions. Ninja Gaiden II tends to keep me separated from Ryu by a good half-dozen paces. This distance between my viewpoint and his blades is designed to accommodate the game's multi-character melees, but it usually ends up obscuring my line of sight. As the camera swirls through the game's cramped levels, it glides into trees, posts, walls and stone lanterns. Ryu leaps and twirls in rhythm with my furious button-pressing, his black-suited, sinewy form merging with the game's frequent nighttime lighting until nothing is visible except a mess of blurry sword slashes and bright gold sparks.

It's hard to distinguish what's what in Ninja Gaiden II, or which way is up, or even which ninja is my ninja. Most third-person perspective games keep the main character in the middle of the screen, putting them in an easily identifiable position so that, no matter which way they're facing or what action they're undertaking, it's possible to locate them. Ryu, however, is allowed to leap up, down, around and even off the screen, with the camera catching up with him only when it feels like it. Frantic action is a hallmark of the Ninja Gaiden series, but Ninja Gaiden II sets a new standard for incoherent camera movement.

THE GOOD: When Ninja Gaiden II's bazillion frames of animation per second aren't being slowed to a herky-jerky crawl due to a single long-distance sniper, the animation is as slick as Ryu's skintight suit. Not only does Ryu go through every degree of every spin and flip he executes, but his foes also exhibit a full range of motion. Even more impressively, when Ryu's enemies -- who range from ninjas to werewolves to demons -- have been lopped down to a single leg and arm, they nevertheless drag themselves across the ground to continue their attacks. Sure, it's absurd that they inflict a sword's-worth of damage with their bloody stumps, but it's a welcome touch of well-rendered weird in an often too-bland game.

THE BAD: Ninja Gaiden II's flawed cinematic style is accompanied by equally sloppy sound design and editing. Though there are no amateur-hour horrors -- "start" and "stop" clicks, hisses and pops for the individual sounds -- the effects are implemented throughout the game with little flair. Different enemies who look like they weigh in at opposite ends of the scale still tread across the floor with the same sounds attached to their feet. And when Ryu moves from wood to stone to dirt, the sound of his footsteps registers barely any discernable change of aural texture.

THE BOTTOM LINE: What should be an important entry in a long-running series ends up being this console generation's next evolution in generic action.

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