Talk about unfinished business... I started Ninja Gaiden Sigma over two years ago. I stopped playing it around halfway through because it was kind of frustrating. Furthermore, Mirror's Edge happened. I never got back to NGS, and actually lost my save when my PS3 hard drive died. Yet for some reason I decided to pick it up again quite recently and managed to complete it. There's not actually that much to write about NGS, especially since not-so-long ago I did a piece on Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance. That piece pretty much contains the most important things to say about the genre in general and Ninja Gaiden Sigma is no exception.
The game is notorious for its difficulty and to a large extent this is true. Unfortunately, as usual, some of the difficulty comes from bad usability. We already covered bad camera. Although the problem is not as agravating in NGS as it is in Revengeance, it still gets pretty bad. Unlike Revengeance, NGS has a 360 degree block which means even stuff that comes from outside the camera angle can be guarded against. At least mostly - there's a bunch of unblockable attacks. The fair amount of unblockable attacks is also what makes a simple guard more interesting in NGS than it is in most other games. Any extended period of guarding gets punished with damaging unblockable attacks like throws. This prevents the game from getting too static. Overall, static is definitely not a word one would use to describe NGS. Staying on the move is the best defense.
It is therefore a bit disappointing that controlling movement is effing frustrating at times. For some reason it often feels like Ryu just plain refuses to register directional inputs correctly, leading to disastrous evasive moves. The feeling of being in control of the action sometimes just is not there. Unlike Devil May Cry or Revengeance, NGS also feels more like designed in such a way that taking damage is not entirely avoidable. Because of these reasons, the game just was not as sharp as those two. It is however much sharper than God of War or Dante's Inferno. Towards the end of the game it also seemed like the enemy designs mostly competed for unfairness rather than trying to provide more interesting challenges. Nevertheless, the game's difficulty peaked around midway, precisely where I quit the last time. This is where most enemies had ranged direct-hit attacks (i.e. not avoidable projectiles).
Although sometimes I felt the player's ability to control Ryu was not what I expected, Ryu's ability to control the pace of combat was pretty much top tier. This is where the game's strength lies: there's tools for everything. Ryu's ability to stay on the offensive is superior, and is achieved through a couple of means. First of all, enemies are staggered properly which makes it possible to actually control even crowds of enemies. Second, certain moves have built-in invincibility frames which allows Ryu to do stuff even when cornered. There's a downside of course: some enemies are best defeated by spamming invincible attacks. Against most enemies, even defense can be quickly turned around into offense with well-timed counter attacks. I'm not the most skilled player so I can only imagine how effective a really good player will be with these tools. My streaks mostly ended when I got tangled up with the controls.
Another thing that is noteworthy in NGS is the usefulness of different weapons. Variations aside, there's basically four different weapons in the game, and each has a distinct use. The basic sword (or the dual katana variant) is your default weapon and it excels in mobility, allowing Ryu to quickly move from enemy to enemy no matter how scattered they are. Staff is a solid choice against groups of enemies because of its wide hit areas and excellent counter attacks. Another good crowd control tool is the heavy sword, but it really shines with its ability to stagger even some of the biggest enemies in the game. Finally there's a nunchaku type flail which is superior against massive swarms of weak enemies and generally good when being static doesn't hurt Ryu too much. All in all, different weapons don't exist just for flavor - a feat a lot of games can't boast about.
Although I felt at times that the game was difficult for the wrong reasons, most of the time it is difficult for the right reasons: everything in the game - Ryu included - hits hard and goes down fast. Even bosses have pretty short life bars, all the way to the final boss. This is something we have gone through time and again, so I won't go into any more ranting about it. In conclusion it can be said that Ninja Gaiden Sigma is mostly deserving of its reputation as a difficult game and is mostly definitely a true game of skill. It might not be my favorite because ultimately it doesn't feel as thought-through as some other titles and also because it's a bit too fast-paced for me. Regardless, although I'm not looking forward to playing it again, I might at some point play the sequel.