Developer: Team Ninja / Publisher: Tecmo Koei / Played on: Xbox 360 / Price: $39.99 / ESRB: Mature [Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Strong Language, Suggestive Themes]
Ryu Hayabusa is back and more brutal than ever in Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor’s Edge from Tecmo Koei and the wetwork wizards at Team Ninja. In the tradition of Ninja Gaiden Sigma and its sequel, Razor’s Edge is essentially a remastered release of 2012’s Ninja Gaiden 3 – first released on the Wii U and now made available on Xbox 360 and PS3 – and promises to be “the most action-packed and feature rich NINJA GAIDEN game ever created.” The game whole-heartedly delivers on both of these accounts. Yet there is another hidden promise that will challenge your patience as much as your skill. That promise, my friends, is defeat.
The back of the box boasts “brutal, high speed action” – a worthy call to adventure for any seasoned gamer with an edge to maintain or just something to prove. With any given game, I am one of those try-hard cheevo hunters quickly thrilled by the lure of such arrogantly challenging gameplay. “Insane” is my de facto difficulty and I rarely look for the easy way out.
With those tenants in mind, the modern Ninja Gaiden series has occupied an honored place on my list of challenging titles for the better part of a decade. But when Ninja Gaiden 3 was first released in early 2012, there was much controversy (especially among old-school fans of the series) surrounding the exclusion of core content for the sole purpose of marketing it as DLC. The game’s only “free” melee weapon, for instance, was Hayabusa’s katana. Fan favorites like the Eclipse Scythe and Falcon’s Talons were brazenly made available at launch for an additional cost (each). Coupled with a relative lack of polish, the original bare-bones incarnation of Ninja Gaiden 3 – with its vapid DLC offerings – became one to avoid.
So you can imagine the shared excitement that began to build around the announcement of a remastered, reduced-price release that would not only feature all DLC content, but would be packed to the brim with NEW weapons, abilities, playable characters, game modes, a revised skill system and more. As the story goes, Hayashi-san and the crew at Team Ninja were pretty upset by the lackluster reception of the initial release. Razor’s Edge was their chance to win back a legion of fans that may have lost that lovin’ feelin’ for the aging hack-and-slash series. I think they succeeded in catering to their fans’ needs. Yet beyond the copious amount of fan service and added value is a game that still suffers from core design and mechanical issues to an extremely frustrating degree.
If anything can be said for Razor’s Edge, it is – unequivocally – an adrenaline-fueled slaughter fest. I found myself pushed to my physical limits as a gamer like never before. Allow me to set the stage: The legendary ninja Ryu Hayabusa has been summoned to face a terrorist menace known as the Regent of the Mask, who curses our hero with “the Grip of Murder.” This spell, which feeds itself on revenge, threatens to consume Ryu before he can shut down the Regent and his cabal of terrorist pals. It’s a threadbare plot with just enough Eastern tropes and genre staples to sufficiently string together the action. It’s not the most inspired tale, and if you’re looking for the next storytelling phase of 21st century Ninja Gaiden you won’t find it here. Yet, with its extreme dismemberment and appropriately foul-mouthed enemies, Razor’s Edge earns a solid (and much-appreciated) “M for Mature.”
Razor’s Edge has five difficulty settings, or as the game refers to them, “play styles.” As stated, I prefer a challenge; so I launched into Razor’s Edge on Hard armed with the knowledge that upon completion I’d unlock “Master Ninja Difficulty” (with “Ultimate Ninja Difficulty” after that). 225 achievement points out of 1000 are tied up in these difficulty settings, which demand a commitment of no fewer than three complete playthroughs of the game.
A worthy challenge.
The action was immediately fast and furious. The game’s revised mechanics were easily adapted and the litany of combo moves is constantly at your disposal. As you defeat enemies, you gain karma, the currency you use to level up Ryu’s abilities, weapons and Ninpo (read: ninjutsu super-moves). When I hit the first level boss, the Regent of the Mask himself, I was in for a rude awakening. Although I may have had the skill to win, I simply didn’t have the statistics. I ran that boss battle ran for hours until I came up with a specific set of combo moves powerful and dexterous enough for me to survive. The sheer amount of enemy damage output versus my ability to dodge and absorb it was insurmountable.
