Developer: Team Ninja / Publisher: Tecmo Koei / Played on: PlayStation 3 & Xbox 360 / Price: $59.99 / ESRB: Mature (Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Strong Language, Suggestive Themes)
The Ninja Gaiden series was once a franchise you could rely on for a genuine challenge without simply bumping up the difficulty setting. Although the 8-bit trilogy and the rebooted series that started in 2004 are completely different kinds of games, both share the common skill demands that not every gamer can face up to. And for many of us who haven’t beaten all the Ninja Gaidens, we nonetheless respected them for being unapologetically hard. So when you have a game that is rife with compromises like Ninja Gaiden 3, the level of disappointment is only that much more magnified.
Ninja Gaiden’s main draw has always been its combat, so much so that fans of the series do not seem to mind that the plot developments from the first two games were tough to comprehend. It’s not that all different in NG3 where we find series protagonist Ryu Hayabusa aiding the U.S. military in taking on a global terrorist threat.
Ninja Gaiden 3’s main narrative is a shallow exploration into the karmic payback for all the lives Ryu has taken with his legendary Dragon Sword. This is visually represented by his right arm, now deformed and cursed with red glowing energy. It doesn’t exactly feel like the right subject for this game, especially when it goes against everything that gamers look for in a Ninja Gaiden game, namely the opportunity to kill countless enemies.
On a side note, his quest for a cure for the curse becomes a flimsy storytelling device that gives Ryu the excuse to go back to his village in the middle of the game. Even the rival Black Spider Clan acts as the welcoming committee. In the context of the events that precede this, this one-chapter diversion feels very out of place.
So much of Ninja Gaiden 3’s game design feels like it was intended to be a streamlined version of the previous installments. Unfortunately, the end result is more of a negative stripping down where many of the series’ appealing features have been removed for what appears to be an attempt at improved pacing. The problem is that pacing was never much of an issue with the previous Ninja Gaidens. Ninja Gaiden 3 has no ability upgrade system and you’re not informed of any new moves you gain during your playthrough unless you press Select/Back to see the moves list. You have one sword as your only available melee weapon—no bladed nun-chucks, hammers, or scythes. There are also no item pick-ups, which also negates the presence of item fetch quests. This lack of an inventory system even extends to health items. Instead, Ryu is automatically healed after successfully surviving each section of a level.
This sectional, or rather segmented, level design unsurprisingly disrupts the game’s flow, a notable change over the previous Ninja Gaidens. The majority of the combat areas are set in wide open spaces, presenting a steady flow of 12 to 20 enemies. You clear it, get healed, run down the next hallway, and anticipate the next wave of enemies in the next large room.
This essentially turns the levels into a series of arenas, something that might not actually be a problem had it not been for the alterations made to the combat. Gone is the level of depth that made the combat in past Ninja Gaidens so rewarding. Ninja Gaiden 3 gives a lot more allowances to button mashers. You can clear half a dozen waves of enemies by repeatedly pressing light and heavy attack before dying once and if you take the time to learn the dodge slide, you’re already set to handle most of the bosses.
Ninja Gaiden 3 is also laden with quick time events that are featured both in combat and when Ryu is progressing through a level. You’ll often come across these user-triggered cinematic sequences where Ryu is making grand leaps off military helicopters, skyscrapers, and cliffs. This is when the game showcases Ryu’s gliding ability. It’s a maneuver that on paper would seem to only help enhance our hero’s superhuman stature. Sadly, the execution is disappointing; it’s eye-catching the first few times, but when you see the sloppiness of many of Ryu’s landings, you wish you can just skip these sequences.
Ninja Gaiden 3 feels especially flat when it tries to integrate Hayabusa’s cursed arm into the gameplay. Ryu’s arm will glow in the middle of battle after having killed a few enemies. If the player holds down the heavy attack button and releases, Ryu will go into a frenzied, uninterrupted assault on several enemies, often clearing the field or making room for the next wave of enemies. This kind of semi-automated combat is fine and often looks fittingly gruesome; the problem arises when the cursed arm nearly paralyzes our hero. Occasionally the curse will be so overwhelming that it’ll force Ryu to stagger, as if his dominant arm is truly weighing him down. You’d think that this would make him an easy target, maybe even provide the player with a new challenge.
In the interest of drama, you instead find that the enemies do not even attack, giving Ryu all the time in the world to kill them all, however impaired he might appear. I get that it’s meant to dramatically accentuate the price Ryu is paying for all the death he’s dealt but there’s ultimately no negative consequence in continuing to slice everyone up. There was one sequence at the beginning of the game where Ryu was confronting a soldier who put down his weapon, surrendered and expressed how he didn’t want to die. It was an interactive cutscene where the game waited for me until I sliced up the soldier. I gave the game too much credit for thinking that I actually had a choice in the matter or that the game wanted to introduce a morality system (there isn’t one).
Ninja Gaiden 3’s saving grace—if you can call it that—is that the Team Ninja did not compromise when it came to preserving the series’ exquisitely high frame rate. To bring it down to a consistent 30 frames per second would have felt immensely jarring. This of course comes at the expense of the environmental detail. At least the game remains fittingly bloody even if the game takes a step back from the gratuitous limb slices in Ninja Gaiden 2.
The game’s soundtrack often fits well with the dramatic and cinematic beats in gameplay, cutscenes, and even loading screens. There’s more than a hint of Metal Gear Solid to the music, which is appropriate for the times Ninja Gaiden 3 takes a military tone.
Aside from the voiceovers of injured guards saying how they don’t want to die (and there are a ton of them) all of Ninja Gaiden 3’s human enemies have something to yell at Ryu during combat. It’s not that all different from the amusingly excessive trash talking and threats by the enemies in Splinter Cell: Conviction. The problem in NG3 is that this kind of voice work gets old and repetitive fast. You’ll hear everything from “Get him!” to “Do whatever it takes!” to “I live for this!”, and that’s just the first chapter. Some even have the nonsense to call out Ryu on his overconfidence, a quality that I have never associated with him.
Compounding Ninja Gaiden 3’s shortcomings is an ambitious multiplayer mode, a first for the series. I could understand why franchises like Ninja Gaiden—series that were originally designed as single player experiences—would want multiplayer-centric gamers to take notice. The problem is that NG3’s multiplayer has all the predictable deficiencies of a first effort, specifically the feeling that this mode was tacked on in the later stages of the game’s development. You could see that Team Ninja had some sense of direction, evidenced by the inclusion of character customization and a system the enhanced the replay value.
The multiplayer fails for not having enough modes of play, giving the player a shallow co-op mode and the obligatory Team Deathmatch. The 4-on-4 set up of TDM lends to play sessions that are unsurprisingly chaotic, but looks downright messy for anyone without an excellent online connection.
Ninja Gaiden 3 is a tragic lesson in fixing something that isn’t broken. Even though subsequent chapters introduce new kinds of enemies, that means nothing when the gameplay and level designs do little to hold the player’s attention. The surprising monotony was so overbearing at times that I could only last one or two checkpoints before stopping to get up and find another game to play. It’s such a notable about-face from the excellence of Ninja Gaiden 2 that the only bright spot is that any possible sequel has nowhere to go but up (I hope).
5 / 10