Let’s not deny video games have gotten easier since their 8-bit days. The endless hours of platforming across booby trapped levels with the last of your three lives at stake are slowly being excised from the industry. And yet this abusive lack of forgiveness still endures in select games like Super Meat Boy and Dark Souls. The Ninja Gaiden series also belongs to this category, or at least it used to.
The story begins in medias res with unmasked ninja Ryu Hayabusa combatting what appears to be an otherworld deity decimating the remnants of a previously proud Tokyo. With little effort, the master assassin splits the monstrosity from shoulder to groin. The hero rushes the fallen beast as it charges a laser. Commence flashback. A mysterious group known as the Lords of Alchemy has taken the Prime Minister hostage in hopes of bringing Ryu out of hiding. As the respectable Dragon Ninja, Hayabusa cannot ignore their pleas. The ninja in black successfully infiltrates the occupied municipal building, only too late. The ensuing boss casts a spell on Ryu, leaving the ancient Dragon Sword permanently fused within his arm.
From thereon, the plot falls apart. The Lords of Alchemy seek world domination in seven days – the amount of time it took God to create the land in his visage – while the Dragon Ninja cooperates with a special ops team in hopes of bringing a stop to the Lords' conquest, but Ryu’s globetrotting lacks originality and memorability. Although Ninja Gaiden’s universe is rife with demonic forces, the whole of NG3’s supernatural narrative occurs within the Earth dimension. A shortage of interesting characters is partially to blame, except for the main villain. Who doesn’t love a masked antihero with a robotic English accent?
Is this masked mystery man the true villain or just a puppet controlled by a master with the strings?
On occasion, Ryu’s inner morality conflict is brought into question. The first instance highlights an apologetic soldier begging for Ryu to spare his life. He’s only trying to feed his kids. Try as I might to spare the nameless mercenary, the developers do not allow such weakness. Only after I cut the man down in cold blood can I proceed. A final conversation with a political figurehead leads Hayabusa to believe he is not a murderer, but I’m sure the 2,000 soldiers I mercilessly slaughtered would beg to disagree.
Betrayal is handled even less well. When used intelligently, this narrative device can blindside one’s audience, leaving them with more memorable experiences despite any overt flaws. Such was the case with Bioshock. Yet Ninja Gaiden 3 plays the betrayal card so often I found myself lost to whom was actually on my side. No matter, because not even the hex rotting his arm from the inside out will delay Ryu’s progress; but from time to time, the pain of the curse becomes too severe, crippling its victim as the tormented souls taken by the Dragon Sword echo throughout the ninja’s brain, requiring Ryu to shamble about his environment until the side effects eventually subside. To my chagrin, these sequences are far too invasive to be unique or refreshing.
You'd be in pain too if you had to bear the burden of a thousand souls.
Ninja Gaiden 3 rids itself of the series’ two defining elements: the punishing difficulty and the fluid, visceral gameplay. Now if you’re like me, you never completed a prior Ninja Gaiden release. At some point (most likely the second boss fight), your rage escalated to a controller-breaking point, forcing you to walk away defeated lest you do something regretful. Team Ninja remedies this “problem” with the inclusion of Hero Mode. When Ryu’s health drops dangerously low, the battered warrior automatically dodges any incoming missile volleys, sword slashes, and city-leveling bombs. While this means more casual players will bear witness to the disjointed storyline, this methodology effectively negates Ryu’s ability to die. In these clutch situations, it became impossible to tell whether I was skillfully avoiding attacks or if the computer was holding my hand. Hero Mode may be an exceptional option for new converts, but even the more brutal difficulties receive a significant decline in challenge.
The hack-and-slash gameplay reduces many of the fights to simple quick/heavy attack spamfests. The need to memorize the combo weaknesses of Hayabusa’s foes has been eradicated. Finally overcoming a new miniboss or enemy type lacks the satisfaction of prior Ninja Gaiden titles. As it stands, Ryu’s blood-spilling flurries cater more to the God of War crowd with the slower level progression and endless "kill all enemies to proceed" arenas.
