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Ninja Gaiden II's new combat system allows Ryu to decapitate his enemies, severing their limbs and tearing their bodies apart. Unlike Ninja Gaiden, there is more gore and graphic violence. Dismemberment will handicap or immobilize an enemy, but not necessarily kill him; in fact, a handicapped enemy will be prone to use suicide tactics, forcing you to quickly finish off the opponent before he can get the upper hand.

Aside from his standard melee techniques, Ryu can absorb nearby 'essences' in combat. These colored globes of energy are released from the bodies of enemies, and absorbed into Ryu's body when he comes into proximity with them. Essences have an important role general gameplay, acting to heal Ryu, restore his magic, or increase his cash. However, in combat the player can cause Ryu to deliberately draw in essences, which can then be used to unleash powerful attacks known as Ultimate Techniques. New Obliteration Techniques can be triggered in the presence of a handicapped enemy, but only if they are missing a limb.

Ryu will utilize his signature Dragon Sword in combat, but new weapons, such as the Eclipse Scythe, Blade Tonfas, kusari-gama and the Falcon's Talons (a pair of sharp claws and bladed greaves) will allow the player more variety in enemy encounters. Ryu's new magical spells, in the form of ninpos, includes the Art of Phoenix Flames and the Art of Piercing Void. However, previous weapons and ninpo from Ninja Gaiden will return, in the form of the Lunar staff, the Vigoorian Flails and the Windmill Shuriken.