But against all odds I pushed through to the next level. I thought I’d hit the bell curve and surpassed it with flying colors. And with a steady flow of karma on the way, it could only be up from here. Boy, was I wrong. Different boss encounters proved equally as strenuous as the first. I was in such a state of alert button-mashing hyper-focus, I managed to work up a sweat over another few hours of trial and error on the second stage boss. I actually began to stink from stewing in my own juices. This was the kind of gameplay you’d only heard about in schoolyard legend. Or was it? Was I simply not good enough? Or was the level of precision needed to survive these encounters uncanny, almost mechanically inhuman?
The only diagnosis I could reach was that you’re not meant to play on hard the first time (which increases the required number of playthroughs for completion to four). There’s no way around it: you need those upgraded stats and abilities to comfortably make it a go, challenge be damned. You could make a good argument that such a situation increases the replay value of the game. But personally, in the midst of a season littered with AAA titles at 60 bucks a pop, such a commitment seems unreasonable to me for a relatively shallow hack-and-slash action title like Razor’s Edge. Ultimately, the gameplay and story that hold it up don’t possess the depth to foster that kind of replay value. And the satisfaction of completion isn’t much of a reward. The effort, while noble, was lost due to simple – yet critical – imbalance.
As for being “feature rich,” Razor’s Edge is among the most robust packages in recent memory. If you’re a fan of the series or action games in general, Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor’s Edge offers an extraordinarily large dose of gameplay features (despite my heavy distaste for the game’s mechanical shortcomings and maddening imbalance issues).
They did right by the fans and pumped Razor’s Edge full of new weapons, including those that originally had to be purchased separately as DLC. There are three new playable characters: Ayane, Momiki and Kasumi (guest star hotties from Dead or Alive and Hayabusa’s past). And the ninja skill/karma system is a refreshing addition to the game’s infrastructure. But, as I maintain, that infrastructure is broken.
The game looks and sounds as polished as other recent Team Ninja titles like Dead or Alive 5 and does little to alter the rather straight-forward current generation art style they forged back in 2004. This doesn’t detract from the experience, but it doesn’t add much either. Despite the adequacy of the game’s visuals and the elegant art direction behind them, there remained a pervasive feeling of “I’ve seen this before.”
“Ninja Cinema” allows you to view the game’s cutscenes in a theatre setting. And “Shadows of the World” allows you to compete against other unknown ninjas in multiplayer combat. This highly customizable counterpart to the single-player campaign excited me – not only for the unique challenge competitive online multiplayer can offer, but for that extra bit of content that could help Razor’s Edge live up to its claims.
However, during the majority of my attempts, the servers for “Shadows of the World” were virtual ghost towns. There weren’t enough players to get a game going. And when I did slide into a match, I was grossly outranked and outgunned by the other players. Simply put, my level 1 ninja would never compete with a level 25 ninja because of the tremendous imbalance in player arsenal and power. It doesn’t matter how quick, smart, or instinctive you may be – you can’t compete in Razor’s Edge multiplayer if you’re outranked by more than a few levels. There is no learning curve; it’s a slaughterhouse. Unlike more traditional competitive multiplayer titles like Call of Duty or Madden, Razor’s Edge doesn’t provide a level playing field. This only supports the fundamental imbalance at the core of the game that destroyed the single-player experience for me as well. Coupled with the empty server issue, Ninja Gaiden multiplayer was – if I may – D.O.A.
For as “action packed” and “feature laden” as it is, Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor’s Edge suffers from a lack of balance and will no doubt be a source of frustration for those who try to go against its painful grain. I liked the game, but it stands in the face of philosophies that are too strong to ignore. Challenges must be surmountable, and their rewards must feel adequate. That just wasn’t a feeling I got from this Ninja Gaiden. But if you can get past these hangups, or if they somehow please you, Razor’s Edge offers a whole lot of game in a low-priced package. Let’s just say I’m looking forward to what’s next for Team Ninja and Ryu Hayabusa.
+ The girls of Ninja Gaiden and D.O.A.
+ Full of improved features
- Loads of imbalance
- Poorly redefines “challenge”
6.5 / 10