If there is such thing as a reverse system-seller – a title that falls so far short of expectations that it actually casts a cloud of doubt over an entire console – then the original Red Steel was that game. Lured in by the promise of visceral motion-controlled swordplay, early adopters instead experienced a hodgepodge of uninspired combat, ugly visuals and, most damning for Nintendo’s fledgling console, utterly broken controls. What might have been a rousing proof of concept that the Wii could offer a unique twist on the first-person shooter instead offered evidence that the system was really just an underpowered gimmick.
Now, nearly three and a half years later, Ubisoft has released less a sequel than a do-over, this time with the added precision of the Wii Motion Plus add-on. It’s little surprise that the controls have tightened accordingly. What’s more shocking is that nearly every other aspect of the game has improved as well.
Red Steel 2 ditches the shoddy realism of its predecessor in favor of a more stylized setting. Instead of taking place in modern-day Tokyo, Red Steel 2‘s locales are a mashup of Wild West ghost towns, Japanese pagodas and industrial machinery. The game’s art direction similarly veers away from the original Red Steel. Gone are the character models resembling those of the N64’s GoldenEye, replaced by cel-shaded samurai that wouldn’t look out of place in an Eastern version of Borderlands. It’s a universally positive change; instead of trying for photorealism and stumbling out of the gate due to the Wii’s lack of graphical horsepower, Red Steel 2 carves its own unique atmosphere from relatively limited means.
As dramatic an improvement as the world design is, though, it pales in comparison to the enhancements to Red Steel 2‘s combat. Once again, Ubisoft threw the original game’s stilted combat out the window in favor of something more fluid and natural. In Red Steel 2, both your sword and your arsenal of firearms are available at all times, though you’ll find different weapons more suited to different purposes. Some enemies are heavily armored, making them impervious to bullets until you land enough blows to slash off their chestguards; others pester you from a distance with machine gun fire even as you confront other melee combatants. This setup forces you to develop and execute a strategy on the fly or risk repeated failure – and there’s no Super Guide to hold your hand through this harrowing experience.
While your pistol is always just a trigger pull away, you’ll probably find yourself reaching for your katana far more often, partly for the novelty of it but mostly because it’s so much more effective against virtually all enemy types. In addition to your standard repertoire of slashes, parries and stabs, Red Steel 2 also boasts a number of purchasable combo moves and combat abilities. Some, like the Matador, let you quickly flank an enemy before they have time to react, while others, like the Cyclone, perform a 360-degree slash that is perfect for when you need to give yourself some breathing room. Not only are the sword gestures intuitive – thrust the Wii remote forward to stab, swing to slash, etc. – but the dodge button, in concert with the game’s nunchuk thumbstick, let you dash around the playing field with precision and ease.
But while you have nearly perfect control of your character in combat, the world can seem pretty constrained when your gun is holstered and your sword is sheathed. Thanks to a quest system that is almost too streamlined and a mini-map that never leaves your objective in doubt, you begin to notice what a narrow path the game puts you on even through supposedly open-world environments. The game world is broken into discrete chunks separated by largely invisible but occasionally annoying loading screens, and it reuses the same sections multiple times, meaning you’ll often get a curious case of Déjà vu without being able to remember why an area looks so familiar.
Ultimately, though Red Steel 2‘s level design may reek of compromise, its swordplay easily compensates for those shortcomings. It’s one of those rare games that gives you the tools to easily dispatch hordes of enemies with precise timing and careful strategy, but scales your opponents accordingly. Every battle has the potential to be a nail-biter, and I can’t even count the number of times when I faced down a group of rival ninjas and limped away with just a fraction of my health bar remaining. And when the combat is this good, a couple extra seconds of load times just doesn’t seem that important.
Bottom Line: Over three years after the Wii hit store shelves, Red Steel 2 finally delivers the motion-controlled swordplay we expected from the original Red Steel, and it more than makes up for any niggling flaws in the level design.
Recommendation: If you’re in the minority of Wii owners who also enjoy first-person shooters, you likely won’t do better than this for a long, long time.
Jordan Deam is just a couple hours of Red Steel 2 away from developing a mean case of katana elbow.