In fact, the only time I restarted from a checkpoint was due to the poor camera angles – another infamous, deletorious facet of the series. Climbing walls with kunai or crossing ropes hand-over-hand requires precisely timed button prompts or else Ryu wildly spasms in place. It just so happens that the camera loves to change the focus of Ryu’s attention during these stressful circumstances too, meaning he will evade in that direction, refuse to advance, or fall into a pool of corrosive acid repeatedly until you determine the ideal analog stick position.
You'll see this execution at least one hundred times.
Another component to the typical Ninja Gaiden formula, the weapon variety, indicates a dearth of creativity. In the past, Ryu mastered the art of staves, scythes, and Wolverine-like claws. Now the ninja’s arsenal consists of one sword (unless you spring for the meaningless DLC) and an explosive bow. This limits the possible combos to a mere dozen. The same goes for ninpo. Building Hayabusa’s kill count slowly fills the ninja magic meter. A brief button tap later, and a fiery, roaring dragon erupts from Ryu’s hands, clearing all enemies onscreen and restoring a majority of his lost health. This cheap exploit quickly developed as the chief objective whenever I entered combat, mostly as a way to end the fights faster.
Upgrades and collectibles have been left on the showroom floor. No longer must I ration orbs between damage increases or health item capacity. While this feature appeases my obsessive need to locate each collectible piece of trash, this also cuts the replay value to a modicum. After watching all the cutscenes and finishing off each boss, you’ve seen it all.
But does this much straying from the franchise’s traditions excuse the absence of limb severing and head amputations? I hardly think so. Ninja Gaiden 3 still contains enough blood to make a Saw film seem tame, but enemies no longer crawl or limp towards Ryu vainly bent on taking his life despite their missing appendages. Decapitating soldiers became a tactical necessity in Ninja Gaiden 2. Not so here.
Get attached to that sword. It's the only weapon you'll be using to cut foes to shreds.
The game looks decent, or at least it would if not for the frequent screen tearing – I thought my television had gone on the fritz. Ryu visits bombed out jungles, Antarctic bases, and ruined cities, but the linearity prevents the ninja from exploring off the beaten path. Set pieces in which Ryu dashes toward the screen could be much more unforgettable, but their size and grandeur compares in no way to other triple-A releases.
Many of the bosses are initially impressive (cyborg T-rex anyone?). I say initially, because while at least half the bosses remain unique demonstrations of Ryu’s formidability, the other half repeat frequently with no alterations to their methods of defeat. The numerous helicopters, spider tanks, and gunships eventually brought my enjoyment to a standstill.
The multiplayer is not worth squandering the price of an online pass. The co-op trials exist as a means to eliminate foes with a friend, but multiplayer is even more of a mess. There’s a reason games like God of War don’t include multiplayer. The combat doesn’t work! Rather than making use of my weak ninpo or bow, I resorted to getting in my opponent's face, slashing madly and hoping the cuts hit my target. Players are free to customize their generic ninja when not participating in four-versus-four battles. While the multiplayer originally upped my excitement, peer-to-peer hosting ensures lag plays a factor in deciding the victors. I rarely attributed a recent kill to my actual skill instead of my Internet connection.
Ninja Gaiden 3 feels less like a Ninja Gaiden game rather than an amalgamation that apes better known action-adventure titles. Trite storytelling, casual-friendly difficulties, and a lack of severed heads are sure to disappoint the niche audience. Ninja Gaiden 3 may appease ninja aficionados turned off by orange jumpsuits and spiky haircuts, but the developers seem to have forgotten what made the prior games special and the hardcore fanbase that bought them.
Publisher: Tecmo Koei
Developer: Team Ninja
Release Date: March 20, 2012
Number of Players: 1 (Campaign), 2 (Cooperative), 2-8 (Multiplayer)
Platforms: Xbox 360 (Reviewed), PlayStation 3